Two books on the Me Too movement show how systematic misogyny growsby Miranda France / November 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
Among the incidents in my own #MeToo dossier probably only two were dangerous. The first happened in childhood. I was eight and playing in the park when a man approached me with his penis exposed and asked me to stroke it. I nearly did (I thought you should do what adults said), but then I spotted my cousin in the distance and took my chance to run after him.
The second time, I was 25 and spending the weekend with a friend at her parents’ remote cottage. On Sunday morning, we looked up from our newspapers to find a man standing in front of us. He had entered by the back door. He asked us if we were lesbians and offered various sexual services, which became more graphic as we repeatedly asked him to leave. There was no phone in the cottage, but even if there had been, I’m not sure that we would have called the police: it might have made him more aggressive. Besides, the situation was so odd, so unexpected. The intruder looked younger than us and we couldn’t tell if he was serious. Finally, he left but promised to come back with some friends. We packed our bags, worrying that we were unnecessarily cutting our weekend short. As we drove away from the cottage, we saw him returning across the fields with two others. I remember shaking with fear and relief.
My friend and I didn’t tell anyone else about what had happened, and I’m not sure that we ever talked about it again. Nor did I tell my mother about the man in the park. The common factor in so many incidents of sexual threat or assault is shame. We felt stupid for leaving the back door unlocked, embarrassed to have been spoken to in such a crude way. What had we done to let this happen? We had done nothing at all. But that’s the thing about sexual assault: by some magic equation, the shame ends up attached to the wrong person.
As every tinpot dictator knows, humiliation is a cheap and effective weapon because your victims do much of the work for you. Letting down family and friends is something most of us would do anything to avoid and that determination keeps injustices quiet, sometimes with devastating consequences. Humiliation brings about isolation and the two in combination give extraordinary power to the perpetrator.
It was a combination that seems to have worked for movie producer Harvey Weinstein for at least 40 years. While he denies the mounting allegations and criminal charges brought against him, his case is illustrative of gross exploitation of women. Hope D’Amore alleges that he raped her in 1978, when she was a student and he was 26. “Do you really want to make me an enemy for five -minutes of your time?” she claims he asked her, before pinning her down on a hotel bed. D’Amore was left traumatised, while Weinstein went on to become one of the most successful operators in Hollywood, a producer with both financial clout and artistic vision. Miramax, the company Weinstein founded with his brother Bob, backed arthouse films—including British classics The Crying Game, My Left Foot and Trainspotting—that might otherwise never have been made. He appeared to be a progressive, helping to endow a professorship in Gloria Steinem’s name and taking part in the anti-Trump Women’s March in 2017. Intelligent, ambitious young women wanted to work with him. He knew everyone—the Clintons were friends, Malia Obama was an intern at his company—and that was what made Weinstein so potentially dangerous. Everybody feared what he could do to them.
For alongside the remarkable creative work and the good deeds, Weinstein was, it seems, conducting a campaign of sexual control and humiliation. “He was pathologically addicted to conquering women,” Zelda Perkins, who worked in his London office, has said. “That was what got him out of bed in the morning.” When she first went to work for him in 1995, a colleague advised her to sit in armchairs, not sofas, so that Weinstein couldn’t sidle up to her, and to keep her coat on at all times. Soon she found herself dispensing similar advice to new employees. Every-one knew that Weinstein had “wandering hands.” However, when a new assistant told Perkins he had tried to rape her, she sought legal advice. The women were advised not to press charges because of the difficulty of proving the assault, which had happened in Venice and not been reported to the police there. Like other Weinstein victims, they agreed on a financial settlement and found themselves silenced by a non-disclosure agreement.
