Weinstein Scandal Representative of Deeper Dynamics

“They knew.”

That’s a mantra oft-repeated by the public in response to the cascade of celebrities who have denounced their colleagues following a cataclysmic domino effect of assault allegations made over the past month. Accusations of harassment, rape, and all-around creepiness leveled at Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein were the first cracks in the industry’s golden façade — which has now shattered beneath the weight of hundreds of similar claims aimed at other titans of that breeding ground of fame and misfortune. In the hugely disturbing wake of this scandal, sharp words have been exchanged, tears have been shed, and giants have fallen — but the question at the tip of everyone’s tongues, right after “Who else?”, is the inevitable product of an industry predicated on close relationships: “Who knew?”

The immediate answer — and a correct one — is, of course, “Nearly everyone in Hollywood.” Rumors spread through the film industry like wildfire, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone without a Weinstein-like story. But this is an easy answer — easy and incomplete.

Perhaps more so than any other commercial machine, Hollywood is not self-contained. Though secretive about its inner workings, audiences — literally, you and me — are the industry’s lifeblood. Without a steady stream of paying viewers, a movie falls straight into the dollar bin, and Harvey Weinstein sheds a pathetic little tear. Fortunately for him — and unfortunately for the women surrounding him — he’s basically never had to.

Gifted with an undeservedly shrewd eye for box-office successes, a good chunk of the industry has been molded by Weinstein’s grabby hands. As he himself has admitted, Weinstein’s own proclivities were inspired by the equally depraved minds of the film moguls who trained him. Thanks to the monopolistic influence of people like him, Hollywood is practically a wildlife reserve for sexual predators — and every time we buy a ticket, we’re sponsoring an animal.

Of course, we don’t go to the movies to support the systemic coercion, blackmail, and harassment of countless individuals; we go for the sake of a couple hours of escapism. That is an immutable truth traceable to, and the cause of, the beginning of mainstream film. Yet we’re more influenced by what we see on that screen than some may realize.

While movies mean something different to everyone, we share a tendency to seek empathy for and identification with their characters, and we inadvertently pick up pieces along the way. Though usually the product of a great deal of money and the tireless contributions of hundreds to thousands of people, films become personal experiences, just like any other art form. Some viewers go so far as to adopt movies as aspects of their identity, as evidenced by the inexplicable number of people who suffer through, for example, the masterful but deeply twisted gauntlet of A Clockwork Orange on a routine basis.

What, then, do we make of the ways in which the Weinstein-ian culture of abuse and silencing bleeds onto the screen? Not a single classic of the medium is free from that influence. As we watch women on screen routinely dominated, torn apart, rescued, tossed aside, and recycled, we become numb, shock turning to indifference in the span of minutes. But that visceral punch audiences feel when a woman is robbed of power and endangered on screen doesn’t fade away for the actresses whose careers have been marred by the greed, malice, and cowardice of powerful men. As we absorb their on-screen plight, we instinctively cast that struggle into the periphery; after all, we just wanted to see a movie.

Do you like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? Millions do, and thousands of those might rank it among their favorite films. Many rightly point to Shelley Duvall’s frenzied, bug-eyed performance as Wendy Torrance — whose stay at the fabled Overlook Hotel quickly turns into a madcap game of survival when her husband embarks on a murderous rampage — as one of the movie’s highlights. Yet the true horror of the film is the source of Duvall’s palpable fear — her continual harassment, belittlement, and abuse at the hands of her director, Kubrick, who hoped to draw a more frayed performance out of her at any cost. As one of cinema’s most beloved directors, Duvall’s abuser escaped consequence; even his reputation has endured unscathed. But his victim’s psyche did not.

Duvall is just one victim of an industry contingent on the maltreatment of actresses whose only foreseeable path to a sterling career leads down a dark road, where only leering men with power complexes light the way ahead. Can we comfortably watch The Shining with full knowledge of Duvall’s abuse? It might be easy to answer with a resounding “no,” but what about movies starring women whose abuse is less documented? Can we ever know?

Thinking back is difficult, because we weren’t paying attention at the time. Now that the industry is subject to a paradigm shift after the exposing of Weinstein and many others, we may not have to — but that shouldn’t stop us from interrogating our passive role in feeding Hollywood’s culture of violent, systemic misogyny.

When the next allegations surface — and they will, if the steady rate of revelations about once-revered figures like Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey is anything to go by — think about the implications of pointing fingers at those surrounding them. They rose to prominence on a tower built from our support. Let’s tear it down.