Harvey Weinstein & the Culture of Silence

 

To the Teacher:
 

The  news about Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood film producer who has been accused of harassing and assaulting women over many years, raises important issues for young people to consider.

Be aware that this subject may bring up strong emotions, especially for students who have personal experience with harassment or abuse. The activity below does not directly elicit students’ own experiences with abuse; it focuses on the Weinstein case and the wider issues it raises. Nevertheless, consider whether this subject is one your students are prepared to discuss. If you are concerned that sensitive issues may come up in discussion, you might ask a counselor or social worker to be present.  Please also read these guidelines for teaching about controversial or upsetting issues.

This activity uses a circle format to engage students in sharing their thoughts and reactions to the Weinstein case (using tweets from a variety of sources).  Use the backgrounder below – and the optional student reading in the lesson—to inform students and correct any misinformation they might have.

 


 

A Backgrounder for the Teacher


It was an open secret in Hollywood.  The rumors of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct had been doing the rounds for decades.  He was said to prey on young women—actresses and models wanting to get into the industry and assistants working at the Miramax and Weinstein companies.  He allegedly lured them into a hotel room or other private space, then appear naked or in a bathrobe, cajoling them into giving him a massage or trying to force himself on them in other ways. 

According to reports, many people knew about Weinstein’s behavior, but the producer was too powerful to be outed.  For years, it seemed he was invincible.  But all that changed on October 5, 2017, when  the New York Times finally broke the story.  Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published an article titled Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades.  Five days later, Ronan Farrow followed with a well-researched article in the New Yorker, in which “multiple women share[d] harrowing accounts of sexual assault and harassment by the film executive.”  It quickly became of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history. More than 30 women have come forward with charges of sexual harassment against Weinstein.

Sixteen former and current executives and assistants at Weinstein’s companies told Farrow that they witnessed or had knowledge of unwanted sexual advances and touching at events associated with Weinstein’s films and in the workplace. All sixteen said that the behavior was widely known within both Miramax and the Weinstein Company.  According to Farrow, Weinstein got away with his behavior for so long because he had a web of enablers around him.  They helped him lure young women into what Farrow called “professional meetings that were little more than thin pretexts for sexual advances.”  They paid off these same women and intimidated them into silence.  In this way they insulated Weinstein from the repercussions of his behavior.

According to the reports, people had kept silent about Weinstein’s behavior for years because they were afraid of retaliation. Weinstein was powerful enough to ruin your Hollywood career, make you an outcast in the business.  When Hollywood insiders talked with reporters about what they knew, they made sure to keep his name out of it.  In an article in Variety in 2015, Actress Ashley Judd famously talked about a studio mogul sexually harassing her in the late 1990s.  She now says that this was Weinstein, but back then, she was a afraid to mention him by name.

Once the reports about Weinstein’s abuse were made public, a number of men in the entertainment industry came forward to say that they had long known about the producer’s behavior, but had failed to speak out against it.  Some expressed regret  for this failure to stand up against sexual harassment and abuse.

But behind the scenes, women had tried to warn other women about Weinstein in what are known as whisper networks. “We have to do that.” Emily Best, a film producer, explained.  “The law doesn’t protect us.  The culture doesn’t protect us. So we have to protect ourselves.”  These unofficial information networks have always existed, used by women to warn other women of men like Weinstein, who abuse their power to prey on young women.

On a couple of occasions, the whispers and rumors about Harvey Weinstein made their way beyond Hollywood. In 2013 comedian Seth MacFarlane, when revealing the Best Supporting Actress nominations for an Oscar, quipped “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.”  In 2012, the show 30 Rock, also contained references to Weinstein’s predatory behavior.  The character of Jenna claims she “turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions."  In an episode later that season, Jenna shares "Look, I get it. I know how former lovers can have a hold of you long after they're gone. In some ways, I'm still pinned under a passed-out Harvey Weinstein and it's Thanksgiving."  And as far back as 2005, singer Courtney Love was caught on camera giving advice to young women in Hollywood.  She hesitated for a moment, saying “I’ll get libeled if I say it” but then continued “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons, don’t go.” 

Love claims she was shunned by powerful Hollywood agents after speaking out in this way. This is a common experience for women who speak publicly about sexual abuse: They often face shaming and disbelief.  They might face a social backlash and often pay a price professionally as well.  In many cases, the men accused face no consequences. According to Laura Bates, who created the Everyday Sexism Project, “When women do report sexual harassment, the outcomes are terrible. Over two-thirds of young women are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace now, today. Eighty per cent of them felt unable to report it, but three-quarters of the ones who did said that nothing changed afterwards, and 16 percent said that the situation got worse.”

