Now that we’ve entered the post-mortem phase of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, an uneasy mood has stolen over our media-driven sexual politics. Once-whispered and nervously anecdotal accounts of Weinstein’s behavior are now in the public record, and the disgraced movie mogul was rightly rushed off to a posh European clinic for sex addicts. But many of the feminist-leaning ilk are collectively side-eyeing Hollywood and awaiting word of any long-term, meaningful change to the countless workplaces, studios, hotel suites, and editorial offices where a vast contingent of mini-Weinsteins continue to rampage.
If only post-mortem could, in this case, refer to an actual death—maybe not so much of a person but of a repeated pattern of behavior, a manner of being in the world now revealed as reprehensible. Yet in the wake of the torrent of sexual abuse and harassment allegations against Weinstein—however ongoing they may continue to be, forever and ever into the future—the divide between the metaphorical and literal definition of post-mortem is frustratingly clear. Only the media feeding frenzy has moved on. The media mogul, by trusted accounts, appears to be doing just fine.
Particularly when measured against the enormous impact that women and nonbinary folks are praying that it will have, the Weinstein story had a spectacularly short media half-life. On October 5, the New York Times published a feature documenting a consistent pattern of sexual abuse and harassment by Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein over nearly three decades. (This surprised no one who heard it from Courtney Love in 2005 first—which of course was women, mostly middle-aged ones now, who know that Courtney Love cannot be trusted to speak truthfully on anything except sexual abuse. And one among many systemic ills brought to light in the Weinstein saga is that “middle-aged women” in mainstream media-ese translates directly into “no one at all.”)
There are very few individuals who can be held accountable for crafting what we call “rape culture,” but Harvey Weinstein is one such person.
Three days later, Weinstein was fired from the Weinstein Company, which he had co-founded with his brother Bob. Two days after that, Ronan Farrow published another account of Weinstein’s odious past in the New Yorker documenting further offenses, adding more names to the list of accusers, and detailing the elaborate lengths to which an entire industry had gone to provide cover to a serial abuser. The freshly fired Weinstein was then forced to resign from the board of his company. A host of comparatively small humiliations followed: The Democratic National Committee and a clutch of universities were pressured to return financial gifts; Weinstein was removed from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences despite the five best-picture Oscars his studios had garnered.
No criminal charges have been filed, but the court of public opinion slung its doors wide open: allegations piled up against other men in Hollywood, other men in entertainment, other men in media, other men in other industries, even as more women stepped up to share tales of intimidation and coercion by Harvey Weinstein. His name became a byword for rampant, unchecked sexual predation in public life—together with a dismal roll call of Type-A abusers that includes Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump. Including Weinstein on this roster of infamy continued fueling a celebrity-dominated political argument that was somehow still not focused on developing effective policy to prohibit sexual violence against women in the workplace. The simple but effective hashtag #metoo allowed those who had experienced sexual harassment and assault to stand as nearly mute witness to the watershed moment, and for three days women and nonbinary people largely silenced themselves on other matters as the flood of mini-testimonials appeared unceasing.
Then men got in on the game, glibly relaying standalone tales of objectification or worse; mostly such attempts at solidarity/spotlight-stealing inaugurated what might be called the eye-roll phase of grieving. A list was devised to warn young women of Shitty Media Men who had not yet received public opprobrium; of course it was unmonitored and dashed together, and of course it was used, as such, to try to take down male writers who may be jerks, but are probably not rapists, and so of course it was leaked. And at this point the Shitty Media Men list was used as evidence that women and nonbinary folks should remain silent even as witnesses to predatory behavior. All started to seem for naught.
“This moment of noisy sisterhood,” Sarah Polley predicted in an October 14 op-ed, can only “end with a woman in a courtroom, being made to look crazy.”
