Last week, the Empathic Rationalist was compelled to point out Hollywood’s hypocrisy when it swims in violence while preaching about love. But truly, you can’t even begin to talk about hypocrisy in Tinseltown without touching on the one other vice that “sells” even better than gore. And I’m not talking about drugs or rock ‘n roll.
Our topic today reminds me of the old saw about the celebrated ethics professor who is caught cheating on his wife. “Being an ethics expert means that I have to know a lot about ethics,” he responds. “It doesn’t mean I have to be an ethical man.”
To be sure, Hollywood knows a lot about romance. It gives us star-crossed romances, fairy-tale romances, and romances where the hot guy falls in love with the single mom’s kid and only later falls in love with the single mom. It gives us single-gender romances, inter-generational romances, and inter-racial romances. It gives us visions of life-long romances -- like the old couple holding hands on the Titanic knowing that they’re about to die, but at least they’re about to die together. You name it, if there’s a way to show two people falling in love, being in love, or tragically falling out of love, Hollywood has done it. And the rest of us lap it up like Pavlov’s dogs.
Then we read about the “stars” and their personal lives. Love gurus they’re not. If you’ve been in that town for decades and you’re only on marriage number two, that alone should qualify you for a star on Hollywood Boulevard. But rushing in and out of love affairs is the least of Hollywood’s problems. The far more profound issue is that many of these people seem incapable of loving in the first place. And this stems from an attitude where they treat members of the opposite sex more as bodies than as minds. When you combine that pervasive malady with a hierarchical power structure, you create a sub-culture that is as ugly as ugly gets. There’s the real irony: the environment known for producing the most “beautiful” of people may actually be producing the ugliest.
This week, the award for Manifest Ugliness in Tinseltown doesn’t go to a narcissistic star but rather a studio executive. While his face might not have been as recognizable as the leading men and women he promoted, Harvey Weinstein had a name known to anyone who has paid even a scintilla of attention to films. Literally every movie goer would have been familiar with his work. Weinstein produced, among other flicks, Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction, and Shakespeare in Love (for which he won an Oscar). Literally dozens of Academy Award winners have thanked him personally during their acceptance speeches. He is, by most accounts, one of the most successful movie producers who ever lived.
Two weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein seemed to be on top of the world. Today, he has become a punching bag. “I have a brother that’s indefensible and crazy,” said Weinstein’s brother Bob, who served with Harvey as a co-founder of Weinstein, Inc. “I want him to get the justice that he deserves.” Bob Weinstein went on to claim that brother Harvey was a “bully,” “arrogant” and “treated people like s—t all the time.”
In the past fortnight, one woman after another has made accusations against Weinstein, some of which involve horrible criminal acts. The Empathic Rationalist is a law-free zone, and I will not comment about the specific allegations or their merit. What I will point out is how striking it is that for years, Weinstein’s reputation was apparently well known in Hollywood but only in Hollywood. Despite the fact that he associated with legions of liberal politicians and movie stars, many of whom are surely feminists, nobody saw fit to blow the whistle.
What should we make of all this?
First, let’s not allow Hollywood to minimize the problem by pretending it’s not pervasive. To suggest that Hollywood’s “casting couch” problem is merely a Weinstein problem is like saying that the performance enhancing drug problem in sports is merely a “(Mark) McGuire” problem. From everything I’ve heard, PEDs in sports are exceedingly common, and it is precisely because that scourge is so common that sports leagues would rather address it on the margins than attempt to eliminate it root and branch. Similarly, the problem of expecting women actresses to “perform” if they hope to get parts in films is hardly one that begins and ends with Weinstein.
We’ve already seen the entertainment industry whiff when Bill Cosby’s antics were exposed. He became the story, not the sexual abuse of young women. We now have an opportunity to face the same challenge. Do we want to make this story about Weinstein? Or about Hollywood? You know my vote.
Second, once we’ve recognized that this is not merely a Weinstein problem but a Hollywood problem, our work is hardly finished. The next task is to identify what the problem is. Is it confined to situations where men take advantage of hierarchical power structures to take advantage of women sexually? Or should we be talking about drawing a broader line and addressing issues of sexual objectification? In other words, do men cross the line (a) only if they misuse a hierarchical power relationship to advance sexual goals, (b) whenever they make clearly unwanted sexual advances to a woman regardless of whether they have some sort of societal position of power over the woman, (c) whenever they address a woman primarily as a sexual object rather than as a human being with dignity and intelligence, or (d) whenever they find themselves even thinking sexually about a woman with whom they are not involved romantically?
I’d rather not attempt to answer this question for any of my readers. I simply wanted to raise it. Personally, I don’t find myself at the most Victorian side of the continuum, but nor do I tolerate the opposite end either. Clearly, this is a question that each of us must confront for ourselves as individuals, and if we as a society are smart, we’ll use the Weinstein moment as an opportunity to ask this question publicly and start a dialogue.
Finally, can we please recognize that honest-to-God whistleblowers are among our society’s greatest heroes? They know that as soon as they blow that whistle, they’ll become targeted by an entire apparatus of defense lawyers and publicists. If they have ever done anything the least bit wrong – and who hasn’t? – their past foibles will be exposed, and the media will shy away from giving them the respect they deserve. After all, our media likes to present stories in simple good-versus-evil terms in which our heroes can be depicted as perfect angels; by contrast, whistleblowers tend to be regular people, with warts and all.
Our society has created all sorts of ways for powerful folks to get away with misconduct. When they finally get caught, it’s typically because some principled soul steps up and, like a dog with a bone, just won’t let go. Can we please show respect to those people? And can we please not allow the whistleblower’s imperfections to get in the way of our respect? Courageous, principled people are few and far between; we shouldn’t demand that they also attain saintly status before we give them a tip of the hat.
In conclusion, I realize that this is an inherently complex topic, one that is worthy of book-length, not blog-post, treatment. But I am writing about this topic in my blog because it is imperative that we all consider the relevant issues before this opportunity passes. As a husband and a father of two daughters, I cannot sit back and watch women treated as they have been in Hollywood and in so much of our society and simply pretend that this is the human condition. This is the 21st century. We can do better.