Kelsey Miller is the author of Big Girl an the creator of The Anti-Diet Project. All opinions are her own.
I was 24 years old the first time I interviewed to be Harvey Weinstein’s assistant — one of five, that is. As I was told during that meeting in 2008, I’d be newest and therefore lowest ranking, meaning the most exhausting and menial tasks would fall to me. Though, I was assured by the VP who interviewed me, all the assistants were on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. None of them were allowed to silence their cell phones overnight, or ride the subway, lest they be out of reach when Harvey called. Everyone had to terminate any standing appointments or commitments (like therapy or evening classes), and everyone had to bring their passports to work with them, should they be required to hop on a plane with Harvey. And yes, she continued without hesitation, the rumors were true.
The rumors I’d heard were not sexual in nature. To be clear, Harvey Weinstein never laid a hand on me personally. I didn’t get the job in 2008, nor was I hired when they called me in again, in 2009. That time, I met with a young man currently serving as one of Harvey’s senior assistants. This second meeting was one of the strangest I’ve ever had, in that it didn’t feel so much like a job interview as a not-so-subtle warning to run for the hills. Only a few times did he look me in the eyes, and when he did I saw his own were brightly bloodshot. In a flattened tone, he told me what I already knew — what I assumed everyone knew: That Harvey was a tyrant. That he screamed and threatened and demeaned his staff to the point of terror. That in taking this job, I would be signing up for a season of abject misery and abuse in exchange for the right to put “Weinstein Company” on my resumé. At the end of his weary spiel, the young man hunched over the conference table and shrugged. By now, any pretext of a formal interview had gone out the window, so I went ahead and asked: “Is it worth it?” He smirked.
“Well, it’s only for six months, and then you’ll quit or you’ll get fired. So, it’s not forever!”
I spent most of my twenties working in the film and television industry, primarily in assistant positions. When The New York Times and then The New Yorker released their respective reports on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment and assault of numerous women, my first response was far from shock. Certainly, the accounts of the women subjected to his alleged brutalities are shocking, and my heart begins to pound with rage even as I type this, recalling the anguish and despair reported in their telling. But while his alleged actions are unspeakable, the fact that he got away with them should surprise absolutely no one.
Weinstein’s sexual abuses were apparently an “open secret” in Hollywood, but his abusive tactics of the non-sexual kind were no secret at all. The same is true for other high-powered men in his industry. Shortly after my last meeting at The Weinstein Company, I interviewed to be one of Scott Rudin’s assistants. “Pretty much everything you’ve read is true,” the HR manager told me. Indeed, Rudin’s behavior had been detailed by outlets like Gawker and The Wall Street Journal (under the headline, “Boss-Zilla!” which must have seemed clever back in 2005). I remember that the job description didn’t require too many specific skills, but candidates did need “a thick skin.” In my interview I was told, among other things, that he occasionally threw objects at people when he was angry, which was often. On the upside, she promised, I would come through the experience with even tougher skin, and Scott Rudin Productions on my resumé. Again, I didn’t bat an eyelash.
This is not to say that being a verbal and physical abuser makes you a sexual abuser as well (nor am I implying that Rudin is guilty of Weinstein’s alleged sexual crimes). It is to point out that abuse, period, has always been tolerated. More than that, it’s considered a rite of passage in the entertainment industry. The hellacious boss and the traumatized assistant. Scrooged, Swimming With Sharks, The Devil Wears Prada — it’s a trope! And while sexual harassment, coercion, and assault exist in a different category, they too are old and familiar themes in Hollywood, both on and off screen.
Exhibits A-C: Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen. These are just some of the Hollywood power players to face public outcry over their alleged sexual crimes. (One news item which was largely overshadowed by Weinstein last week was that of Renate Langer, a German actress who told The New York Times that Polanski raped her when she was fifteen. She is the fourth woman to accuse him of sexual assault.) In nearly all these cases, the allegations were not "open secrets," or secrets of any kind. They were reported. The information was publicly available. News outlets published details on Cosby as early as 2005. Allen's daughter Dylan reported being molested by her father in 1992. While her story was largely overshadowed by Allen's other scandal (his marriage to Dylan's sister, Soon-Yi — another deeply disturbing situation which no one seems much bothered by anymore) Dylan's allegations have always been publicly affirmed by her mother and siblings, particularly Ronan Farrow — the author of The New Yorker's report on Harvey Weinstein.
Allen contended with the PR difficulties of being an accused sexual predator, but — as with many of these men — his career was not demonstrably harmed or even interrupted. He puts out a movie every year, right on schedule, and always with an A-list cast.
Allen’s latest film stars Kate Winslet. When asked if she was concerned by the allegations against him, she told The New York Times last month, “As the actor in the film, you just have to step away and say, I don’t know anything, really, and whether any of it is true or false.” Five weeks later, she released a very different statement on Harvey Weinstein (this after the Times report, and dozens of other performers releasing statements of their own): “The fact that these women are starting to speak out about the gross misconduct of one of our most important and well regarded film producers, is incredibly brave and has been deeply shocking to hear.”
