Three-D Issue 29: Weinstein in the news: gender, economics, institutions

In 2013 actor and comedian Seth MacFarlane announced the Oscar nominees for best performance by an actress in a supporting role. After he read out the names of established and newer actors including Sally Field, Jacki Weaver and Amy Adams he dryly observed: “Congratulations. You five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” This brief scene (only 30 seconds in length) perfectly encapsulates the Gordeon Knot of industry economics, career mobility and gendered power relations that has just recently been severed by the investigative journalists who broke the Weinstein story.

Macfarlane’s loaded quip fleetingly exposed the hidden but commonly recognized sexual and emotional labour operating behind the professional labour of people working in the movie business. It seemed that attributes for industry success included pretending to be attracted to those in power and learning to navigate, avoid, ignore or manage unwanted sexual attention with grace and finesse. It also included managing the assumptions of others (rivals, critics, co-stars and even audiences) that film roles and accolades were the result of traded sexual favours over and above talent, training and work. The title of a 1991 documentary- Sex for Jobs in Hollywood – featuring Helen Mirren and Bo Derek among others, bluntly summarized the problem for women who needed to manage both that perception and its reality on a regular basis.

The emergence of allegations of historical sex crime against Weinstein, television star Bill Cosby and the disclosure of Donald Trump’s sexist attitude towards lower status women have highlighted the various ways in which elites successfully evade, manage or rebuff public and journalistic scrutiny over the short and longer term. The Weinstein case especially foregrounds the economic dimension of the representation of gender and gender relations in the public sphere because so much of the coverage is devoted to a “casting couch” culture which was used, at the very least, to “explain” the compliance of women (and men) with the directive to say nothing about sexual exploitation. Reports noted that the casting couch has long been part and parcel of the movie business, that insiders assumed that women traded sex for roles or were “paid off” to remain silent after a sexual encounter.

The wider economics of the systematic exploitation of women in the industry was outlined by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor who described a culture of facilitation: “There were logistics with the hotels, assistants who set it up, there were travel agents, there were people who arranged the meetings. There are even accounts of…executives having to wait downstairs in the lobby, and when the women came down, they would be helped with casting and finding agents…” It’s rare that the organizational management of women, women’s bodies and women’s labour is rendered this explicitly. Rather than view this informal and sometimes ad hoc machinery of woman-trading as an anomaly it might be more useful to think of it as indicative of wider forces at play. In other words, sexual harassment is the result of so much more than the localized actions of gendered individuals who deviate from accepted codes of behavior. Drawing on the language of feminist organizational theory we might say that masculinist principles dominate the authority structures which dictate the flow of finance, production, casting and even distribution. Monstering Weinstein is a mistake because we lose sight of this bigger picture.

Equally, if we focus too closely on why individual women didn’t break cover for reporters earlier the bigger picture fades. This question of why women don’t go public sooner or protest more loudly is often raised. Kantor addresses this directly: “…there is something really unfair in sexual harassment reporting. In the course of reporting the story, some of the alleged victims would say to me, ‘How come it’s my job to address this? I was the victim. I don’t necessarily want to go public. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why do I have to do this?’” Speaking out becomes yet another job for women to do and the risks of being misrepresented or damaged further are huge and unpredictable.

Feminist media studies has an honourable record in describing the constraints under which women work when they either choose, or are forced through circumstance, to speak about their mistreatment by elite men. Feminist analyses of the news coverage of sexual exploitation by those in power include sharp accounts of Bakker/Hahn, Clinton/Lewinsky, Packwood/-multiple complainants and Thomas/Hill. These consistently show that women who speak out are faced with routinely sexist treatment in the news which robs them of respect and diminishes their experience. Many studies also gesture towards the economic and career-limiting frameworks within which the rejection of sexual advances took place and the possibility that these women will never be taken seriously again. This scholarship is vitally important because the economic positioning of women in certain industries and institutions and the narrativization of their conduct within them impacts on the way we understand ourselves as citizens, social actors and political subjects.

Taken individually these cases illustrate the variety of ways in which women’s voices have been silenced, their credibility undermined and their bodies objectified. On a case by case basis they allow us to test the application of academic theories about the gendering of news. And viewed cumulatively we can also see the emergence of a much larger pattern which is the grotesque systemic disparagement and silencing of women’s voices in the industry, institutions and the public sphere across time. The Weinstein coverage demonstrates how economic inequalities, as well as those of gender, are dramatically played out in the news. The overall conclusion is that the public sphere and its dynamics of denigration and disrespect towards women who complain are problematically organised along fault-lines embedded in the socio-economics of the public and institutional realms. As Nancy Fraser has argued: gender is a two-sided category which contains both a cultural and an economic face.

Posted by Einar Thorsen