This week’s red skies over the UK were a stunning reminder that the world has few true natural borders; that Saharan sand doesn’t exist in some abstract form on the other side of the world and smoke from Portugal and Spain can affect our lives, no matter what we decide about Brexit.
The effects of Hurricane Ophelia should also have reminded us that causality can be temporal, as well as spatial. Events in Syria and Iraq today, say, the Kurds fleeing Kirkuk, might have repercussions tomorrow on the borders of Europe or even in the centres of our towns and cities a year from now. The world is inextricably linked around us but also through us. It’s only our own limitations that makes us compartmentalise reality, drawing lines where we decide our provincial interests end.
When the allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual conduct became public, the media began by treating it as through it too was a kind of strange atmospheric anomaly – some new Hurricane Harvey that had unexpectedly developed over the normally ultra-cool waters off Hollywood. The Weinstein story was an unwelcome reminder of less wholesome times and, as such, was quickly absorbed into the news cycle as the movie industry set about repairing itself by proving that Weinstein was the exception rather than the rule. The news itself became a parody of real news as various stars used it to channel their PR-scripted condemnations of the mogul. Shock, disgust and surprise were such common themes it was hard to believe that any of these people were themselves the product of the most cynical and exploitative businesses on the planet.
If most claimed they had not seen or heard a thing, a few stars were honest enough to admit otherwise. “I wish I had spoken out,” said Jane Fonda. “I should have been braver.” She was not alone. “There’s a lot of abuse in this town,” admitted Judd Apatow, underlining that Hollywood is filled with people who often choose not to jeopardize their careers by acting against institutionalised abuse. Weinstein didn’t have one or two enablers. He had a town filled with them.
It is often said that “Hollywoodland”, as the famous sign originally read, is a place unto itself, constructed around its own myths and fictions. In the wake of Weinstein, it certainly began creating a narrative that had nothing to do with the reality of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. After just a few days, it already feels like we’ve moved on. Some parts of Hollywood would have us believe that Harvey Weinstein exists in some kind of hormonal bubble; his urges somehow unique to him and his vast dimpled self.
Yet Weinstein, like those red skies over the UK this week, was always part of a global system. He was at the pinnacle of a business that more closely resembles a climate of incalculable complexity, beginning in the small towns where these incipient delusions are born. They are the delusions of fame and success that lead young people with good skin and great teeth into the paths of men with money, influence, and not so pure ambitions.
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None of that is to excuse Weinstein, but rather to point out that sealing Weinstein in his own story is a way to ignore the cultural archetype. Surely the shocking part wasn’t that a man of average looks should succumb to his worst instincts and commit grossly indecent acts. Such men exist in every town in all nations at all times. The shocking part is that we still have a system engineered to allow such men to act upon those instincts with impunity.
That’s why it is naive to think that Weinstein is the end of a tale which is as old as Hollywood itself. This scandal is, however, an opportunity to do more than condemn one or a few guilty men but look again at the system. The Hollywood dream is the Weinstein story, enmeshed in the fiction of the small-town nobody becoming the big-city somebody and using that power to get all that they desire. Hollywood’s wish fulfilment is the very same wish fulfilment found in the seedy depths of the Weinstein case; a story we all know and consume too readily. That, really, is the crux.
Hollywood offers dreams that have always been a form of moral escape as they are about flights of imagination. The psychology of Weinstein is also the psychology of the movies in which strength prevails, power is intoxicating, and sex a surrogate for deeper emotions. Most mainstream films are still defined by their male stars rather than their female co-stars. It’s still the Hollywood of the aging action hero (some now into their 70s) flirting with some young actress still in her 20s or 30s. Male super heroes cover up – Iron Man in a metal suit, Batman visible by only his eyes – while Wonder Woman strips off. Even in a film as modern as Blade Runner:2049, women are used as little more than holographic decorations. There is still something unwholesome about the power relationships that Hollywood chooses to reinforce.
Now, of course, these things aren’t found in isolation. Movies have a language and history, fed by older and broader culture and traditions. It would be naive (and, frankly, counterproductive) to simply attempt to change these things too quickly. You can’t stop a hurricane but you can alter the conditions that allow hurricanes to develop.
James Bond movies of thirty years ago might not have felt as misogynistic then as they do now and the same might be true of Bond films of today by the time we watch them after another thirty years. The point, however, is that there has been a cultural change. Humanity is a work in progress and we improve through a process of self-criticism. The liberation that some believed Hugh Heffner started with Playboy no longer seems quite so liberating now in the wake of his death. Just yesterday, his son, Cooper Hefner, appeared on American news and said that “when I take a step back and take a look at my dad’s life and other people’s lives, that have lived a healthy attitude when it comes to sex, it really comes down to individuals who are consenting in front of behind closed doors.”
It is questionable, of course, how far Heffner and Playboy represented or represents a “healthy attitude” towards sex. Rather, they both embody the postmodern malaise by which female liberation became the freedom of women to willingly do the things that men wanted of them rather than the things they wished to do themselves. We still see this in the movies and the movies reinforce what see in culture. “Well, perhaps it is about love,” we mutter whenever we see some ancient American billionaire who, no matter how shrivelled, wrinkled, bent, bowed or orange they are, always seem to be married to somebody tall, slender, and, most significantly, young.
We hold our tongue because the free choice of the wife is so damn difficult to explain given the ugliness of the husband. At what point does the offer of money become exploitative when the person taking the money lives in a state of poverty? Does “consent” really unlock the moral complications of first world males travelling to third world countries to exploit young women? In the wake of liberation, why is pornography more violent, demeaning, exploitative, and pervasive than it’s ever been?
These are hard questions for which none of us have obvious answers and that’s why the Weinstein story isn’t just a story about Hollywood or America. Exploitation of the weak and vulnerable isn’t an abnormality of living. It is still one of the primal forces that shapes our lives. It’s why the battle against men like Weinstein doesn’t end with Weinstein but continues today, when we can still hope to stop the storms of tomorrow from developing.