Happily Harvey Weinstein is dethroned, sadly it exposes how powerless Hollywood’s most powerful actresses are
Sometimes victoryhas the bitter taste of defeat. Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein got fired this week, as an NYT investigative story into decades of his predatory behaviour unchained an escalating series of complaints of sexual harassment. Among feminists, this taking down of a monster should feel very pleasurable but somehow it doesn’t.
One reason is that it has left the female heroes more rather than less embattled. Look at the comments section of any media or social media and you will find such a mass of disillusionment directed at the A-list superstars who are role models for so many women, because of their portrayal of empowered women.
Meryl Streep has had more Oscar nominations than any other actor, her career championed for 20 years by “God Harvey Weinstein” as she now infamously proclaimed him. To her, the anguished question is, did you just look the other way?
Gwyneth Paltrow has disclosed that when she was 22 years old the producer led her to his room, for a massage. It petrified her. In rebuffing him she feared for her career. But she was the goddaughter of Steven Spielberg! So how come she didn’t do more to make sure that “Uncle Harvey” as she called him then, didn’t exploit other actresses, who didn’t have rich and successful parents for backup or Brad Pitt for a boyfriend?
Even Ashley Judd whose revelations really set the ball rolling on the dethroning of Weinstein, is being cruelly to prevent sexual abuse in the first place, they are the ones being held responsible for not making sure it didn’t happen to others.
The bigger reason for disquiet is how sexual harassment was institutionalised so that company executives, lawyers, members of media and the Hollywood fraternity served as “honeypots” and collaborators. The silencing, the abuse of power and privilege, the system of protecting the abuser not the abused, we just don’t know how wide and deep this toxic superstructure runs in our industries, communities, families. One monster down, we worry how many others are preying away untouched.
In the Mira Nair film Monsoon Wedding, when it first comes to light that an uncle whose munificence lifts the boat of many in the family, also molests young girls in the family, they don’t quite know what to do about it. Sexual crimes within the family cause so many casualties. In being uncovered they throw up so much filth that no one in the vicinity escapes soiling. In standing by her husband, the uncle’s wife becomes tainted with guilt even though hers may be just another sort of victimhood.
But in the face of all the turmoil, one fact remains pure and true: in the light the next generation will be safer than the last was in the dark. In the Mira Nair film the ousting of the uncle from the family means its younger girls are less at risk. You can argue the punishment is not enough but it is deterrence for the crime. The pillorying of Weinstein in the people’s court means a safer workplace for young female actors, not all of them, but many of them. Enough for it to really, really matter.
Thinking through the metaphor of Hollywood as one big family spread far and wide, a woman feeling hapless in the face of sexual harassment in Dehradun or Bengaluru can experience a connection with Evelyn Salt, Lara Croft, Pepper Potts that gives her the strength to protest, or at least survive and thrive. Hence the degree of disappointment with say Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow. The logic goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
The most sorrowful revelation of the Weinstein scandal is how little power even the most powerful actresses have. Although here at home A-listers like Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt and Anushka Shetty appear too strong to be silent victims, the scandal has taught that appearances can be exceedingly deceptive. It’s difficult to be happy that Weinstein is toast because of an atavistic fear that monsters like him are secretly feasting away all around.