“It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and White and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to Black women and other women of color and doesn’t get out quite the same.”
—Actress/activist Jane Fonda
By now the issue of female subjugation in the motion picture industry has pre-empted the issue of racist exclusion dominating Tinseltown over the past few years, a situation that almost certainly will carry over to the awards season and the Oscars in February. A neglected aspect of these conversations (which likely will become more prominent in the near future) is how sexual harassment (and marginalization) impacts women of color who aspire to the rarified strata of stardom. In a way, this is not surprising since the imbalance in salary compensation has only recently been broached in any depth.
The individuals who did agree to speak out on this hot-button issue unanimously did so on condition of anonymity, due to the real fear that doing so would result in forfeiture of future work opportunities. This gives credence to the probability that while the casting couch has been exposed, it still figures prominently in the prospects of productions in the future.
“I’ll work with you if…”
The act of predation often begins far from the lime light. One anonymous film graduate caught a break when an agent, whom she describes as “…something of a friend,” recommended her for employment within his high profile agency. Once hired, she not only had the “day job” so essential for a budding artist to survive, but one at the very center of the business itself.
“I worked as the receptionist and assisted him as well as the other agents and mnager,” she remembers.
In due course, however, she discovered her good fortune came with a catch.
“He became very touchy at the office, which I told him was highly inappropriate and that he needed to stop. Eventually I approached him about potentially taking me on as a client. He said maybe if we were dating he would be my agent.”
Ironically, this fledging actress met Harvey Weinstein at an industry function (no carnal overtures were made) and completely forgot until a colleague reminded her when the scandal broke.
In hindsight, she believes that these revelations are a positive step in the right direction, but is jaded about its impact on the future.
“I don’t think there would be a significant change in the way business is conducted as it is no secret that this has been happening,” she concludes.
The problem with delving into a story of this nature (aside from the emotional/psychological duress endured by the subjects themselves) is the unwillingness of the victimized to come forward with their stories. Shame and embarrassment are par for the course, but the cost of candor and straightforwardness may also include being blacklisted professionally, resulting in financial hardship or outright loss of one’s livelihood.
And so it goes that most individuals with stories to tell will flat out refuse to participate, and those willing to talk will do so on condition of anonymity. Still others were initially agreeable to share, then had second thoughts as the memories brought up reawakened the scars and traumas long dormant in the human psyche.
“Candy” (not her real name) dreamed of becoming a singer, and proved to be talented enough to gain acceptance at a noted institute of the performing arts after high school. Completing her education, she set forth to establish her career in an industry much less than hospitable to the aspiring songstress. Looking back, she recalls her initial forays were, at best, not taken seriously and worse, taken in under the false flag of hospitality before the veil of warmth and generosity dropped to reveal ulterior motives.
She remembers the pain and feelings of betrayal that engulfed her when she realized these “gatekeepers merely saw her as “…young and easy to take advantage of.”
Her love of music prompted her to shelve her performing hopes and she secured employment on the marketing and promotional end. Still, the ugly reality of showbiz proved to be ever present among the minions supporting those at the pinnacle of glitz and glamour.
“…deal with it or get out!”
Her 13-year career has included tenure both in mainstream music and motion picture corporations, and the highly profitable “niche” market of hip-hop and rap. As might be expected, the interplay on the corporate level operates under the thin veneer of propriety, where sexism and harassment do exist in this grown up “Boys Club,” albeit on a “hush hush” level. So a meeting to pitch a movie or other major project will be conducted under the strict protocol of professional conduct, but outside of the conference room, the repetitive litany of carnal manipulation, inappropriate language and outright proposition is pursued without abandon.
Business in the realm of rap reflects the misogyny and sexism prevalent in the lyrics of songs given airplay at any given time. In keeping with this blatant sexism, professional conduct in the work place is an accepted regiment of being
“…groped and pressured to do things.”
The “game” is upped at concerts, V.I.P. events, release parties, or any functions where alcohol flows freely. As Candy tells it, the expectation of groping and other forms of inappropriateness is understood prior to attendance at these work related “soirées.”
“I’ve always got my guard up,” she says of her emotional and mental preparation for these sessions of and lascivious revelry. As expected, a clique of solidarity cropped up among women in the industry as a buttress to the harassment they endured in earning their living. Veterans who chose to “mentor” her often did so in a provocative manner.
A senior recording executive (a White woman) with years of seniority admonished her to “…lead with your masculinity,” as a means of survival. Later, she expressed this tactic a little more bluntly.
“…be a Bitch!”
Candy initially consented to be interviewed under her own name, but during the course of a phone conversation, she broke down with the weight of unpleasant memories.
In an email received by this writer she asked that she, too, be included under an alias or pseudonym.
“Please don’t use my name. I’m scared I’m going to get blacklisted,” she pleaded.
Her reaction to the Weinstein outrage was a resounding “me too!”—an affirmation of the two-word social media hashtag that became a rallying cry for women in and outside of showbiz.
A clinical overview
A compelling component of these proceedings lays in the fact that it encompasses the over arching issue of hierarchy, and gender in the workplace.
Far from the glamour of entertainment, women struggle with the problem of surviving (and thriving) in male dominated bastions. As an unnamed clinician and therapist practicing for 10 years in east Texas notes, these concerns occur every day, in myriad professions all over the country. As for the Weinstein situation, she (like most of the individuals who responded for interviews) was not surprised by the revelations. Women toiling in dissimilar jobs in industries far from the blinding glare of Hollywood suffer “similar intimidation,” often in situations wherein those who perpetrate the offenses are oblivious to the damage sown.
“There’s a fine line between the understanding of what is flirtatious and what harassment is,” she says.
Race and ethnicity are, of course, problematic issues in the contemporary quest for diversity in the workplace, but she is adamant that there is a distinct dividing line here.
“It’s more of a gender issue,” she says firmly.
Establishing clear cut definitions is difficult (if not impossible) since perceptions of appropriateness vary among cultures and ethnic groups.
A culture of fear
The responses given confirm the reality that power remains firmly in the grasp of a few (possibly elderly) wealthy White men at the apex of the industry (much like the country in general).
This is by no means relegated to Hollywood. An unnamed actress from the United Kingdom remembers a “sleazy casting director” who used the pretext of an audition to engage in a make out session and feel her up at the age of 16. Since moving to the United States, she allows that she’s gained roles due to sexual chemistry between herself and the powers that be, well before the prospect of sleeping with some higher up.