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I am deeply saddened at the recent reports of how many women in the entertainment industry have been affected by sexual harassment and assault. I’m also gutted to discover through social media how many people in my own personal sphere have been victims of similar predatory behaviors. It’s upsetting, but I’m not surprised.
I met Harvey Weinstein once. It was brief and I’m not going to pretend that my singular interaction gives me even a shred of authority to fully understand the allegations against him or the firestorm of discussion that has followed. At the time, I was ushering an event and I’d been told over my headset to hold a particular seat for a VIP guest. Many of the other attendees had repeatedly asked for the seat and I had to practically puppy guard it, even though I didn’t know who it was for.
Like nearly everyone working there, I was merely moonlighting as an usher. My rest-of-the-time dream of being an actress made me anxious to learn who was coming for this empty chair. Finally, a little voice from the speaker in my ear said, “Mr. Weinstein and his people have arrived.” It’s for him. I couldn’t help but be a little excited. He was shown into the theatre and I led him to his seat and then returned to my post in the aisle next to him. I tried not to look at him, out of respect. I knew prominent people at this event were likely fed up with being stared at, but I couldn’t help but notice he was staring at me.
I pause here to clarify that the last two weeks have probably involved a lot of people who professionally interacted with Mr. Weinstein reexamining their memories of him and scrutinizing every interaction, maybe even retelling their stories to fit his character as it has newly come to light. This moment is not that. His behavior didn’t seem inappropriate to me, just odd.
I remember thinking, as he continued to stare, that it was really unusual that he hadn’t looked away yet. I was standing against a bare wall and he was an arm’s length away, there was nothing for him to be focused on. He seemed always mid-grimace and as I continued to try to look natural and go about my business unfazed, I did secretly think to myself, “maybe he’s thinking I would be great in one of his movies.”
This silly, unfounded, but hopeful, thought gives me some small insight into the feelings of the very vulnerable women who end up in compromised situations with, not just him, but with many other producers in the industry. I had a moment that (in truly the tiniest, microcosmic way) was uncomfortable, but didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t avoid a socially awkward moment in the ways I usually would, because maybe this person could make my impossible acting dreams come true. As an actress, you allow strangeness and walk into the unconventional unknown, because you’ve heard literally a hundred No’s, and this might finally be that long awaited Yes. To be an actress is to be vulnerable and some know exactly how to take advantage.
The #MeToo campaign running rampant on social media has likely taught us by now that this is not just an entertainment industry problem. I’ve heard several commentators even say that “this has been happening to women since the beginning of time”, which is likely and unfortunately true. But our time is a little different. We are in an age when pornography, which glorifies that very kind of abuse and exploitative behavior, is considered normal to engage with and even healthy to view. Should we really be shocked that harassment and assault have become so commonplace?
We are in an age where actresses and models pen passionate statements and articles in defense of their right to display their naked bodies and are applauded for it. They forget that, whether the photo was taken with empowerment in mind or exploitation, the resulting images can and will contribute to their being seen as objects and will more often be used for arousal than inspiration.
“What’s wrong with being proud of my body?” and “Young girls need to see a wider variety of female body types” are sentiments touted and praised, when in reality, young girls probably already see enough female bodies and could use exposure to a few more female brains.
We are in an age where what’s widely considered acceptable and even expected in the entertainment industry might be a result and is certainly a continuing cause of the ugly behavior that is now being so universally condemned by everyone who is questioned on the topic of Harvey Weinstein. The industry cries out in shock and surprise at these wolves in their midst, as they continue to make movies where the cool, pretty girl is also the easy one; where going home with someone you just met is what everyone is doing; and where random, meaningless sexual encounters are a right of passage.
The resulting expectations of a generation raised on these movies are that certain inappropriate interactions and advances must just be ok. At 14 years old, I was sitting in the dressing room working on one of my first high school shows when I saw an older boy reach around and grab the breast of one of my fellow freshman. We were all hanging around, sitting in a circle and she was sitting on his knee. As he did it, he announced to the room how cool she was for being ok with it. She didn’t look particularly ok with it, but she didn’t say anything or try to block him as he did it again and added, “Look, she doesn’t even say a word.”
I’m horrified looking back at this moment, at the way he basically set a trap for her, declaring her cool for letting it happen and implying that if she tried to stop it she’d lose her fragile status. No one did anything or said anything about it. The conversation just went on. Some people may have even laughed. I wanted to be involved in the school plays and I wanted friends. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. Plus, I honestly didn’t know in that moment if this was just the norm for these people and I was the prude. So, I didn’t say anything either.
