October 17, 2017

In the last week, we have seen a near-constant deluge of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment allegations flooding the news now that Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most powerful gatekeepers, has been toppled.

It’s both jarring and numbing to experience this as a woman. It’s a persistent reminder of just how deep and insidious misogyny continues to be, that things haven’t gotten that much better for even the world’s most famous women. A reminder that to be a woman is to be doubted.

Plenty of people have dissected the moment, delving into important and pertinent topics like the power dynamics of sexual violence, “open secrets,” victim blaming, and how to deal when revelations of systemic sexual misconduct hit other industries. But as the initial shock of Weinstein’s extended abuse subsides, Hollywood is still left with a huge problem.

With every new horrific story about Weinstein’s abuse comes the realization that he is not the cause of Hollywood’s crisis; he’s a putrid, blistering symptom of it. There are untold numbers of Harvey Weinsteins in the world. Predators like them are able to thrive because of the kind of sexism that has kept women out of positions of power in Hollywood and in so many other walks of life.

“It’s quite clear that so many people knew [about Weinstein], and knew a long time ago and people in power knew,” Kalpana Kotagal, a Civil Rights & Employment attorney at the D.C. law firm Cohen Milstein, told me. (Earlier this year, she co-wrote an op-ed in Variety with Anita Hill about the need for Hollywood to embrace women and people of color.)

[Gillian] Thomas echoed this concern. “Harvey Weinstein worked for a company. He had an employer, and he had a board, and if they knew this was going on, that’s where the accountability needed to come in,” she said.

Having more women in positions of power in Hollywood would almost certainly increase that level of accountability. It could also prevent some of the repulsive ways women found themselves being used by Weinstein.
Ronan Farrow’s damning New Yorker article described how Weinstein would use a “honeypot”—a female executive or assistant who would be present at the beginning of meetings—as a way to lure victims. It goes without saying that aiding a monster in his abuse of helpless women is reprehensible, but this is also what happens when people are operating in service of the kind of unchecked, deranged patriarchy that festers when there aren’t enough women in positions of actionable power. 

As much as it is an issue of workplace culture, though, it can be a legal issue as well. “One of the things we as litigators think about is, what are the practices that well functioning companies put into place?” Kotagal described. “In some way a culture shift takes time, but it starts with workplace practices that function as they should.”

Along with increased federal management in Hollywood, there are other internal measures that can be put into place. Kotagal has been working with Stacy Smith, the founder and director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg, on an “equity rider”—a stipulation that A-listers can include in their contracts.

The hope is that stars, both in front and behind the camera, can leverage their power to demand better representation, help people like casting directors rethink secondary characters, and create an overall better pipeline for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized communities.

The full article can be accessed here.