The story of Harvey Weinstein is a story of a workplace that permits and actively enables sexual violence against women, writes Kristen Norvilas.
Who is Harvey Weinstein? I recalled the name ‘Weinstein’ from opening screen credits. But it didn’t mean anything. I didn’t know who Harvey Weinstein was. Nevertheless, the headline Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers For Decades, caught my eye. It beamed tabloid zeal for moral damnation: Hollywood boss, a shakedown, silenced victims, in dreamland.
The article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published in the New York Times documents first hand allegations of sex crimes committed by Harvey Weinstein. A compelling read. But I wasn’t surprised or shocked, by any of the detailed accounts of capital abuses by Harvey Weinstein. Not because I had knowledge of Harvey Weinstein, but because I was familiar with the story and the conceit of power.
The story of the politics of power and the Golden Rule (the other one): obey and say nothing. The article was probably more of a shock to Weinstein himself, as the ‘worst kept secret’ in Hollywood, no longer contained, found its way into print and, most significantly into the public domain.
The portrait of Harvey Weinstein which emerges from reports of his actions, is of a man morally circumcised. Acting within a space over which he has up until recently unimpeachable control as the chairman of his own production company, and virtual pillar of Hollywood.
His actions resemble those of an apex predator. He has no gun. No knife. Described as one of the ‘most powerful’ people in Hollywood he had the capacity and the capability to enact his personal desires and (criminal) perversions, by capitalising on particular conditions of inequality. For example, the opportunity and access to employment; social connections; industry status and influence; professional status; ownership status; capital wealth and so on.
Power is contingent on conditions of inequality, which those with a seat at the top of the hierarchy of power collude to preserve. The grim reality is that those with less power are punished for having less power (lower down in the hierarchy): powerlessness has become a crime in itself. The politics of power contains within it a self-serving, self-replicating logic that those with power have authority by virtue of being powerful; and, as judge ruling in its own interest.
Without the means to contest such a despicable system vested interests are able to manipulate situations and injustice prevails.
The reign of Harvey Weinstein exemplifies more than a personal investment, reports document a social investment in systems of discrimination and institutional protection of sex abuse and violence. The initial act of transgression (moral or legal), for example, the violation of the rights of another without consent, sets the precedent; the precedent establishes the convention; the convention, the code of practice; and, the practice, the culture. It is the self-preservation and social preservation of this system of anti-liberal undemocratic injustice.
The critical factors of the Harvey Weinstein story are that he was exacting sex crimes, and that he was exacting sex crimes in his professional and not personal capacity. What follows is an examination of how sexual discrimination and professional abuse are not as shocking as one would like to think. The prevalence of sex crimes are endemic in patriarchal societies.
The political nature of such societies is that those who embody the values of patriarchy for example, the male sex, masculinity, heterosexuality etc., are bestowed/granted the right to exert domination over those who do not. So in addition to being biologically gifted with a penis, he is protected by this socially destructive logic of patriarchy which sanctioned the actions of Harvey Weinstein over the rights of individuals he sexually abused.
These individuals were employees of the company or the industry. (Employees are not free individuals). What did come as a surprise is the extent to which the Weinstein saga is uncovering the role of bureaucracy, of the Hollywood industry, of the Weinstein Company, of ancillary agencies, legal firms, surveillance firms etc in actively and strategically managing the Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour of sexual abuse.
It is evident that one of the main functions of the bureaucracy was to use its power to regulate and enforce its own written legal constitution of practice to curtail the right to freedom of consent; and, prohibit the Rule of Law from being exercised by the State and by the individual against Weinstein, against The Weinstein Company, and against other industry agencies.
The continual return to the technicality of consent, is a signal that consent is the bridge between the unwritten politics of power and the Rule of Law.
The Washington Post reported that his behaviour was both ‘an open secret and a secret ritual’. Current and former employees and film industry workers have disclosed information which describes a scale of abuse dating back to the 1970s. Documentation of sex crimes committed over and again. He’s a repeat offender. Not of street crimes but of sex crimes. He’s not poor. It wasn’t for the money. He’s not a petty criminal. Habituated to being able to commit sex acts using aggression and force with no concern for consent is an integral part of both the personal and political aspect of the Harvey Weinstein story. His actions were not inevitable, but the result of a personal choice.
Then there is the political aspect.
There were facilitators and beneficiaries, accomplices, witnesses, on-lookers, some traumatised, others reaping the rewards of the exclusive access to opportunities, resources and wealth. There are those who allowed the heathen to heave, spit, verbal, jerk off, intimidate, take hostage persons because he had the means, the intent, the opportunity, and protection – he wasn’t going to gaol.
