America loves to see a Hollywood villain go down—and Harvey Weinstein is a true Hollywood villain. Creepy, leering, looming, odious. Even in Miramax’s heyday, the company would have had a hard time conjuring a monster as vicious and bullying as the man revealed in back-to-back New York Times and New Yorker exposés.
So it’s been gratifying, if not altogether surprising, to see the rush of outrage and condemnation that has accompanied Weinstein’s thud from grace. In stunning succession, he has lost his job, his wife, his kids, his membership in the Academy, his status, his power. His alma mater has decided to revoke the honorary degree it once bestowed on him; the USC School of Cinematic Arts has rejected the $5 million guilt pledge he made to support a program for women filmmakers. Meanwhile, speculation is growing about the cascade of potential legal actions that could be lobbed at both him and his former company. “I expect a flood of lawsuits to be headed his way if they are timely and he hasn’t already bought off the victims,” Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times.
All this is as it should be. When a man preys on scores of women with impunity—“like a hunter with a wild animal,” as the actress Emma de Caunes described her encounter with Weinstein for The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow—he should be cast from his power perch and forced to contend with the fallout of his crimes. But as the outrage has crescendoed, with everyone from Hillary Clinton to former Weinstein protégé (and known boob grabber) Ben Affleck beating a righteous drum, it’s been frustrating that one of Weinstein’s most prominent co-conspirators has gone largely unacknowledged: the film industry itself.
By this I don’t just mean the retinue of aiders and abettors, silent witnesses and sleazy sycophants who enabled Weinstein’s reported thuggery for more than two decades. These men—and, yes, even women—blithely served up Weinstein’s victims for him, delivering them to hotel rooms and casting couches, and then dutifully cleaned up his messes; they should be held accountable. But the circle of guilt spreads well beyond the once-hallowed doors of Weinstein’s Tribeca studio all the way to the to the vast, glittering man-swamp that is the world’s film capital.
Hollywood, for all its liberal grandstanding, is a deeply sexist place. This statement is so obvious that it’s almost embarrassing to have to write it. But it bears repeating and dissecting, as the industry begins to grapple with the fact that that one of its most powerful members seemingly got away with raping, assaulting, and harassing tens of women for years on end. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the scandal, while toppling Harvey Weinstein (no small feat, to be sure), will leave the infrastructure that enabled his abuse intact.
So what does this infrastructure look like?
Well, for one thing, it’s male—very, very male. And white. White male. From the C-Suite to the big screen to the back lots, men dominate the film business in numbers that mirror—or even eclipse—other harassment-heavy spaces like Silicon Valley and Wall Street. This is evident in everything from the credits that scroll at the end of movies to the guy-centered plot lines of the movies themselves. But in recent years, researchers at institutes like the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and elsewhere have begun cataloguing the imbalance, both onscreen and off, and the figures are as dispiriting as they are shocking.
Consider the most recent year of movie making. In 2016, women held just 17 percent of the “behind-the-scenes” positions in the year’s 250 top grossing movies, according to the center’s annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report. This means that of the 3,212 people employed as directors, writers, editors, producers, and cinematographers, only 546 were women, with men claiming the remaining 2,666 spots. And the picture looks even uglier when you break the numbers down by job category. While women claimed 24 percent of producer slots, they held just 7 percent of director spots, 13 percent of writers, 17 percent of editors, and 5 percent of cinematographers. When it came to making music for films, women represented a piddling 3 percent of composers.
These figures suggest an Uber-esque level of awfulness, but what makes them all the more galling is that 2016 wasn’t a particularly bad year for Hollywood; it was, more or less, standard for how the film industry has operated since at least 1998, the year the center began tracking these things kinds of employment figures. Then, as now, only 17 percent of the behind-screen positions went to women, with producers holding 24 percent of the spots and writers holding 13 percent, exactly same as last year. Still, there was at least one category where the numbers fluctuated: directing. Back in 1998, 9 percent of directors were women—2 percentage points higher than in 2016.
Over the years, the men who run the industry have reportedly tried to minimize the significance of this disparity by throwing the blame back on, well, women. In the case of directing, in particular, “[t]hey contend that the pool of female talent is too small and that women are not interested in directing action and comic book movies—and have even suggested women can’t handle big budgets,” journalist Jessica P. Ogilvie wrote in an extensive LA Weekly report on Hollywood’s serial exclusion of women. Or, as the writer-director Angela Robinson put it, “People think women can’t run a set, that they can’t handle it.”
