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On social media, Harvey Weinstein’s downfall engenders fragile hope in a sea of hypocrisy

On social media, Harvey Weinstein’s downfall engenders fragile hope in a sea of hypocrisy


What do we have other than our anger?

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Opening Ceremony And 'Lion' Premiere - 12th Zurich Film Festival
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It has been two weeks since The New York Times published a report detailing three decades of sexual misconduct and abuse by one of Hollywood’s most powerful players, producer Harvey Weinstein. That piece centered on eight women who spoke up about his behavior, and later settled with Weinstein out of court. Five days later, a second report followed in The New Yorker, presenting revelations from 13 more women who shared stories of harassment, assault, and rape.

In a follow-up from The New York Times, seven more women, including Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, came forward to tell their stories about Weinstein trying to trick, manipulate, or outright force them into sex in exchange for his professional assistance. Heather Graham told her story in Variety. Cara Delevingne and Kate Beckinsale told theirs on Instagram. Rose McGowan and Lena Headey shared theirs on Twitter. Last night, Lupita Nyong’o published her story in The New York Times, detailing years of Weinstein bullying and harassing her. At the end, she writes, “I did not know that things could change. I did not know that anybody wanted things to change.”

So far, more than 40 women have spoken up about Weinstein. His downfall has been quick and decisive: he’s been fired from the Weinstein Company, ousted from the Academy of Motion Pictures, and is currently under investigation by New York City and London police.

social media’s broad role in Weinstein’s unmasking is a mixed bag

Earlier this week, Kathryn Bigelow — the only woman to win a Best Director Oscar in the Academy’s 90-year history — was quoted in The New York Times in a piece about how the Weinstein allegations “opened a floodgate” in Hollywood, unearthing dozens of old stories, and laying bare its toxic culture. She told the paper, “The democratization of the spread of information can finally move faster than a powerful media mogul’s attempts to bury it.”

In some ways, this is obviously true. It’s hard to imagine an incident like the 1999 event Rebecca Traister detailed for The Cut — where Weinstein called her a cunt, and assaulted her co-worker in full view of dozens of reporters and photographers — staying a secret in the age of the two-second upload. However, social media’s broad role in Weinstein’s unmasking is a mixed bag. Women rallied on Twitter, with impressive speed and single-mindedness, sharing stories of harassment and assault in other industries and their personal lives. The hashtag #MeToo created a stream of solidarity that was unavoidable on the platform. But the same week, women were moved to boycott Twitter for 24 hours, protesting Rose McGowan’s temporary suspension, and the company’s generally negligent handling of harassment and abuse.

In the era of social media and democratized information, the first and largest batch of allegations still came out through two traditional news outlets, both of which are paywalled. Subsequent reports were amplified in other large publications, generally in proportion to the fame of the person speaking. We aren’t done with gatekeepers deciding which stories will make the leap from social media to broad cultural conversation. We certainly aren’t ready to say Twitter is going to save the world.

a tweet can technically reach as many people as The New York Times

But a tweet can technically reach as many people as The New York Times, if it goes sufficiently viral. Unbound by the strictures of journalism, it can add context that traditional outlets can’t or won’t. For the last two weeks, despite all its other flaws, Twitter has allowed for a backchannel where the silver lining in the Weinstein revelation — a tremendous hope that the culture of silence and complicity around sexual abuse might finally change — has been tempered by ruthless, methodical exposure of the sea of hypocrisy that still surrounds it. Ben Affleck posted a statement to Facebook and tweeted a screenshot of it, writing, “I am saddened and angry that a man who I worked with used his position of power to intimidate, sexually harass, and manipulate many women over decades.” Minutes later, writer Pilot Viruet quote-tweeted it with the caption “how’s your brother doing,” referencing Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment lawsuits, and it was retweeted nearly 7,000 times. Old videos of Ben Affleck harassing female journalists were dug up and circulated widely. Kate Winslet told Variety that she found the Weinstein story “disgraceful and appalling,” and a few hours later, a quip about her upcoming collaboration with Woody Allen went viral. The Academy of Motion Pictures released a statement about Weinstein’s dismissal from its voting body and was quickly skewered for neglecting to give Allen, Bill Cosby, or Roman Polanski the same treatment.