The Weinstein story describes the involvement of others that have been implicated willingly or out of self-interest in aiding and abetting his sexual behaviour. Conditioning permission through reward or punishment for those who complied, for example, offering total support to directors such as Quentin Tarantino, who confessed in a Vanify Fair article that, “I knew enough to do more than I did”.
Rewarding attitudes aligned with status: “There’s a lot on the line, the cachet that came with Miramax.” And invoking the fear of reprisal in others: “If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life,” one former employee said.
This is evidence of conforming behaviour and normalisation of particular values and attitudes which promoted injustice, on the level of individual rights, access to justice, fair working conditions. Success, reward, and fear of consequence are all strategies of compliance.
It was no surprise to read the accounts from ex-employees, and ancillary services personnel which describe the culture of the workplace as ‘toxic’ and ‘hostile’. With over 50 allegations, for Weinstein and company, his willing coalition of associates, this is the norm: sex crime is the norm. The sheer number of women is convincing. Even with evidence of coercion on tape. Everyone knew. People were complicit. Much more information has since surfaced: the abuse is extensive. These document a level which can only be described as systemic abuses. By people and by process.
Another surprising aspect of the Harvey Weinstein saga is the element of bureaucracy as a technology of power, and the culture of complicity and violence it has the capability to incite.
It made me think about the terminology we use. What does occupation mean? Occupation within the workforce? Within the company? Within the corporation? You occupy a role with a given set of values and capabilities. As an employee you become an embodied agent of bureaucracy and are enabled to a given extent by its power. People who inhabit these roles can become neurotic, hysterical, abusive, gatekeepers, enablers, foot soldiers, administrators, managers, manipulators and mediators of power. It is not an unfamiliar, sensational feature specific to the Weinstein story.
The role of Weinstein’s bureaucratic network was to protect information that would otherwise damage the reputation of and inflict financial loss on the company, the industry and those incorporated in Weinstein’s activities. It seems that one of the responsibilities of the bureaucracy was to manage the ‘non-consensual advances’ and sexual misconduct that could result in damage to the company brand.
The Harvey Weinstein story is uncovering endemic labour relations abuses, workplace and industrial relations issues; the internal savagery of the bureaucracy; and the primacy of corporate regulation (applied within the company and industry) above State and Federal law.
Harvey Weinstein (Inc.) operated as a command economy. Exploiting the para-legal system of corporations to circumvent public law. As separate private entities, corporations have the freedom to operate according to their own constitution. The workforce incorporated by the company and social relations within the company are controlled by contract.
The compelling saga of the undoing of Harvey Weinstein is due to the breaking of contract, by those violated by Weinstein. Women once bound through fear, bargain, coercion, to the terms and conditions of their contract, on and off the page. Against Weinstein who was under the protection of Hollywood and The Weinstein Company.
The sheer number of women who have been able to come forward to be heard is an indication that there is a problem when Rule of Law of a State cannot take effect, to the point it is circumvented. The Weinstein case illustrates something we can all identify with – parallel systems of law and order. Co-existing systems of right and wrong. Corporate capitalism and the monopoly of power at the exclusion of the State is the real political order of our day-to-day lives. The corruption of public values.
As the Weinstein scandal demonstrates, corporations are more than the goods and services they produce – they are sites of cultural production and control. And political support for this type of illegitimate social behaviour.
Corporations, in this case The Weinstein Company, used confidentiality clauses in employment contracts to regulate (and consequently facilitate) abuses of power within the workplace, in favour of the abuser (because the victim of a sex crime would not be a victim if she were in a position of power).
In other words, sex abuse within the workplace, in the jurisdiction of the corporate regulations, was not prohibited.
Not a surprise. I’d been groomed to accept, and even indulge in such a story of abuse. For it is the height of an iconic genre of the home screen – the soap opera.
The fetishisation of victimhood is the dramatic subject of TV soap operas. I indulged in these shows during the period of my life when I was coming of age. Mutable, impressionable, seeking out identification. Perfect.
What you have to understand is that crucial to the spectacle of the melodrama is that the victim by definition is not a victim, because they deserved it. The story of the defiled glamour puss – a sympathetic victim. And so according to convention there can only be one true victim. The people in the roles who facilitate the sex crime go unpunished. And for the ingenue, her recovery is her success.