And therein lies the (multi-faceted) problem. Firstly, even women (and men) that aren’t performers are often in situations of seeking acceptance and belonging and so when they witness or experience something potentially inappropriate (like that 14-year-old me), they don’t want to rock the boat or hurt their own chances of being welcomed and valued by the group by standing up for themselves or others.
And then there’s the fact that our society has basically torched what used to be the accepted norms of morality and appropriateness and so you can witness something that your instincts tell you is wrong, and not know for sure whether it is ok with the people involved. Worse, women can be in situations that are getting out of hand and feel on some sad, media-influenced level like they’re supposed to want this, like there’s something wrong with them if this “straight-from-a-movie” moment doesn’t feel right. Often, they’re not sure how or when to say no and instead have to live with shame and regret afterwards.
So, what’s to be done? One of the most common things I’ve been hearing from those who are speaking up about this is that “actions speak louder than words” and that talking about it isn’t enough. So, what are the actions available to the entertainment industry and to us?
For one thing, the (mostly male) producers and studio executives at the top should stop believing that sexualizing women in a movie is absolutely necessary to its success. The two highest grossing films of 2017 by a mile were Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman and you know what they have in common? Female protagonists who are valued for their power and courage and intellect and never appear nude and don’t have to be sexualized to be appealing.
Likewise, actresses need to stop believing that doing sex scenes and nude photo shoots are just a necessity of the business, or that every intimate scene that appears in a script is there for artistic integrity. If that were true, incidents of female exposure in film wouldn’t outnumber male exposure three to one. Women in entertainment are being used and they don’t always even know it. I would love to start seeing passionate essays defending someone’s right to cover up, if they choose to. I would like to see that person respected, not ridiculed for expressing that opinion.
I am by no means saying that the answer to the question of how to stop sexual harassment is the responsibility of women. Actress Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory, Blossom) just posted a great video all about how to raise sons that will grow up to be more respectful of women than the producer everyone is now fixated on. Obviously, this is an issue that men and women have to be united in solving. But I do think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that women who allow themselves to be stripped down and sexualized for magazine covers and movies, who then publicly denounce men who treat women like they’re objects, aren’t contributing to a confusing mixed message about where a woman’s value lies and how we should approach and celebrate her.
Many LDS people reading this will probably be thinking that none of this is directly relevant to them, that it’s best to watch fewer movies and discourage our children from being involved in the arts at a national/professional level. Being less involved in the entertainment industry frees us of this problem. I don’t agree. One of the oft-suggested solutions to this problem within the recent dialogue in the entertainment industry is that we need more females in positions of power, more female directors, female producers and female executives. That’s absolutely true. But we also need more filmmakers (of both genders) with strong moral standards and values to start having a say and making truly powerful films that don’t require sex to sell.
Movies are too influential, too powerful for the answer for people of faith to be to leave the industry alone, to declare that Hollywood is already too far gone to be worth working in. Even if you personally elect not to own and TV and never go to the movies, what flickers across those big, beautiful screens will still shape the minds and the opinions and the souls of everyone else who watches. So, those that feel strongly about the way women are portrayed, about the way people value one another on screen and what we as a society celebrate; should be out there helping to tell the stories. We need the influence of more strong, principled artists (whether they are LDS or not). Even if you’re not one of them, you can be out there paying for tickets to the films that are truly worthy of our praise and attention. Tell the executives with your dollar bills how you want to be influenced.
Society made the cultural bed that it’s now lying in. Hollywood is condemning the culture it helped create. Who is really surprised that an atmosphere so willingly saturated with images and stories that demean, and reduce and sexualize females would lead to so many harassed and disrespected real-life women? But just because the bed is made, doesn’t mean we have to keep lying in it. Hollywood doesn’t have to keep lying in it either. Perhaps these celebrity voices rising up to demand something better will be just the beginning of the realizations of the things that have to change.
While the entertainment industry aches and shifts and hopefully comes out more self-aware for it, we need to learn to be a little more outspoken for goodness in our own spheres. We need to learn to be Carrie Fisher bold in defense of our friends who become victims–even in seemingly minor ways–of sexual harassment. We need to know that speaking up when it’s unpopular but important is ultimately worthy of respect and will lead to acceptance with anyone worth being accepted by. We need to learn to be a safe harbor where our loved ones know they can come to tell the truth and be comforted and protected and defended by us. We need to raise our daughters to be smart and bold, not just pretty and decorative.
Mostly, we need to stop believing that the ways things are is just the way they will always be. We can and should work towards more integrity in our portrayal of both men and women in media, toward a culture of such high and universal respect for one another that #MeToo becomes the genuinely shocking exception, not the frighteningly unsurprising rule.