Like dozens of her peers, Winslet claims to be "shocked" by Weinstein's behavior. George Clooney, Julianne Moore, and Hillary Clinton all use the same word when describing the alleged 30-year history of harassment and abuse perpetrated by a man they all knew and worked with. And while they may being speaking up in solidarity, their statements are both pat and in some cases outright offensive. Indeed, it should be shocking that this man was able to assault and threaten women, so openly and routinely. It should be shocking that among his alleged targets are women like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, both the children of Hollywood elites and power players themselves, who, even so, felt cowed in silence by Weinstein's influence.
But to claim shock is to cast off any responsibility, complicity, or even suspicion. It is to say that stories like these are rare in Hollywood, when all evidence points to the contrary. That seasoned veterans like these could claim total ignorance to a systemic issue in their industry — one that is as old as the industry itself — is simply not possible. Casting couch? What's that?
"Shock" does nothing for the women Weinstein victimized. In using it, these celebrities seem more interested in defending themselves, and they are not alone. Perhaps Judi Dench and Meryl Streep's respective statements are more honest in that way. Dench declared herself "completely unaware," while in the same sentence noting that Weinstein had championed her career for 20 years. The majority of Streep's statement is spent repeating that, "not everybody knew" — especially not her. "I didn’t know about these other offenses: I did not know about his financial settlements with actresses and colleagues; I did not know about his having meetings in his hotel room..." And, she concluded, "If everybody knew, I don’t believe that all the investigative reporters in the entertainment and the hard news media would have neglected for decades to write about it."
In fact, there were investigative reporters who tried to write about it. Perhaps that's just another item on the list of things Streep didn't know, or else she doth protest too much. Either way, this statement serves no one but herself, and it's dismaying to see from an industry leader — especially one who claims to be an advocate for women in film.
Forget Hollywood for a moment, and look at statistics on the general population: According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives. The National Women’s Law Center reports that a quarter of all women surveyed have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, adding that 70-90% of them did not make a formal complaint. RAINN echoes this grim statistic when it comes to sexual assault, reporting that approximately 2 out of 3 assaults go unreported.
But why not? Why don't survivors report each and every assault? Why didn’t Harvey Weinstein’s accusers speak up years ago? Always, this is the first question, sputtered by those “deeply shocked” citizens, when these stories come to light. This time is no exception. People ask it despite the fact that — just as with Cosby and Allen — some of the women did speak up. As Mira Sorvino explained in The New Yorker piece, she reported Weinstein’s harassment to a female Miramax employee. The woman, Sorvino recalled, was not shocked at the event itself, but rather, shocked and horrified “that I had mentioned it.” After that, Sorvino said, her career was permanently damaged.
That is one of the many answers to this question. Women who report are often not believed, and even if they are, they're punished for talking. We don't require any further evidence of this, but Weinstein's accusers have provided plenty nonetheless.
I believe that is the ugly, underlying truth beneath this wave of disgust and righteous anger. No one who has payed even moderate attention to the news, to statistics, or to history can reasonably say they are astonished by this. Harvey Weinstein is no anomaly. He is an archetype. A predator with enormous wealth and power wields money and influence to cover up his crimes? That’s a very old story. Our response too is rote: surprise, anger, fist-shaking, and forgetting.
Harvey Weinstein is a symptom of sickness run rampant, not just in Hollywood, but everywhere, in all of us. It's an illness that blinds us to crimes committed before our eyes, and numbs our senses to the abuses of the powerful. I count myself among the infected too, make no mistake. I think of all the times I've used my Weinstein interviews as cocktail-party anecdotes, breezily recounting the horror stories I was told, and how I shrugged them off. I think of all the people who guffawed and rolled their eyes. That's crazy!
I ask myself what I would have done if someone told me he was a sexual predator, on top of everything else. And then I remember that someone did.
Years before the interview, I was assisting a director on a film — my first real job out of college. One night I stayed out after work with her and her friends, giddy just to be in their company. They started talking about a very famous actress with whom they'd recently been at a party. They'd been playing that drinking game, Never Have I Ever, and someone had said, pointedly: "Never have I ever blown Harvey Weinstein." The way they told it, the very famous actress rolled her eyes and took a drink. It was all in good fun, they said, and everybody knew anyway.
It's been ten years since I heard that story, and until last week I'd thought of it as merely gossip. I thought of it the way I'd heard it: Some nasty little tidbit you swapped behind the scenes — a classic Hollywood tale. In that version, it was an actress voluntarily trading sex for career advancement, and not a predatory producer committing sexual assault. That it could be the latter version never once occurred to me, until that very famous actress was one of those who came forward with her own story, after Weinstein was exposed.
If it took ten years and two exposés for me to realize how wrong, how inexcusably ignorant I was, then I have to ask myself one more thing: What if I had gotten the job? Say I was one of those harried assistants, fetching and carrying and doing anything I could to keep this monster from screaming at me. What if I'd been asked to send an actress to his hotel room, telling her it was a business meeting? Would I have let myself believe it was the truth? Would I have told myself to just keep my head down, worry about my own job, and let these women take care of themselves? Would I have been one of the many, many people who helped him, through passivity and fear, to hurt so many women?
I'll never know. But I can guess.