Court of public opinion in session
When the Weinstein scandal broke a year ago, a British actress decided to tell her own story — here’s what happened next
Let’s sit down at the table with kindness, and work out where to go from here
Last October, when a friend sent me a text that simply read, “OMG Harvey”, I thought she was talking about the hurricane that had devastated Houston two weeks previously. But then another friend e-mailed me: “How much do you know?” As it turned out, quite a lot.
It had been almost 20 years since I’d sat opposite a friend in a café in Paris and watched her go to pieces as she told me how Hollywood’s most powerful film producer, Harvey Weinstein, had set up a meeting with her in his hotel and then exposed himself. There had been other friends, since, too. Awful, horrible stories. But nobody in the industry really knew all the details. Besides anything else, we were all too scared to talk.
My own story, which I told in print almost exactly a year ago, was tame compared with those of my friends. There was an offer to engage, followed by a loose threat that, if I turned him down, neither I nor my husband [actor Ioan Gruffudd] would ever work again. That’s not rape. That’s not even attempted rape. But it did support the hypothesis that we all believed about Weinstein and the very thing he was denying — that for years he had been blacklisting people who didn’t agree to sleep with him.
I wanted people to know this. I wanted to support the women who had done the unthinkable — the ones who had been the first to jump — who had told their stories with no guarantee that anybody would support or believe them. The Telegraph gave me a deadline for the next day, and I just wrote — almost without thinking. I called my husband in Australia to tell him what I was doing and he was distraught. “But why?” he kept asking. We were a family that was entirely dependent on the entertainment industry to survive, he kept saying. What about the backlash?
What if nobody hires either of us again because of it? What if he comes back? I knew all this. But how would I forgive myself if I just sat and waited it out — and it failed and everything went back to normal? The backlash came quickly, although it was less upsetting than I had thought. Almost all of the attacks were on me, not my husband or kids, about which I was relieved. Many wondered why I would want this kind of attention, or simply labelled me a wannabe. But I also started receiving the most extraordinary emails. A lot were from women I’d known for a long time but never known they’d also had a Harvey experience. Some were passed on from strangers, eager to tell similar stories. And a lot, unexpectedly, were from men. One scriptwriter told me, in an e-mail, he was ashamed that Weinstein had once made him cry. Another said: “Just remember we are all you, at this minute. Harvey has touched all of our lives, and not in a good way.” Mostly, they couldn’t believe it was finally OK to talk about it.
After the dust had settled, though, a gnawing feeling began to kick in. I’d told my story. I’d insisted that others were telling the truth. But Weinstein was still on the loose — admittedly fired from his company and in a retreat somewhere, but free. And, most frustratingly, nothing substantial seemed to have been altered in Hollywood as a result of the revelations. Character breakdowns from casting directors still called for actresses to be “sexy”. The f-word — “f***-able” — was still whispered in the offices and halls of the big television studios in Burbank.
Change takes time, it’s true. But the slow pace of it and the feeling that, in the end, nothing had been achieved was highlighted by the “more of the same but worse” that seemed to be happening on the Hollywood A-listers stage. A group named Time’s Up, which raised a lot of money for victims funds, asked everybody to wear pins on the Golden Globes red carpet in February, showing they were “against sexual harassment”.
They also requested that all the women wear black as a mark of … actually, I’m not sure what it was a mark of, because nobody really explained it.
Some also brought along their very own “plus one” in the form of a “normal person” who had been the victim of sexual assault. I could see what they were trying to do — but it felt misguided and cringeworthy.
Actress Alyssa Milano brought back Tarana Burke’s 2006 hashtag #MeToo, a stroke of genius if there has been one in this whole affair, since suddenly the movement was no longer confined to Hollywood and women everywhere were able to tell their stories. But while Weinstein had, or has, at least 100 accusers, and witnesses to boot, as the #MeToo frenzy took off and people with fake names and avatars (and perhaps grudges to bear) began throwing virtual stink bombs into the public arena, the certainty that an accuser was in fact telling the truth began to wane.
And this is where I feel we’re stuck. The criminal court of law, with its due process and right to anonymity and promise that a person is innocent until proven guilty, has gone by the wayside.
What we have now is Twitter and Facebook, the court of public opinion where anybody, for any reason, can tap on a keyboard and ruin a reputation forever. And they will. It’s human nature. You can’t say, “Oh, but if the men would just keep themselves to themselves, we’d be able to sort this out”, because it’s not that simple. Because what one person considers to be offensive is less so for another.
Just read any random thread on Twitter to see how this works. Not every witness is credible. This system is going to catch the wrongly accused, along with the justly accused. And we have absolutely no way of knowing which is which.
What to do? Well, we need to stop making it a partisan affair, for a start. It’s not a man’s problem. Or a woman’s problem. If Hollywood is the microcosm whence this discussion began, then I can say that, as much as I have come up against men who have made it clear I won’t get past them without giving them what they want, I have also come up against women who have said I won’t get past them simply because they don’t like me.
Anywhere you have a system of power, you have the opportunity for abuse. And the internet has given us the power to speak out against that abuse where we had none before. Because of anonymity; because of the sheer numbers involved.
All we’ve done so far is open the door and let people in. People without power now have a voice. This is a great thing. Let’s use it. Let’s sit down at the table with kindness, and work out where to go from here.