Nobody wants to think of themselves as a coward. We all want to believe that we are a good person, that when given the opportunity, we'll stand up for those people who don't have power. We want to be strong. And yet, human nature is also maddingly predictable. When confronted with the possibility that standing up for someone else might ruin our lives as well, most of us will suck it up and reluctantly move on.
That's really the lesson of the Harvey Weinstein story this week. That plenty of people in Hollywood who think of themselves as good-hearted liberals have been more than willing to suck it up and do business with a man they at least suspected had a loathsome personal life. When confronted with evil from a powerful man who was known as being a street fighter, no one in Hollywood was willing to go to war with someone who could hurt them professionally.
Now I'm not talking here about the women who were the unfortunate targets of his skeezy attentions. Weinstein targeted women who weren't in a situation where they could complain or those he felt he could manipulate or silence. It's not the victim's place to bring down the predator. But Weinstein felt comfortable enough with his action that his behavior was an open secret in Hollywood. Studio executives knew the rumors, industry reporters were well aware of the allegations. But because he was powerful, because he could potentially ruin a career, no one was willing to speak up publicly. And sadly, many people in Hollywood are willing to overlook some serious personal failings if there's a chance everyone can make some money.
It's not as if this is the first time a Hollywood story like this has surfaced publicly.
Current Starz head Chris Albrecht was famously canned as HBO's CEO in 2007 after shepherding the channel through a period that included iconic hits like "The Sopranos." He lost his job after it was revealed he had been arrested outside a Los Vegas casino after allegedly choking his then-girlfriend. As troubling as that behavior might be, it was later revealed this wasn't the first time the successful executive had been accused of choking a girlfriend. The Los Angeles Times later reported that in 1991, Albrecht had reportedly choked his then-girlfriend, Sasha Emerson, who was a subordinate of Albrecht's at HBO. HBO owner Time Warner was reported to have paid the woman at least $400,000 in a settlement and she later left the industry.
And let's not forget Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. In 2003 story, the Los Angeles Times published a story recounting the stories of six women who had come forward and claimed the actor had touched them inappropriately:
In interviews with The Times, three of the women described their surprise and discomfort when Schwarzenegger grabbed their breasts. A fourth said he reached under her skirt and gripped her buttocks.
A fifth woman said Schwarzenegger groped her and tried to remove her bathing suit in a hotel elevator. A sixth said Schwarzenegger pulled her onto his lap and asked whether a certain sexual act had ever been performed on her.
The story of Harvey Weinstein might be notable for its number of incidents, but it's sadly not a rare occurrence in Hollywood.
I've seen a lot of hot takes in recent days about how men in the industry need to stand up for their female coworkers and there's truth in that. But that option only works when it's aimed at a predator who isn't running a studio. Or is the vice president at a TV network. Or an executive at a major talent agency. These high-level creeps may be too powerful to publicly confront head-on. They will only face the consequences of their actions when other powerful people in the industry decline to work with them. When people are willing to say "I don't care if this project will be successful, I won't work with someone I couldn't trust to be alone with my daughter."
It's not a coincidence that you haven't seen any top-level industry people commenting publicly on Weinstein's actions or how they might handle behavior like his in the future. Sadly, business is a business. Particularly in a business where abuse, in general, is considered a rite of passage and there's a feeling from many of the men that while sexual misconduct is bad, it's not a dealbreaker.
There is a myriad of ways to explain away their own moral cowardice. It's bad for business, it was creepy but not violent or the predator made a mistake, but is a good person overall. For many of the most powerful people in the industry, feeling bad about the situation is a useful substitute for taking a stand. And it's a course of action that ensures everyone can make money off the predator's next project.
There are a lot of ways we can make things safer for the women in our industry. But permanent change, real change, will only happen when those with the most power are willing to confront the predators in their midst. No matter what the financial cost. The studios, networks and production companies need to have aggressive policies that employees at every level know will be followed. Women at all levels need to know that if they do complain, they'll be supported not just by their fellow workers, but by the executives at the top of the food chain.
Harvey Weinstein's career in Hollywood is likely over, at least for the foreseeable future. And that's certainly a small improvement over the treatment received by some previous industry executives accused of bad conduct. But we'll know things have really changed the first time a showrunner loses his show or an agent is fired by their agency for similar behavior. Women in Hollywood don't need empty platitudes and private shows of support. They need action, not just from their peers but more importantly from the people at the top who write the checks.
UPDATE: For some additional perspective, I'll recommend this Twitter thread. It does a great job of providing some needed framing for the statement released today by Meryl Streep (shown below). It's also a good reminder that this sexual misconduct is driven more by a need to exert power than by the desire to receive some sort of sexual gratification.