Annie Lord looks at the Harvey Weinstein case as an example of how workplace authoritarianism lets abusive men off the hook
The much-publicised Harvey Weinstein case is a perfect example of the ever-present exploitative relationships that emerge in hierarchical institutions. Praised as the darling of indie film-making for his work on The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction and The King’s Speech and for his ability to mass-produce Academy Award-winners, Weinstein was reified above an entire corporation. As such he possessed the economic, legal and social power to prey upon those new to the industry – university undergrads who’d cut their leg off for a script in a Hollywood movie, interns who are willing to get spoken to like shit just to brew tea for those who hold camera equipment.
In order to reach such a position of unquestioned eminence, one has to possess certain characteristics. And it is interesting that those traits that used to be supplied as evidence of Weinstein’s spectacular business acumen have now transmogrified into evidence of his perversity. For his threatening, bullish and manipulative manner, Weinstein has been thanked, quite literally, more times than God in Oscar acceptance speeches. People praised Weinstein for his furious championing of scripts, cold-calling of decision makers, his throwing of exclusive champagne-drenched parties, his backing people into corners, his screaming at low-level staff until they cried. Now these tyrannical tendencies have been rightfully interpreted as indications of his crimes. This suggests something about the sorts of characters that are rewarded in the modern workplace.
Like his pathologically organised business model, Weinstein’s abuse was a well-oiled operation, totally systemic; the putrid lines of oppression ran through various control channels within his company. His attacks followed a specific choreography: assistants worked to create ‘honey pots’ for actresses, luring them into his clutches by feigning safety, accompanying them into rooms, making women feel as though the situation was harmless. Often Weinstein would switch the location of meetings from hotel restaurants to bedrooms, before showing up nude, making women watch him shower, or initiating a massage. The precision of the pattern replicates the efficiency required to run an Oscar-churning film factory, only here the approach was reapplied to service the desires of a tyrant. Sexual abuse is not an isolated mishap of the modern workplace, but rather an outgrowth of professional culture itself.
Weinstein used his economic position – that is, his financial and professional clout around Hollywood – in order to procure bodies to sexually assault. It was his possession of capital that enabled him to meet those he attacked, to transcend or walk beyond traditional spaces of professional division. There was no hotel off-limits, no boardroom unenterable, no bedroom that wasn’t his.
Commanding vast wealth, Weinstein could puff himself up with a suffocatingly strong legal team to be able to smother accusations out. His team includes David Boies and Charles Harder, the lawyer who recently sued Gawker on behalf of Hulk Hogan (resulting in the site’s closure) – behemoths of the legal industry that were impossible to come up against. The New Yorker tells of widespread practices of intimidation, monetary pay-offs and non-disclosure agreements. The legal mega-machine deprived victims of their ability to speak out, erasing trauma not from memory but from channels of accountability.
As well as direct economic and legal power, Weinstein possessed a ‘do you know who I am?’ sort of influence. He had enough commercial authority and indispensability to make a board of shareholders submit to his every inclination, brushing allegations of assault aside in the name of the new Paddington Bear movie. One thing that stands out in many of the accounts of abuse is women’s fear of being ‘crushed’. ‘If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life,’ one former employee told the New Yorker. ‘It felt like David versus Goliath,’ another added. ‘The guy with all the money and the power flexing his muscle and quashing the allegations and getting rid of them.’
This was true of women up and down the Hollywood hierarchy, as succinctly articulated by Corey Robin in Jacobin. Those at the bottom rung of the ladder asked, ‘Why aren’t the famous women saying anything when they have a platform?’, whilst those at the glittering top of the A List wondered, ‘Why aren’t the women at the bottom saying anything? They’ve nothing to lose.’
