The unmasking of Harvey Weinstein ought to have been a cause for celebration: an inveterate sex pest finally outed by the women whose careers rose and fell with his libido. Instead, it ushered in the bleakest of weeks: an orgy of terrible revelations met with faux shock, victim-blaming and blatant revisionism.
Emboldened by the likes of Asia Argento, who claims he orally raped her, a succession of actresses steeled themselves to put their private humiliations in the public arena. The times Weinstein greeted them in a bathing robe; the times he asked for a massage or a blow job or three-way sex; and the time he masturbated into a plant pot, were dragged out into the open.
Then, because courage begets courage, other women opened up too; in newspapers and on radio phone-ins, with varying degrees of confidence, waitresses and wardrobe mistresses, secretaries and solicitors talked about the lecherous bosses who propositioned or pawed them or demanded a kiss in return for promotion.
Though we are often told such behaviour is a relic from the 70s – a quaint anachronism like Love Thy Neighbour or Black Forest Gateau – these women testified to a different reality. Sexual harassment is a universal constant. It didn’t start with Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren and it sure as hell won’t end with Weinstein and Argento.
All women know this. Early lessons about the abuse of male power are stitched on our minds like aphorisms on a Victorian sampler. If, by our early 20s, we haven’t personally experienced it, then we have held the hand of someone who has. So many shared confidences: of eyes on cleavages, hands up skirts and tongues down throats; of being forced into corners or trapped in lifts; of the shame and the fear and the not-knowing-what-to-do. And the laughing it off too. After all, it happens to so many of us, it must be the norm: an inconvenience of biology, like menstruation; not something to get het up about.
Men know it too, unless they are blind and deaf. Or utterly self-absorbed. They will have heard an inappropriate comment here or there or noticed a hand placed on the small of a female colleague’s back. Perhaps they passed it off as harmless banter; perhaps the woman looked to them like she was enjoying it. Something rendered them mute.
And yet, unless they are in positions of power, I don’t blame men for not protesting. We are all caught in the same macho trap. Oppose the culture; suffer the consequences. The Weinsteins of this world are no more tolerant of male dissenters than they are of female ones; maybe less so, as men are supposed to be allies.
What I do loathe is the hypocrisy of those A-list actors who have rushed in to renounce behaviour they ignored, sanctioned or, in some cases, actively engaged in. Step forward George Clooney who “heard rumours for years”, but is now staking a claim to the moral high ground by proclaiming Weinstein’s actions “indefensible”. And Ben Affleck who groped Hilarie Burton’s breast, but is touting himself as one of the good guys. And Matt Damon, with his four – did you catch that up the back? – FOUR daughters, who was “sick to his stomach” (but has been accused of suppressing a 2004 story on the procuring of women for Weinstein).
As the allegations stack up, history is being rewritten. Seth MacFarlane, who presided over an Oscar ceremony in which the audience was forced to watch a montage of tit-shots called “We Saw Your Boobs” – has recast himself as a feminist champion using humour to expose the film industry’s sexist ways.
His quip on the unveiling of the Best Actress nominees: “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to like Harvey Weinstein” was not – as we assumed – a lame twist of the “casting couch” trope that trivialised the experiences of many of those present, but a brave taking-on of the cinematic establishment.
There have been many sharp intakes of breath at the scale of Weinstein’s alleged offending. And yet, get this. According to TMZ, his contract allowed him to be sued for sexual harassment so long as he covered the costs of the settlements. If this is true, his behaviour wasn’t just tolerated, it was enshrined in his terms and conditions. His droit du seigneur was a recognised perk of the job.
Outside Hollywood, the reaction has been just as demoralising. It didn’t take long for the conversation to shift from Weinstein to women, whose fault such behaviour has been ever since Henry VIII stalked Anne Boleyn, then had the little witch’s head chopped off for refusing to produce live male progeny. Why did some of those involved go on to have relationships with Weinstein? And why didn’t they speak out sooner?
The same backlash was taking place closer to home. When journalist Jane Merrick tweeted about being lunged at by a Tory MP, Ukip donor Arron Banks accused her of “a lack of character” for not telling the MP what she thought and “turning on [her] heels”. When Emma Thompson referred to a “crisis in masculinity”, Tim Montgomerie criticised Newsnight interviewer Emily Maitlis for not pressing her harder. Do you see, guys? Do you? The game is rigged: fight back/don’t fight back – there is no way we can win.
If those foghorns who insist on speaking over the women they berate for not speaking out were to shut up for five minutes and listen to Merrick, Thompson et al, they might learn something about the barriers to reporting sexual harassment. Not just the obvious ones, like: “It will ruin your career”, but the more subtle, psychological ones: the nagging fear that perhaps you and your short-ish skirt were asking for it; or the way being belittled makes you feel worthless and undeserving of support.
There was also this insight from writer Jia Tolentino. “If a man interprets your youth as sexual vulnerability, he can make it seem that you have no choice but to be sexually vulnerable,” she wrote in the New Yorker. “And so you might conclude that you need to redeem the encounter within a narrative that you may not like, but in which you can at least actively participate. This might mean engaging in consensual sex afterwards, to make you feel like you wanted it the first time, though you know you didn’t.”
So many thoughtful women sharing their experiences. Of course, lots of men, with and without daughters, have been listening. But there are others who shut their ears and their minds. Because they already know everything about everything. And they like things just the way they are.