The victim is always young, female, blonde, angelic qualities and is inevitably traumatised by her desire to follow her dreams. The ingénue is defiled. Like a lamb to the slaughter. Her initiation into the hierarchies of power. What she lacks in status she must now seek to find in another: husband.
In the soap opera, her return to personhood – her road to recovery, her success – depends on the strength and influence of her family and how beautiful she is. The more heinous the sex crime the more it is downplayed and likely to occur off screen.
Minor sex crimes such as harassment or verbal sexual abuse are shown onscreen.
The perpetrator was always male, and of higher status. And if unknown to the family he is never caught and ‘brought to justice’, so to speak. And if known to the family, he is usually lambasted, the excused looking more dashing in his suit, than remorseful.
He may apologise. His sultry good looks stand for more than his genetic lottery. Lawyers hover in the background behind both parties. Nevertheless, the hierarchies of power which inform social relations are maintained. And so it goes, the drama of the entitled class. Whilst the servants in the background usually disappear from screen and come in at the end with smiles, “is there anything I can do for you?” they ask, only to be excused by their masters.
The system of kind, soft, power is restored.
Of course it’s clunky. Exaggerated. Stylised. With no acknowledgement of universal human rights. This brutal system of repression is often accompanied by music – a chorus of strings are sent to quell her feelings of abandonment, isolation and dehumanisation. Quarantined by her own guilt, she also understands she deserves to be punished and makes amends to comply with the agents of financial abundance patriarchal power with influential social networks, whose model looks and sexual appeal make the acquiescing of her rights and supplication to power compelling viewing.
But that’s the genre of the soap opera. It’s so addictive. Catastrophic abuses are forgiven; acts of sexual assault are couched in a patriarchal logic that we understand: I’m thinking of the scene where the boyfriend – often potential fiancee – mistakenly thinks that his girlfriend (wife-to-be) has been cheating on him and he barges into her apartment grabs her by the neck, yelling at her to tell him the truth, and then slaps her so hard that she falls to the floor.
We hang on the final shot of her looking up at the camera from below, tears in her eyes.
This is the story of white privileged women ‘paying the price’ of a paranoid power, whether they did anything or not.
Outrageous! This kind of behaviour is criminal. You should call the police if it happens to you. But we are taught to romanticise Patriarchy. To be owned by a jealous male partner/husband is better than to be independent and not married, not . The crime is kept hidden justified by the insinuation of reward, self-interest and the interest of the family; and by the coalition of power, who maintain the balance of power.
The status quo is maintained without mercy. The question which is not a question but a forgone conclusion is the cockhold of the consequences for the many, or, the ‘sacrifice’ of the few?
The ingénue is/must be punished. She is incarcerated by an entrenched symbolic system of power relations. If there is a trial in the show, the set is dull, the judge is old. There is no action. It’s boring. Asserting your rights is boring. Alternatively if you’re barracking for the defendant, who is set-up as the wrongfully accused, the judgement is swift, the court must (and will) find him not guilty. The messaging concerns the character of the female plaintiff: she who ‘cried wolf’.
The storyline is a problematic and polemical piece of propaganda and patriarchal supremacy. The American soap operas work to support the hierarchies of power which govern the social relations of society. And to promote the logic of power as moral and right. The conceit of such ideological logic of the grace of power embedded within the narrative is that it snares you. It snares you in so many ways. I mean, what values have I absorbed, we absorbed, in order to keep us towing the line?
No longer a sociological concept of academia, the case of Harvey Weinstein documents evidence in fact of the material production of hierarchies of power, which have and continue to exist in society today. The story of the ingénue, fallen angels and the big bad wolf who will blow their careers away if they don’t concede to his demands.
Except, with Weinstein, there is no commercial break. There is no retribution. No reckoning. The melodrama of the narrative extorts betrayal, sacrifice, shame and injustice weigh loud and heavy for dramatic effect (it is the emotional conceit of the soap to do so).
The secret continues, remembered but hidden (for use in future seasons); the legacy of injustice, the will to power of the individual, of the company is afforded the higher ground, as the ingénue is disposed of, or she disappears, often sent into a state of madness, or coma, rejected by the family or she becomes an evil wench preying on versions of her younger self before the trauma.
The portrayal of stigmatisation is exploited for its cathartic effect. From onscreen to off screen violence, it is structural and endemic. The culture of patriarchy enforced is a form of social conditioning and repeated. The victims are alienated by their experience. It is a story told over and over again. Indoctrinating viewers to the persuasions of power with the message that there is a kind of socialism (and sexiness) in victory of the powerful, good, criminal man.
