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Culture pop

October 15, 2017

Power games


October 15, 2017

Culture Pop

It is perhaps a sign of the times that there are dirty old, powerful men in every office – be it square, round or oval – who think that it is okay to grab at parts of the female anatomy. “When you’re a star they let you do it,” US President Trump contended in a recording released last year, clearly a motto that Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein believes in.

When sexual demands are persistently made by those with the power to make or break those who aspire for success, they are about, what psychologists John Gottman and Neil Jacobsen (2007) call, emotional violence. As Xpolymer Dar says that in the new Verna soundtrack, ‘Power di game saari’.

Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most high-profile producers and allegedly prolific predators, has been accused by multiple women this week of sexual abuse. As the chorus grows, a startling pattern emerges: Weinstein repeatedly appeared at work meetings in a bathrobe, asking young female actors to submit to sexual acts. Most advances began in hotel rooms where fledgling actors were summoned for a pre-production exchange. According to accounts by several women, Weinstein would often start off by asking for a massage and then attempt to assault them sexually, refusing to take no for an answer. One of the women recalls that she refused him at least 18 times, but he went on switching between pleading and derision coupled with veiled threats and reminders of his position in the industry.

So how powerful is Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood? As the moving force behind both Weinstein Films and Miramax, Weinstein garnered 300 Oscar nominations. At the last count, both God and Harvey Weinstein were thanked in 34 Oscar speeches at Oscar ceremonies from 1993 to 2016. Only Steven Spielberg has garnered more references. Going by that tally, Weinstein is a demigod at the very least – even if with feet of clay.

He has also long been a Democratic Party supporter, moving in the highest circles. Weinstein donated liberally to the party and helped raise millions for Democratic Party candidates, hosting fund-raisers in his New York apartment for Obama and, more recently, Hillary Clinton during their presidential campaigns. Clinton has stated that she is “shocked and appalled” but it goes without saying that the Democrats should have dug deeper.

As details emerge, there are claims that Weinstein’s behaviour was not unknown to the film fraternity. In 2013, actor Seth MacFarlane announced the Oscar nominations for the best supporting actress in 2013 by cracking a telling joke: “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein”. MacFarlane has clarified that he made the quip because his Ted co-star Jessica Barth told him about Weinstein’s attempted advances. There are reports that Weinstein’s behaviour was “an open secret” in Hollywood, says the BBC. According to British producer Alison Owen: “You’re not going to go to the police. They’re not going to take that seriously. You’re not going to call a journalist because at that point Harvey had the whole media world in his pocket and no one was going to go up against Harvey Weinstein”. That’s what influence and privilege does. Power di game.

Hollywood is a long way away from Pakistan. But we all watch its movies. We also contribute to the coffers of power-pushers like Harvey Weinstein. A tiny amount surely, but as the famous Persian saying goes: Qatra qatra darya meshawad (A river is made drop by drop). I saw many of his movies, including Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love and True Romance. I am guessing that the making of some of these films involved the unsavoury intimidation of female actors who were not quite as influential at the time as the executive producer of the film.

Gwyneth Paltrow, who won the Best Actress Award for Shakespeare in Love and starred in Weinstein’s Jane Austen adaptation Emma, has spoken up recently about the time Weinstein summoned her to his suite at the Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel for a work meeting and suggested they go to the bedroom for a massage.

“I was a kid, I was signed up, I was petrified,” Paltrow has disclosed. Paltrow isn’t the only big name to spill the beans. There’s Angelina Jolie. Ashley Judd and Kate Beckinsale. The scandal has turned even darker with actor Rose McGowan publicly accusing Weinstein of raping her and accusing Amazon Studio chief Roy Price of ignoring her complaints against Weinstein earlier. The list will probably get longer over the coming weeks. Talking to Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Jane Fonda pointed out:“There is this male entitlement in offices and businesses all over the world…this is not unique, this goes on at the most horrendous highest levels. There was Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF”.

Sexual harassment is prevalent in most societies. And it’s not confined to the casting couch. Since 2010, Pakistan, in theory, provides women with support and security via the law. Yet, most women know that, in practice, the process is not that simple. Women who allege sexual harassment in the workplace are doubted, disparaged and then publicly tried on social media by thousands of self-appointed judges.

I wrote about sexual harassment in the workplace on these pages in August. Some readers wrongly assumed it was in support of Ayesha Gulalai. It wasn’t. It was about why women continue to stay silent while suffering sexual harassment and why the character-assassination of any woman for speaking up –whatever the merits or her case – merely contributes to keeping other women quiet. When power and abuse are coupled together, women find themselves cornered into the cult of secrecy. When they do speak up, they are belittled and shamed. This ties in with guilt for not protesting enough, of being concerned about losing one’s job or being isolated and sidelined in the industry.

Many of Harvey Weinstein’s victims are famous women, but he reportedly assaulted them when they were aspiring actors and hence far more vulnerable. Sexual predators thrive on the power they have over women. More than sex, this is about subjugation and humiliation. One doubts that Weinstein is alone. It is more likely that he is a symptom rather than an exception. Think Jimmy Savile. Think Bill Cosby.

The one positive thing that this episode has engendered is the fact that the stigma of sexual harassment is dipping. Even in Pakistan, whatever the fate of the Gulalai case may have been, it did encourage women to talk about their own sexual or gendered harassment.

When celebrities speak up on issues, they expand the space for discussion. Deepika Padukone and Momina Mustehsan did it by talking about depression. One hopes that even though Hollywood is thousands of miles away, the Harvey Weinstein case will encourage women to seek support from other women who have suffered sexual harassment and move on to being vocal survivors and not silent victims.

The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon

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