She’s probably right. Considering that among the ranks of the similarly accused stands the fucking president of the United States of America, it’s hard not to fall into despair. Still, a different outcome could be possible, if we can clarify a few points first. For Harvey Weinstein was more than simply a man operating in a field in which sexual predation is particularly easy. He was a kind of prototypical male predator (right out of central casting, you might say) who was able to methodically sexualize a permanent condition of his work—i.e., being surrounded by actresses, all in fierce competition for his professional attention. Weinstein cynically preyed on the oft-lurid mystique of film-industry success, and ensured that breaking into the industry, if you were a woman who caught his eye, would entail the regular performance of tasks reprehensible to the woman herself.
In addition, Weinstein was a deeply influential purveyor of visual culture—the milieu in which we establish our sense of normalcy, on which we base our own behaviors and relationships, and from which we build our hopes for the future.
Is a week enough to make good on three decades worth of cynically indulged sexual predation?
There are very few individuals who can be held accountable for crafting what we call “rape culture”—a deliberately vague and sloppy shorthand for the visual, emotional, economic, and material effects of misogyny that seeks to affirm a generalized complicity in the harm done to women—but Harvey Weinstein is one such person. In his case, the haziness of the term “rape culture” is a concise description of what he sought to create: Weinstein selected women to populate his films who submitted to some form of his abusive behavior, seemingly banning those, like Rosanna Arquette, who did not. (When a woman expressly declined consent, usually amid an unmistakable display of outright fear or anger—Weinstein rescinded support of their careers, as he is alleged to have done with Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan.) The media mogul didn’t restrict himself to on-screen talent, either; production assistants and office staff are now rapidly coming forward to add to the list of accusations.
All this would be egregious enough were it only a labor concern, but the influence of Miramax and the Weinstein Company as media entities must be accounted for, and the cultural products they released reviewed in the context in which they were created. How are we to parse the nuanced gender dynamics of films like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) now that we know they were brewed in a cauldron of sexualized violence?
Weinstein’s legacy—decades of films in which his politics became embedded in our lives—has yet to perish.
The laughable travails of a woman whose boss takes credit for her labor in Working Girl (1988) makes more sense in a industry that granted virtually no serious power to women; the unacknowledgeable intelligence of the sex worker at the heart of Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (produced by Miramax in 1995) is also, suddenly, explicable (as is the continued ability of Allen to work in the industry). The quirky, magical unicorn girls of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997), while bestowed with a moral or two, never seem to have any significant female relationships—you know, the kind in which women might share concerns about sexual predators. The main character in Smith’s film is, indeed, punished for her past sexual relationships with women; she loses her relationship with a man over them and is generally treated, in the character’s own words, like a “whore.” That the excessively brilliant but ultimately suicidal Dorothy Parker was selected to represent women in comedy in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) seems to make more sense now, as do the many, many, many films that emerged from Weinstein’s career that feature no women whatsoever. It’s mind boggling to realize that, with more than sixty women now on the record with sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein—although comparatively few, as of this writing, from the ranks of the most successful of his studios’ stars—it is possible that the man, at some point, just ran out of victims.
But this isn’t a reflection that sits neatly alongside the post-mortem phase of our media scandal complex. After all, Weinstein’s already been discharged from rehab—a week-long program during which he presumably spent many, or at least some, consecutive hours repeating the phrase “no means no” at the prompting of trained counselors, although the exact programs of such facilities are always uncertain. (My own father went through an intensive and renowned alcohol abuse treatment facility popular with the Hollywood drunk set, and in the company of one of the Commodores.) Is a week enough to make good on three decades worth of cynically indulged sexual predation? Does anyone care?
In the meantime, I’m going to pin my hopes on the smaller fish sent up to fry in the immediate aftermath of the Weinstein story. Here I am three years ago in these very virtual pages, reasonably sure in predicting that “Uncle” Terry Richardson, fashion photographer and notorious ween displayer, would continue working high-end glamour mags forever. Happily, I was wrong: Condé Nast publications severed all ties with the predator on Monday, lending real meaning to the throwaway line “better late than never.”
The Weinstein story may be all but dead, by the conventional measures of the news cycle. But Weinstein’s legacy—decades of films in which his politics became embedded in our lives—has yet to perish. Here’s hoping I’m proven wrong when I loft this prediction, too: It never will.