These are ridiculous claims, made all the more so by statistics that dispel at least part of their inaccuracy. Between 2002 and 2014, women directed a quarter of the dramatic competition films at Sundance, the famed film-word incubator. Meanwhile, top film schools, like NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, say that women are graduating from their programs in roughly the same numbers as the men who then waltz off to coveted production jobs and studio gigs. This certainly wasn’t always the case; as recently as 10 years ago, women occupied closer to one-third the seats at places like Tisch. But even at those levels, we should be seeing women represented in higher numbers across the film landscape, and the fact that we’re not, media watchers argue, is because of rampant gender discrimination and old boys’–club bias.
What this means in practice is that the film industry remains a shamefully warped and backward place. Rather than catching up with the times, it operates more like a self-sustaining discrimination loop: women are kept out of the industry because of sexism, and, because they’re left out, sexism is able to flourish. And this sexism plays out across the system, in everything from the clichéd story lines that pass for plots to the numbers of women represented on screen to the way these women are treated on their way to the screen.
Here, once again, studies help confirm what we already intuitively know. In 2016, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women represented just 29 percent of the protagonists featured in the 100 top domestic films—an underwhelming number on its own terms, but all the more so considering that it also represents a “recent historical high.” In 2014, for instance, women had to settle for a humiliating 12 percent. Nor did women fare much better in some of the broader, more forgiving categories the study measured. When the Center analyzed the number of “speaking characters” in films—that is, people who simply opened their mouths—women accounted for just 32 percent. And the majority of these lucky, speaking ladies? They were white.
Still, if the presence of women in film is limited and depressing, their portrayal is even more so, with women routinely flattened into two-dimensional cutouts who are, on the whole, younger, more attractive, more naked, and more sexualized than their male counterparts. The center’s studies have also found that women are less likely to be portrayed as leaders and less likely to have an identifiable occupation—but more likely to have a known “marital status.”
A visit to websites like Lady Parts or Casting Call, the Project, which track some of the more egregious instances of casting-call sexism, offers a particularly vivid peek into the dungeon of female film-world representation. These calls read like a parody of the late-night ramblings of really awful frat boys—but, apparently, the requests for women who are “sexy, young, and feisty; could be perceived as a prostitute” or “cute, but very smart,” or “beautiful, blonde, tall, thin…every boy’s dream girl” are all too real. In one well-known incident, a casting company posted a call on Facebook that read, simply:
Casting Whores for Quentin Tarantino project. Caucasian, non-union females, ages 18–35.… No highlights, natural eyebrows, natural breasts, natural hair color to be true to the period. Dress sizes 2–8.
Such is the swamp in which Harvey Weinstein brewed and stewed, swam and frolicked, gathered strength and took cover for decades. While it may not explain the full, nasty measure of his deeds, it nonetheless gestures toward the toxic environment in which a predator like Weinstein could not only survive but thrive. And it begins to suggest a way forward.
In the days since the Weinstein story broke, women across the film industry have been speaking out, demanding an end to Hollywood’s culture of smarm. This is hardly the first time women have sounded the alarm; they’ve have been whispering and shouting, taking their tales of humiliation and harassment to bosses and HR departments and even newspapers for years. But with their new bullhorn, women have been putting the many other accused gropers and serial harassers in Hollywood on notice. “Listen up, creeps of Hollywood. We know who you are,” Samantha Bee warned in a fierce monologue. “Women talk to each other. And we talk to journalists. And we talk to lawyers. It’s 2017. We don’t have to put up with this shit.”
This is heartening, even thrilling, and one can only hope that, as the film industry does some serious soul searching, it will put rigorous mechanisms in place to ward off and weed out perpetrators, from the high-ranking studio mogul to the stalker holding the boom pole. But as an absolute, low-bar minimum? As institutions like the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences try to appear pro-active and evolved by revoking Weinstein’s membership, they also need to stop rewarding other known and accused harassers with Oscars, as they did just months ago with Casey Affleck.
Still, if the film industry is going to change, really change, the whole ecosystem needs to be transformed, quickly and dramatically. It’s not enough to pluck the most egregious offenders from the swamp when they behave in criminal or disgusting ways. Women—and I mean all women, not just the white ones who tend to occupy the few spaces that exist—need to be present and powerful and respected throughout the system, from the producer’s suite to the director’s chair to catering and janitorial services, where you know women are getting harassed—and underpaid and exploited—but no one is writing an exposé about it.
Otherwise, it doesn’t really matter that a major villain was just taken down. Hollywood, after all, is notorious for sequels.