I was reminded of a throw away line, an off the cuff remark, made by a close friend of mine earlier this year. Me being Female. Him being Male.
He quipped: “I assumed all women had been sexually abused, haha”.
I was taken aback by his laissez-faire treatment of sexual violence against women as acceptable, common practice and, common knowledge. His statement was delivered flippantly and with smug self-righteousness. Did he fully grasp the consequences of what he was saying?
I don’t think so. It was a Freudian slip, of sorts. He was speaking the language of a set of values which he himself, I don’t believe, fully understands. And nor do I.
I felt confronted by his words. Because I knew exactly what he meant. This was problematic. There is a part of me that participates in subjecting myself to this logic.
I felt confused and defenceless by the sexual underpinning of his statement: the implied right of a person based on their sex to subjugate another based on their sex. A violation specifically defined by its sexual nature. And by the implicit claim and entitlement of the male sex to the female sex.
This deep-rooted idea of male supremacy pervades both the male and female consciousness. It disregards personhood and supports inequality i.e. unequal rights based on sex, and therefore reproduces injustice as the norm. Totally dispiriting logic producing and reproducing different versions of personhood, a thought crime perpetrated again and again.
Without recourse and without cause for the charge of ‘woman’ I am prone to this insidious violence. I didn’t choose to be a woman. Woman, born with predetermined, lesser, status. My rights as a person, my personhood, jeopardised by my sex. Cursed am I born a woman? Silent witness to my rights removed without permission and without incident whilst patriarchy issues a licence to abuse, to rape, and to silence.
Permission of sexual discrimination is a negation of sex crime. The act of thinking that it is OK to violate a women because she is a woman is NOT OK. The tone, manner, nonchalant quip is evidence of how entrenched the idea of women as sex victims. Internalised values of the political economy of the moment, which is to exploit the power differential, to exercise domination. To exploit the access, opportunity, resources, capital, agency i.e. the circumstances and conditions because… it is possible and is becoming imbricated in the system of governance of right and wrong in society today. The logic lives deep set in the recesses of our collective ego, latent.
What did Harvey Weinstein say to these actresses? Did he have the power to keep them all in awe (to quote Thomas Hobbes)?
Harvey Weinstein is what he does. His identity is tied to his career. He is a career film executive/producer. Is it not the job of a film producer to make a film? To sell an idea; to garner support; to persuade people to come on board.
The onus is on him to make things happen. He is a necessary agent primarily for himself. His conceit was to flip the burden of uncertainty around success and failure onto others. His self-confidence and bullying tactics made people believe they owed him. Their success was in part due to his success.
When Courtney Love was asked what advice would you give to “young girl” wanting to move to Hollywood? Courtney replied, “can I say it? I’ll get libelled if I say it. If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party at the Four Seasons… don’t go!”
I found the recording of the sting operation engrossing. Articles had previously established Harvey as an occupational health and safety hazard. He bullies with his body. A certified pervert. A sex terrorist. A corpulent man of dishevelled appearance. Pot-bellied. Slouched shoulders with his jacket hanging down unevenly to one side. Thinning on top. Charmless and with one leering eye and wandering hands.
There is dialogue between Weinstein and a women with an Italian accent. The woman on the tape is Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. The conversation was recorded in 2015.
Weinstein: I’m telling you right now, get in here…You must come here now
The woman’s voice quivers. She respectfully declines. Excuses herself.
Gutierrez : No. I don’t want to. I’m sorry. I cannot.
Weinstein is unwilling to accept her decline.
I wondered how he looked at her.
Gutierrez: what do we have to do here?
Her voice is an explicit acknowledgement of insinuated expectation. What sex play does he want her to engage in, can she compromise – this space of negotiation? Tone has no legal implication as right or wrong. Summoning her with words and his body, physically ushering her towards the room.
Weinstein’s persistent goading of the woman, his victim; his pestering. I’m captured by the intensity of the exchange. His intent is palpable.
What I also find interesting is Harvey’s paranoid tone, his hyper-awareness of the liability of witnesses. Judgement in the moment. The scrutiny held in the eyes of others. Observing retaliation.
Weinstein: I won’t do anything and you’ll never see me again after this. OK? That’s it. If you don’t – if you embarrass me in this hotel where I’m staying….
Weinstein: Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway.
Weinstein: The guy is coming. I will never do another thing to you. I’m a famous guy. Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes.
His tone is aggressive. Self-righteous. Unyielding. Comparable to intimidation within the prison system – opportunity, access, and reward for those initiated and allowed ‘in’.