But in the Weinstein case, after a flood of on-the-record allegations of sexual abuse and even rape, things have changed: Weinstein was fired from his company and expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  He has been ostracized by longtime friends and collaborators in the entertainment industry. Police in New York and London have opened up criminal investigations into the allegations of his sexual misconduct. 

All this comes on the heels of accusations of alleged sexual misconduct and assault by other public figures in media and entertainment like actor Bill Cosby, Fox host Bill O’Reilly, and Fox CEO Roger Ailes. According to the New York Times, O’Reilly paid $32 million in a single settlement with a woman he had harassed at Fox.  The network did not at that point fire O’Reilly; instead they renewed his contract for $100 million. It was only after the Times exposed the settlement – and many other charges and cases against O’Reilly - that Fox fired their top host.

Last year, Donald Trump also became embroiled in controversy over sexual harassment after a tape was released of then-candidate Trump boasting about his sexual aggression against women. At the time, several women came forward with allegations against Trump.  They described encounters in which Trump groped them, kissed them without consent, and put his hand up their skirt.  Trump and his team responded by belittling the women who came forward and calling them liars.  Trump threatened to sue them and the organizations that reported on them, calling their allegations “fake” and “total fabrication.”

The stories about these men have an eerie familiarity to them: successful, powerful men whose predatory behavior has been allowed to go unchecked for years; in some cases millions of dollars in payoffs and legal threats to silence potential whistleblowers, and rumors that circulate to warn and protect, when the larger culture does not.

In the wake of the Weinstein story, many women in Hollywood – and far beyond Hollywood – have demanded an end to the culture that tolerates sexual abuse.  Many women and men have spoken out against this culture.  A sexual harassment awareness campaign, #MeToo, inspired millions of women to post their own stories of abuse, shining a light on the  pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexual assault in our society.  In an ABC News-Washington Post poll,  54%  of women reported experiencing unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.  Of these, 80% said it rose to the level of sexual harrassment, and one-third said the behavior went beyond harassment to sexual abuse.

 



Gathering
 

Read the following quote by now 87-year old actress Tippi Hedren, who starred in two films directed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s:

“I’m watching all the coverage on Weinstein. This is nothing new, nor is it limited to the entertainment industry. I dealt with sexual harassment all the time, during my modeling and film career. Hitchcock wasn’t the first. However, I wasn’t going to take it anymore, so I simply walked away and didn’t look back. Hitch said he would ruin my career and I told him to do what he had to do. It has taken fifty years, but it is about time that women started standing up for themselves as they appear to be doing in the Weinstein case. Good for them!”

Invite students to share what they’ve heard about the scandal that broke in Hollywood about film producer Harvey Weinstein. 
 


 

Women and their Allies Tweet Out


Invite students to look over this handout, which includes a number of tweets about the Weinstein news.  Next turn to a partner and discuss

  • What is the story being told through these tweets? 
  • Is there anything about this story you didn’t know?
  • Is there anything about this story you have questions about?

In a go-round (using a talking piece if that is your practice), invite students to pick a tweet that resonates with them and say why.

Send a talking piece around a second time, asking for connections, reflections or additions about what was just shared (the addition can include adding another tweet into the mix). 

If it hasn’t been touched on yet, invite students to reflect on some or all of the following ideas

  • How a culture or environment can condone or cover up harassment
  • Why so many potential allies failed to speak up
  • Why it has been so so hard for women to come out and why it required courage to do so
  • Strength in numbers: The more people who speak up, the easier it becomes for others to follow suit

 


 

The Harvey Weinstein Scandal, in a Larger Context


If you feel students don’t have enough information to continue the circle or if many questions arise, consider having them read this handout, which outlines the Harvey Weinstein scandal and puts it in a larger context. 

Then ask students some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what you just read?
  • Did you learn anything new?
  • Why do you think it was so hard for women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein? 
  • Why did it require courage?
  • What changed things in the end, in this case?
  • What was the role of the media in both suppressing and exposing the Weinstein story? What impact did the media have on the issue?
  • Dismantling the culture that allows powerful people to prey on others requires everyone’s attention and action, not just action by those who were abused.  What actions did others take in the Weinstein case?
  • What can we ourselves do to challenge abuse and a culture that too often silences it?
     


Closing 


Invite students to share one thing they’d like to take away from today’s circle.