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Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and the power of stating the obvious

Nov. 14, 2017
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The consensus is this: that Hollywood will never be the same, that a sea change is occurring in the wake of the sexual assault allegations that have been made against the industry’s assorted Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys. And if you look at the headlines, it certainly seems as though justice is being realized—Weinstein has been stripped of just about every power position he has, and Netflix has terminated their relationship with House Of Cards star Spacey. And by all accounts, entertainment industry insiders have been feeling the pressure. At a glance, it seems safe to say that this cascade of allegations marks a watershed moment for Hollywood—an upheaval of the old system that may well lead to an exorcism of its most exploitative mores.

But for every Roy Price—the Amazon exec who recently quit over allegations of harassment—there lurks a Woody Allen to remind us that these victories remain incomplete. (A particularly on-the-nose example: Kate Winslet, who has been quick to denounce Weinstein, turns mum when she is asked about the accusations of molestation that have dogged Allen for nearly 25 years.) And on closer examination, even Weinstein’s disgrace may feel like something of a disappointment: after all, he managed to outrun the allegations against him for over two decades before being made to face any consequences. Until early October of this year, Hollywood’s best and brightest fêted the producer nonstop while reports of his bad behavior steadily trickled out in the form of blind items and comments on gossip blogs.

The predatory nature of the entertainment industry has never been a very well-kept secret. As far back as Hollywood can date itself, there have been reports of scandalous and even criminal misdeeds by its biggest stars: Errol Flynn was a statutory rapist; Alfred Hitchcock allegedly assaulted Tippi Hedren and then ruined her career. The entire time, women in Hollywood defended themselves the best way they knew how—through gossip. In a world overflowing with bad actors and bad actions, women turn to one another for information about which men are unsafe. From DIY punk scenes in small Midwestern towns to cosmopolitan industries spanning several continents, the rumor mill has saved lives by spreading information that often wasn’t publicly available. And Weinstein’s predatory blustering was about as much a matter of public record as a rumor could be.

Which is exactly why the New York Times and New Yorker stories taking him down have had such a significant impact.

The Weinstein exposés were powerful because neither his apologists nor his would-be victims could deny that they were true. After decades spent relying on the whisper network of the Hollywood gossip industry to keep them safe, women across Los Angeles woke on October 5 to the news that the truths they could not voice for fear of reprisal were now part of the public record. Rather than dulling the impact of the revelations, the open-secret nature of Weinstein’s behavior has sharpened the knife: to protest against the reports would be to deny that the sky was blue—e.g., to look stupid, not just evil—and to do nothing in the face of such transgressions would be to admit to the world that Hollywood is not the liberal stronghold it purports to be.

Make no mistake: the industry hand-wringing feels fake because it is. For every power player claiming the news has blindsided them, there’s been another industry insider chomping at the bit to tell us just how widely-known many of these breaking stories already were. The continued promotion of other alleged abusers—like Casey Affleck, Woody Allen, or Bill Cosby—provides ample proof that the changes resulting from these reports are only being made in the interest of self-preservation. (Some scandals are still too close to call: news of Louis C.K.'s sexual misconduct broke on Thursday; while the premiere of his exceptionally creepy-sounding new movie has been canceled, whether or not he will face further consequences for his behavior remains to be seen.)

But for once, the interests of self-preservation and the interests of justice actually mostly align. And that is because denying the obvious—that Hollywood has a problem with assault and exploitation—is no longer the safe choice. A year into the presidency of a man who has been accused multiple times of rape, women have been reporting more, running for more, and raising more hell than ever before. In our current age of outspokenness, there is no longer any reason to trust that secrets will remain secrets—and there is suddenly a lot more to lose by covering up the abuses of your workplace. In order to protect its reputation as America’s bastion of liberalism, the entertainment industry will have to clear a much higher bar. And the entire industry, if not the country, stands to benefit from those raised standards—regardless of the motivations behind them.