The revelations about Weinstein have already had a ripple effect in other industries, including mine, and I doubt we are anywhere near done hearing stories about, as a viral spreadsheet put it, the “shitty men” in media — much less the shitty men in Hollywood and everywhere else. There’s a tension in this, though; it feels good to pull up the floorboards and expose the rot, to finally have disgusting, publicly acknowledged evidence of a problem women have always insisted was there. And at the same time, there’s so much rot that it looks unmanageable. There’s so much rot that it’s tempting to burn the whole place down. The women writing about these allegations have to ask terrible questions: “Women who make public claims about sexual abuse face shaming and disbelief, not to mention professional blackballing,” Stephanie Merry wrote in The Washington Post. “And for what?” Precious little, even in recent memory. We live in a country with a president accused of similar crimes dozens of times over: “Does it matter, though? Does it ever matter?”

There is so much complicity to call out, we have no choice but to crowdsource the task. The same publications that are publishing the words of Weinstein’s victims have been complicit for decades in the power structures that persist nearly unchecked in Hollywood. (Full-page portraits of Casey Affleck were printed in The New York Times three times leading up to the Oscars.) Famous men who are releasing statements expressing disgust and horror that this occurred right under their noses are — as many have already pointed out — complicit, because they chose not to listen until now. The Academy is complicit, not only because it welcomed Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck to this year’s awards, but because it has spent nine decades behaving as if only men are capable of making exceptional art, as if only men have something worthwhile to say about the human experience.

This isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of the same knotty, awful truth. Hollywood would still be a hostile and dangerous place for women even if no one there was being sexually harassed, assaulted, or intimidated. If you are a woman who wants to make movies, you will see your ambition questioned and your livelihood threatened at every turn. Last year, the pool of directors making the industry’s top 250 films was 93 percent male. The screenwriting pool was 87 percent male. Executive producers: 83 percent. Overall, San Diego State's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that women held only 17 percent of all major positions on the year’s top 250 films. In her Times piece, Nyong’o also wrote that she hadn’t experienced anything like Weinstein’s gross misconduct since she cut ties with him, speculating, “I think it is because all the projects I have been a part of have had women in positions of power[.]” Finding those projects was a feat of will and good luck.

On Twitter, a common reaction to the Weinstein revelations was pointing out the tragedy of loss of talent; many of the people he harassed or assaulted left the film industry altogether, rather than face a lifetime of evading more men like him. It’s not a leap to say there are thousands of voices missing from our movies, thanks to the actions of men like Weinstein. Women in the film industry aren’t just missing out on opportunity because they’re literally being passed over for jobs, but also because — as I tried to argue just before Casey Affleck was handed that golden statue — they’re sacrificing time, energy, and creativity to the task of protecting their bodies from harm. Time, energy, and creativity is wasted because women have to spend these resources figuring out who to avoid, how to avoid them, who to protect, how to protect them, when to speak, what to say, and how to say it so someone believes it.

This is all there in the accounts of the women who have spoken up; some 500 words of Nyong’o’s essay are about how she strategized to protect her career from Weinstein’s spite.

So what can we do, other than get angry? Last December, before Casey Affleck slalomed around questions about his two sexual harassment lawsuits and won his first Oscar, I wrote that I didn’t think it could possibly happen. How could the Academy give him that silly-but-consequential prize, knowing how angry we were? I wasn’t the only person talking about it; it was all over the internet, and women were loudly, articulately angry. At the time, I received several comments and emails about a question I posed: “Who knows how many stories like these have gone without comment because they’re de rigueur, and their time in the limelight has not yet come?” People wrote to tell me I was undercutting my own argument with this wild speculation and bitter rhetorical flourish.

It would feel good to see Harvey Weinstein’s downfall as an unambiguous tipping point for the reign of horrible men in Hollywood. It is exhausting to read tweet after tweet about the specific ways in which it may not be, raining down our timelines all day long. I would prefer to think the extraordinary women who have broadcasted their nightmares have eked out an unqualified triumph on behalf of all of us. But I can honor them better by being grateful for the cacophony of voices — the people calling out more bad men, more weak allies, more hypocritical statements, and more shitty half-truths, over and over until it feels like too much.

These thousands of tweets, and the online “outrage culture” they could be uncharitably lumped with, are easy to tear down as redundant and self-righteous, and maybe a lot of them are. But what do we have, other than our anger, and each other’s anger? Righteous anger is worth expressing, worth sustaining, and worth stoking until it burns your belly like Lupita Nyong’o’s “flare of rage.” I don’t have the power to dismantle Hollywood’s power structure, or to banish its bullies and idiots to obscurity. I only have the power to be angry, and talk about it, and help you stay angry, too. There’s hope. It feels very fragile.