The incident is documented in She Said, a meticulous account of the two-year investigation into Weinstein’s abuse by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. Their research shows how methodical Weinstein’s humiliation of women—both employees and actresses—was and how consistent. A daytime meeting in a restaurant or office would be changed at the last moment to one in his hotel room, perhaps at night. The woman would be reassured that a female assistant was present, but that assistant soon left. Then, the women reported, Weinstein might go to the bathroom and return in a bathrobe, or naked. He would demand a massage, or sex, or start masturbating. It’s noteworthy that, despite apparently being a man of great charisma (even his detractors say he could be funny and charming), he does not appear to have tried to seduce his victims: he apparently chose to ambush and assault them. Later, the women were bound to question the sequence of events and wonder if they were at fault. Some of Weinstein’s alleged techniques sound not dissimilar to those used in interrogation rooms—he cajoled and wheedled, screamed and threatened. Sometimes he referred pathetically to his own appearance, suggesting that he was partly motivated by self-disgust. Some women managed to escape him while others found themselves allegedly forced into oral sex and other forms of assault, including vaginal rape. Afterwards they would be offered large sums of money to keep quiet, and warned that they would never work again if they spoke out.
That pressure to keep quiet, whether legally or socially enforced, meant that Kantor and Twohey had to work hard to get anyone to go on the record, all the while dodging Weinstein’s threats and undercover detectives. Their careful, respectful work reads like a welcome corrective to Weinstein’s brutality. She Said already has the making of a film, a female version of All the President’s Men. It starts quietly, the drama mounting as actresses and ex-employees agree to talk. There is an almost operatic climax when Weinstein arrives at the New York Times offices hours before their story is due to run, begging them to kill the piece, before realising that there is nothing more he can do. “I’m already dead. I’m already dead. I’m going to be a rolling stone.”
Did Weinstein have help? Doubtless he benefited from the Hollywood mythology that says actresses have to be sexually available if they want to secure roles; more than one observer thought the women who went to his room knew what was in store—and perhaps some did. That said, he was not your average randy opportunist. This was a significant operation involving secret apartments in different cities. Assistants in New York and London had to keep stocks of Caverject, an erectile dysfunction drug and syringes (it is injected into the penis) and bring them to assignations in different hotels. Many thousands of dollars appear to have gone on keeping women quiet or paying them for unspecified work, finally arousing the suspicion of Irwin Reiter, who oversaw accounts at the Weinstein Company and became a vital source for Kantor and Twohey.
Huge sums also seem to have gone on surveillance operations, too. Catch and Kill, Ronan Farrow’s pacey account of his own investigation into Weinstein, describes how secret operatives working for Black Cube—a private Israeli intelligence agency employing ex-Mossad officers—targeted him and others who threatened to expose the Hollywood mogul. Lisa Bloom, a women’s advocate, was contracted by Weinstein to defend him against his accusers. He considered starting a foundation promoting gender equality or establishing the Weinstein Standards, “which seek to have one-third of films directed by women, or written by women.” Farrow found his employer the TV network NBC unwilling to let him pursue the story and later they instructed him to drop it. He took the story to the New Yorker instead and was awarded the Pulitzer jointly with Twohey and Kantor. Catch and Kill addresses the culture of silence that, Farrow says, allowed Weinstein and other sexual aggressors, including some at NBC, to operate with impunity.
Weinstein—who insists that all sexual relations between him and his accusers have been consensual—was clearly prepared to commit time, thought and a huge amount of money to his behaviour. We can’t extrapolate a theory of sexual relations from the Weinstein story, but it is legitimate to ask if our culture, by allowing the sexual humiliation of women, makes abuse more likely. Witness the rape threats and gross language directed at -prominent women on Twitter, many of whom cite it as a reason for leaving public life. Consider the fact that schoolchildren protesting about climate change were happy to chant “Theresa May is a whore.” The centuries-old idea that you can reduce a woman by sexualising her still holds—and thrives on the internet. Weinstein could also take advantage of another ancient trope, one dating back to the Garden of Eden: that men, although manifestly stronger, are somehow held to be weaker. A man will hit a woman and say, “look what you made me do.” Weinstein sometimes told people “I’ve been a bad boy.”
