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The chasm between the seen and the not seen

Part 2

According to published reports, Harvey Weinstein warned starlets who wouldn’t grant him sexual favors that with one phone call he could derail their careers, and in some instances he did so.  There are similar reports about hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, restaurant owner Ken Friedman and other movers and shakers in ballet, opera, theater and other entertainments. All these men have denied all the non-consensual sex charges.  About the retaliation, though, they have all been mum. 

It’s a threat that has been so regularly used in Hollywood that it is a cliché: “You’ll never work in this town again.” 

But it’s still a credible threat, and to explain why I must first go a bit afield. For generations, the same threat has been regularly received from myriad bosses, for a variety of reasons ranging from declining an assignment to being insufficiently servile, by television and film writers who belong, as I do, to the Writers Guild of America. 

The Guild offers time-tested advice on how to respond: “Do what you want, because no matter how they treat you now, in the future when they need you they’ll call you.” We, the writers, are valuable in a way that the industry requires — that is, we’re somewhat irreplaceable. 

The entertainment industry functions on the obverse assumption that actresses are very replaceable.  In Hollywood there are so many beautiful and talented young women wanting to be among the “seen” — a domain that the bosses control — that to a boss it seems perfectly reasonable to view them as replaceable and, therefore, as individually vulnerable to pressure. So too with young female dancers, singers and waitresses. 

When an “unseen” actress begins auditioning in Hollywood, she quickly realizes that while her acting talent may be a match to the available roles, it may not get her to stardom.  Actress Kaitlin Doubleday, despite being warned, agreed to visit Weinstein in his hotel room: “I went up to his room because I was desperate and had been, on some level, since I first started acting, groomed by the world, by the industry and by people’s expectations that an aspiring young woman can achieve success only with the help of a powerful man.” The subtext to Doubleday’s statement, and to similar ones from victims in a variety of sex/power scandals, is the belief that entertainment is a very tough industry. 

That toughness is sometimes given by bosses as an excuse for their predatory behavior their willingness to hurt the careers of those who don’t accept  their advances, and their belief that anyone who doesn’t understand that “this is the way the world works” is a naïf or a simplistic moralist. 

Of a piece with those sentiments is that these male bosses generally don’t keep their conquests a secret. Top producers, directors, executives, and restaurant owners regularly brag to peers and underlings about the number and celebrity of the women they’ve bedded, as an index of their power and their ability to make and break careers. This tracks with recent physiological research about the effects on a brain of amassing power: it makes the person, as a recent article in The Atlantic put it, “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.” 

It is not the young women’s absence of moral fiber that makes them give in to the threat of “you’ll never work again in this town unless you sleep with me,” it is the justifiable fear of being prevented from ever succeeding.  And it doesn’t happen only to women with little experience or visibility, as several female Fox News on-air personalities found out to their chagrin when they resisted the demands of their boss, Roger Ailes, for sexual favors: their airtime was curtailed or ended.   

Ailes, as gatekeeper for his network, was his own enforcer, but in many instances bosses’ threats are hammered home by other players willing to do their dirty work and wreck careers of the non-compliant: the talent agent who realizes that there will be fewer bookings for his actors and actresses unless he stops representing the one who said no to the boss, the producer who finds his budget has shrunk because he hasn’t provided the boss with new “talent,” the restaurateur opening a new facility who so needs the blessing of the longer-established player that he yields to the demand not to hire a candidate who is otherwise perfect for the job …

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a complicit network to successfully threaten and sexually assault a young woman, and get away with the crime. 

 

Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.