That is his argument. His justification. No is a threat to his ears: an offense. It’s a contained tantrum. The whole incident is a violation of her rights.
Weinstein: Just one minute
Later Weinstein barters, “five minutes”.
Gutierrez : Why yesterday you touch my breast?
Weinstein: Im used to that.
Gutierrez : You’re used to that? …I’m not used to that.
Gutierrez : Its too much for me…I can’t…I wanna leave.
The sting operation which lead to the recording can be read here. What emerged from the audio was insufficient to prove a crime under New York law, which requires prosecutors to establish criminal intent. The statement made by Chief Assistant to the District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr “Moving Justice Forwards” continued stating failure to establish intent from Weinstein and other “proof issues”.
Hollywood is an industry dominated by patriarchy: Harvey was demanding females pay the sex debt upfront to be part of the business. Jennifer Lawrence recounted in Vanity Fair of her experience that when she was a teen she was made to take part in a “naked line-up,” at an audition.
“After that degrading and humiliating line-up, the female producer told me I should use the naked photos of myself as inspiration for my diet.” She learnt, “Silence was a condition of my employment”. Now, her ‘No’ ‘carried a lot more power’, wrote the journalist.
Read between the lines, the propositions have not gone away. Her privilege is her stardom, industry credentials and commercial success which sets her apart, and protects her from harm. The level of sex terrorism exercised by Harvey Weinstein is what happens at the peak of industry, but what casting couch antics are performed at the straight-to-DVD level. And are we drawing the line at the Porn Industry?
This is where I believe a political economic analysis of Harvey is less conflicted, more reflective of the spectrum of power, powerlessness, acceptability of criminal actions. The role of company contracts, confidentiality clauses, cache, and the culture of complicity meant that only a handful ever confronted him.
“I know he has crushed a lot of people before,” said actress Asia Argento. “There’s a lot on the line, the cachet that came with Miramax”; “If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life,” statements from former employees made it all seem so normal; they were also all banking on the promise of future reward. What about those who said No. Whatever happened to Rosanna Arquette and Mira Sorvino? The two actresses have publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of chastising them and using his industry connections and influence to block their careers.
Violations are normalised, internalised and non-compliance is punished. Not just by one, but by many. But what about women who he violated and never made it, the dream that became a nightmare?
So what responsibility does the Weinstein Company have to these employees – the subjects of Harvey Weinstein’s sex crimes? His sex crimes require a coterie of intermediaries, of managers and service providers, all engaged and obligated to him tethered by contract. He ensnared people via legal means. Again, a domain where the rights of the individual are bound by the terms and conditions of the contract; there is no scope for a ‘conscience vote’.
So far, four of the nine members of its all-male board have resigned since the accusations were made public. Corporate capitalism is defined by inherent values of private ownership of people, production and profit. With 8 previous settlements on record, financial penalties were used to silence. Judgement was placed on the victim. Harvey continued to re-offend. Business as usual. The integrity of the company and industry intact.
There were many decisions Harvey Weinstein made before he became a sex terrorist. Why didn’t Harvey Weinstein just pay for sex? The guy is an occupational health and safety hazard. Nevertheless I am mindful not to make Harvey Weinstein a scapegoat. I don’t believe that Harvey Weinstein is one of a kind.
I’ve learned that morality is circumstantial and the law seems to be impotent in protecting women from sexual violence. Because it has no effect in the workplace. The Harvey Weinstein story points to the broken social ethic of society and the triumph of political economy. He provided greater net utility than harm to those involved indirectly or indirectly with his behaviour. The worst harms perceived as not producing worst outcomes for all. A negative logic, but one that seems to describe the sycophancy of the vested interests in utilising his power and influence.
I think this goes beyond the curse of the beautiful ingénue wanting to work in the entertainment industry. It is an expose of social relations in the workforce, the pseudo governance of corporate capitalism, the entrenched terrorism of patriarchy.
At the end of the day the defiled glamour puss is a far more compelling story than the unwanted attention, the pestering behaviour, the sporadic groping that women receive in their workplace every day, who are reduced to managing top-down exploitative behaviour.
I have to end on a disclaimer:
“Let’s remember the epidemic of violence against women in our society disproportionately affects low income women, particularly women of color, trans and queer women and indigenous women, who are silenced by their economic circumstances and profound mistrust of a justice system that acquits the guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence and continues to oppress people of color,” wrote actress Ellen Page, adding that she had the privilege of wealth and a platform to speak out.
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