At school in the 1980s, in our first class on sex education, Mrs Price the biology teacher talked about oestrogen and testosterone, the female and male hormones. Testosterone was the “get-up-and-go” hormone, she said. It made men want to do things—brilliant, adventurous, innovative things. It inspired them to become astronauts, athletes, geniuses. Oestrogen made women want to look after children. Mrs Price acknowledged that testosterone could make men dangerous. They were more likely to get into fights or have fatal accidents. But society needed their drive, and women should accommodate it.
It was a theory added to by our parents (“I know what men are like,” my father used to say anxiously) and peers. We learned that women had to be responsible for men’s behaviour, as well as their own. On night buses we sat downstairs near the driver; we walked in groups across dark campuses. We made sure we could deliver knees to the groin, elbows to the solar plexus. Some of us carried alarms. We learned how not to send the wrong message with clothes, which was sometimes confusing because, although we shouldn’t be too alluring, we were also warned not to look like frumps. The message was repeated everywhere: men could not always control themselves and therefore women must be careful not to put themselves in danger’s path. The judge presiding over a rape case during my twenties commended the rapist on having removed his rings before digitally penetrating his victim, thus sparing her worse injury. On TV shows like Monty Python or The Benny Hill Show, women were too often objects of ridicule. In sitcoms they were either sexy or harridans. Another insidious message was that women could turn men’s interest to their advantage. It was no bad thing to be fancied at work—oh, and you needed a sense of humour, too.
It wasn’t always easy to keep laughing, although I’m sure most of us tried. In my mid-twenties, I went to meet an editor at a national newspaper, someone I had been warned was a skirt-chaser. On the way to his office we ran into a celebrated columnist. The editor who introduced me then immediately told him an explicit joke—something about women and blow jobs, the details escape me now. I was stunned. Couldn’t the joke have waited until later? What was the editor’s reason for telling it then, in front of a female visitor who was decades younger than either man?
Years later it seems to me that the answer is both complicated and simple. A way to impose your authority at work is to make people around you uncomfortable. Throw gender into the equation and sexual humiliation is an obvious weapon of choice. The explicit joke-telling comes at the start of a scale that leads, through innuendo, groping, harassment and assault to Weinstein-sized allegations. Such behaviour, whether intended to intimidate or merely wrong-foot women, can only work when there is a supporting culture that agrees not to notice or make a fuss. That celebrated columnist was my father’s idol. He raised a weak laugh at the blow job joke; I wish he hadn’t.
The solution is to dilute power and diversify the workforce. Where there are more women, more races, age groups, classes, cultures and creeds, it becomes harder for bullies to identify a cabal. Employees are less likely to say, “this is the way it’s always been.”
Office culture is already changing in the wake of #MeToo. A friend who runs a small business says that it is perfectly possible to be a compassionate boss without ever hugging your staff. As a writer who regularly works in the NHS, my compliance training required me to show, among other things, that I understood why it would not be appropriate to write FB (“fit bird”) on a patient’s notes.
Even in the world of cinema, the idea that drink, drugs and bikini models are essential ingredients in the creative ferment looks outdated. Nowadays the best ideas may come out of writers’ rooms where flat whites are the strongest intoxicants. A screenwriter tells me that the starriest parties are teetotal, because so many guests are recovering alcoholics.
For years the public sector has tried to borrow excitement from the arts, inviting actors in to lead workshops and comedians to give talks. Perhaps it’s time for creative industries to return the favour. They could give more thought to safeguarding measures, mentoring schemes and appraisals. Yes, it sounds boring but, when working with “big personalities” means living in fear, perhaps a little compliance is not a bad thing. It might even encourage new talent from untapped sources to join a culture that has previously seemed alien and exclusive.
It’s time to let the “bad boys” grow up. Children don’t belong in the workplace, after all—and monsters like Weinstein should rightly be considered dinosaurs.