But it is precisely this job insecurity that enables men like Weinstein to manipulate women into compromising positions. However glamorous it appears from the outside, acting falls in many ways inside the rubric of the so-called ‘gig economy’, and as such, like other forms of freelance labour, it is defined at most levels by insecurity and precarity. Anyone who has ever worked for a zero-hour contract catering company will have noted that half the employees are failing or out-of-work actors. There is no concretised movement of career advancement in the way there is with other professions such as the civil service or academia. Instead, everything is fleeting, and getting work relies heavily upon social relationships: aggressively flirting people into giving you email addresses, maintaining blistering eye-contact with those in power, not offending the guy who is never to be offended. This fluctuating climate is true even of the geography of the workplace – the headquarters of a film could be anywhere from a cliff top in the Scottish Highlands to a glass cage in central London, and there is no precise locus of oppression. Set against the background of weak trade unions and absent a sense of workplace solidarity, destabilised hierarchies like this make people extremely vulnerable.
The disposability of actors enables individuals like Weinstein to gain an extraordinary power over the industry. He could trample on reputations, bully people out of roles, make nasty phone calls, spread lies and muddy the characters of those who denied him to the point where their careers were indelibly ruined.
But if Weinstein maintained such a choke-hold over his accusers, what then enabled them to finally be heard? Considering that Weinstein’s actions have only come to light recently– in the wake of his waning profitability as a Hollywood mogul – it is difficult not to question the prevailing narrative which explains the emergence of his secrets as the product of society having ‘opened up a discussion’ about sexual assault. Though the loosening of social stigma is welcome and undoubtedly played its part, the decline in Weinstein’s stock also compromised his tyrannical grip on the industry.
In 2015 The Weinstein Company faced large layoffs and since then the firm’s profitability has been plunging. The last few films Weinstein worked on didn’t do well – neither Woman in Gold, Southpaw, Gold or The Founder managed to secure an Oscar, despite frantic attempts. And in recent years Weinstein has developed a reputation for becoming attached to long-delayed projects glued in pre-production, sparking a series of embarrassingly bad reviews, from Grace of Monaco and Shanghai to Burnt and Jane got a Gun.
As Weinstein’s social and commercial capital declined, his ability to maintain a veil of silence around his horrific behaviour weakened. Out of touch with the new cinematic trends which prioritise addictive television dramas above indie film sagas, Weinstein was starting to be seen as a disposable relic of ‘90s filmmaking. As such, those who previously swiped away women’s testimonies by shrugging that ‘he does this to everyone’, ‘it was a long time ago’, ‘you’re in the wrong business if you can’t handle it’, and so on, suddenly began to listen. As long as predatory men are more valuable to a company than the young or vulnerable women they repeatedly abuse, the industry will continue to silence the women and protect the man. That is, until he is outdated, crusty and juiced of ideas, and no longer worth the financial and reputational cost of his behaviour; only then will executives listen and put on a good show of outrage in the morning papers. ‘He was so powerful and successful in his repeated systemic abuses of power that he became completely brazen about it,’ said Genie Harrison, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment suits. ‘I do not believe people didn’t know. That’s not the way this works.’
Sexual abuse is, among other things, a way of exercising an existing economic and social domination over women – without his money and position, Weinstein wouldn’t have been able to maintain a legal vice on the victims of his actions, nor would he have had the facilities to silence victims as he did; without The Weinstein Company, he would not have been able to lure so many women into his clutches (none of which is to say, of course, that men without such positions of power cannot also engage in equally abusive behaviour on the scale of their own capacities). The ubiquity of sexual assault across society indicates that our entire social and economic system has an endemic structural problem: it is dictatorial in nature. Abuses of power will continue to occur across diverse social and professional institutions from boardrooms, to universities to ambulance services, so long as they remain essentially hierarchical.
Though any cultural changes that allow women to feel more able to speak out – the #MeToo campaign, for instance – are very welcome, workplace culture can only change so far before it confronts a contradiction with the profit principle and the norms of how workplaces are structured. As long as claims of abuse remain inconvenient for management’s bottom line, shareholders and company executives will continue to bat them aside in deference to profit.