Illusions of power

Three years after #MeToo and #TimesUp, is Hollywood still failing women?

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It was October 2017 when the New York Times, and then the New Yorker, published the devastating exposes of sexual assault and rape by Harvey Weinstein that turned the #MeToo movement into a tsunami. Megastar after megastar revealed their own stories of abuse or harassment, and the world seemed to finally sit up and take notice of the daily reality of many women’s lives. Executives expressed horror, studios pledged support and a flurry of predators were fired or even – in Weinstein’s case – prosecuted. But more than three years on, has anything fundamentally changed?

Actually doing the work is a lot more hassle than tweeting a few positive memes.

Even as conservative commentators rage that #MeToo has “gone too far” or that it poses some sort of existential threat to the functioning of society, activists fret that not enough has changed to prevent another Weinstein from preying on vulnerable people. After all the headlines and the statements of support and the black dresses at the Golden Globes, have we really moved on?

Many of the structures that enabled Weinstein and others like him remain in place. Powerful producers and directors in Hollywood are still overwhelmingly male. They can still make or break your career with a word in the right ear. You could be launched to superstardom because a man liked the impression you made in your audition or over lunch or drinks. You could still find every door closed to you because the same man told people you were “difficult”. And if that man puts you in a situation in which you feel uncomfortable or openly propositions you, you might still feel pressured to go along with it because offending him could end your entire career, and because the chances of anyone believing you when you say he acted inappropriately is still extremely low without multiple other accusers.

While the reactionaries worry that #MeToo is some sort of anti-male crusade that sees men’s lives destroyed by vengeful or lying women, that doesn’t seem to be reflected in reality. Louis CK admitted the truth of accusations that he had masturbated in front of female peers without their consent and announced that he was stepping away to “take a long time to listen”. He was back and performing about a year later. Many of the men accused in that first flurry of publicity, and since, denied the claims against them and show no obvious signs of career fallout. Heck, Roman Polanski is still making films, winning awards and working with A-listers – and he was convicted of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Where is this trail of destroyed men that so concerns the critics?

While removing existing abusers and standing up for their victims is part of the point of #MeToo, it is not the main focus for campaigners. The people at the coal face of the movement are trying to change the way filmmaking is done so that women – and other underserved minorities – will have a voice in proceedings and exploitation of any group by another becomes unthinkable.

“We look at film, we look at theatre and we look at television,” says Dame Heather Rabbatts, chair of Time’s Up UK, one of the organisations that sprang out of the #MeToo movement. “Many of the participants are moving across all those three. So Time’s Up UK is really trying to ensure that not only do we make those workplaces safe, but also that we try and shift the culture in film, television and theatre. And to shift that culture we fundamentally believe that we need to have equity. In other words, we need to have a much better balance between men and women, people of colour, LGBT people, people with disabilities.”

So how do you shift a culture? First you focus on specific areas of concern that might have specific solutions, and hope that the attitudes you encourage there radiate outwards. Take, for example, sex scenes – often a source of stress for the young actors asked to bare their flesh or simulate intimate conduct as the price of doing business. There are endless stories of regret with the result: Last Tango In Paris, for example, saw star Maria Schneider speak out about the infamous butter scene, saying that she felt “humiliated”. She said that even her co-star Marlon Brando felt “manipulated” by director Bernardo Bertolucci. More recently, Ruth Wilson left her hit TV show The Affair over, reportedly, a growing discomfort with the degree of nudity required and the lack of context for it.

To address all of this, “intimacy co-ordinators” are now used on many productions, to liaise between actors and directors and make sure that everyone is clear on what they’re being asked to do, and comfortable with it. In the same way that stunt co-ordinators ensure that no one is physically injured while performing stunts  – hopefully – intimacy co-ordinators should make sure that no one is demeaned by what is asked of them in a sex scene – but also that they can find a way to make the scene work for directors and producers. Big producers like HBO, Netflix and Amazon are normalising the use of these co-ordinators, and actors’ unions like SAG-AFTRA have called for their employment.

Campaigners are also trying to remove some of the excuses that Hollywood studios and production companies have always used for not employing more women in key roles. People like Alma Har’el, Ava DuVernay and Victoria Emslie have started to build databases of talented female filmmakers and crew, so that companies aware of their lack of gender balance can find the people they need. The hope is that we’ll see more women (and non-binary people, people of colour, people with disabilities and so on) in the corridors of power, and the locker-room atmosphere in which women and other young people are treated as objects should begin to disappear.

But there’s a long way to go. Most studio bosses, A-list directors, major producers and financiers are still men, and that’s going to take a long time to change. The danger is that Hollywood tries to pat itself on the back for a few charitable donations and public statements of support but doesn’t really change anything. If that seems overly cynical, consider the Producers Guild of America’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines, published in 2018 in the wake of #MeToo. Warner Bros announced that Wonder Woman 1984 would be shot under these terms, which involve sensible measures like creating a safe reporting structure and being alert for retaliation against whistleblowers. But to date it’s not clear that many other films have fully adopted the guidelines, with the request that all crew be trained to recognise and avoid sexual harassment perhaps a sticking point. Actually doing the work is a lot more hassle than tweeting a few positive memes.

Women vs. Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film by Helen O’Hara is published by Robinson

Main image: Director Patty Jenkins on set with Gal Gadot. Wonder Woman 1984 adopted the anti-sexual harassment guidelines published after Me Too

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