How Hollywood is finally listening to its accusations of sexual harassment

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Last week, the Los Angeles film community was shaken when two key figures at Cinefamily, a popular nonprofit theatre on Fairfax Avenue, resigned after accusations of sexual harassment and assault circulated on social media. A few days later, Cinefamily announced that it was suspending its programming to conduct an investigation.

A disturbing local story but also another example in a larger one:

A generation after Anita Hill forced the term into the lexicon, Hollywood is finally taking sexual harassment seriously. Over the past 18 months, a string of powerful men in the industry, including Fox News chief Roger Ailes, the network’s top-rated star Bill O’Reilly and Epic Records chief executive L.A. Reid, have been ousted following allegations of inappropriate conduct with female employees.

Meanwhile, a younger generation of famous women has spoken out about their alleged experiences with abuse. Pop star Taylor Swift forcefully testified in court this month against a radio DJ she said had groped her at a meet-and-greet. Last year her peer Kesha waged a less successful legal campaign, claiming years of sexual abuse at the hands of her former producer.

Sexual harassment and abuse have become the story of the year, with new cases and accusations appearing virtually every week. In the same week that Cinefamily announced the resignations of co-founder Hadrian Belove and board vice president Shadie Elnashai, Buzzfeed ran a story about a woman who accused R. Kelly of beginning a sexual relationship with her when she was just 15, and on the Daily Beast comedian Tig Notaro addressed long-simmering rumours of impropriety by her former friend, Louis C.K. A few days later, the tech industry publication the Information reported that Amazon had investigated studio chief Roy Price for allegedly making lewd comments to a female producer.

The issue has also roiled Hollywood’s sister city, Silicon Valley, most obviously with the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, accused of fostering a toxic workplace culture at the ride-sharing company

It seems a remarkable shift considering the outcome of the notorious Access Hollywood tape in October. When the Washington Post posted a 2005 video in which then Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump boasted to Billy Bush about how fame allowed him to regularly assault women, many thought it would end Trump’s presidential bid.

It did not, although Bush was quickly fired from his job on “Today,” and nearly a year later he is still looking for work.

And Trump may be one of the forces behind the recent waterfall of revelations and resignations. His election has galvanised many women, says Karin Roland, chief campaigns officer at UltraViolet, a women’s rights group that organised protests against Bill O’Reilly.

“We live in a time when the president of the United States is a self-confessed sexual abuser,” she says. “To wake up to that reality is jarring. On the one hand, it’s incredibly risky to come forward, and that has not changed. On the other hand, the stakes are so plainly high if we don’t start speaking out about this.”

In the days that followed the release of the Access Hollywood tape last fall, not only did other accusers come forward with tales of groping and other inappropriate behaviour by Trump, but on social media many women, some of them famous, shared their own tales of abuse. Actress Rose McGowan accused an unnamed studio chief of rape.

Rebecca Traister, who writes about feminism and politics for New York magazine, likens the present moment to the aftermath of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in the fall of 1991. Though Hill, in one measure, failed – Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he still sits today – her testimony sparked a historic wave of women to run for office in 1992, dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”

“You have this population that is energised to fight back and to take some of the lessons of the past two years and turn them into longer-term progress,” Traister says.

After decades of mandatory human resource workshops, the public also seems less willing to shrug off abuse as “boyish” behaviour.

“The reality for a bunch of the cases is they haven’t just come out of the woodwork,” says Traister, noting that many were “open secrets” – or just out in the open, period. “There’s been pretty open discussion of the way that [entertainment executives] have dealt with women in ways that run somewhere from unprofessional to criminal. But there has not, until very recently, been any resonance when it comes to these complaints.”

It could be that Hollywood learned its lesson from its mishandling of the Bill Cosby case. Complaints against the comedian were widespread and reported in major outlets as early as 2005. But the mainstream press was reluctant to pursue them, and the public seemed unwilling to entertain the possibility that Dr. Huxtable might be a sexual predator. When a stand-up set nine years later by Hannibal Buress went viral and encouraged a deluge of accusers to come forward, the story was fuelled, in part, by shame over how much of it was already known.

Likewise, Gabe Sherman’s 2014 biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room, alleged that, among other indiscretions, Ailes offered a female producer a raise in exchange for sexual favours. But it was Gretchen Carlson’s 2016 lawsuit charging Ailes with firing her for rebuffing his sexual advances that inspired other women, including star anchor Megyn Kelly, to take action and hasten Ailes’ fall from grace. The fact that Carlson was not exactly a card-carrying feminist also made her claims more compelling to some and speaks to the growing bipartisan consensus around an issue once championed by the left.

Social media have also been “a crucial tool,” says Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, by allowing survivors to build a community and helping to disseminate feminist concepts to the public.

“It’s the driver of so much discourse,” she says. “Even compared to five years ago, people are much more savvy about leveraging social media and their networks to make sure these allegations come out and in a way that they don’t get brushed away.”

Tales of powerful men in Hollywood preying on women are as old as the industry itself, and the line of appropriate conduct is perhaps blurrier in a business where casting directors are free to evaluate actresses based on their looks or ask them to wear something “body-conscious” to auditions.

As Los Angeles Times TV critic Lorraine Ali noted earlier this year, the gender dynamics at Fox News, where female anchors sported a uniform of tight-fitting dresses, high heels, big blond hair and pageant-worthy makeup, were not exactly hard to discern.

“There’s no question that when women are sexualised on the air, they’re sexualised off the air too,” says Lisa Bloom, an attorney who has represented many women in high-profile sexual harassment and abuse cases, including several at Fox News.

For most of Hollywood history, the “casting couch” – a euphemism that glosses over sexual harassment and even rape – was a practice cynically accepted as part of the business; stories of lecherous moguls like Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick exploiting young starlets are legion. Even Alfred Hitchcock was accused of sexual assault and harassment by Tippi Hedren.

And the problem continues to this day. Westworld star Thandie Newton recently told of an audition early in her career during which a director filmed up her skirt – then passed the tape to his friends. Other actresses, such as Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron, have spoken up about being propositioned as young aspirants.

Historically, women who formally alleged misconduct were met with quiet indifference, piles of hush money or charges of being “difficult,” just as, in most cases, the men accused (or even convicted) were professionally unaffected.

Director Roman Polanski fled to Europe in 1978 to evade rape charges and continued to make films in exile, even winning an Oscar in 2003. Convicted rapist Mike Tyson starred in the blockbuster Hangover trilogy and in his own HBO special directed by Spike Lee. More recently, Casey Affleck coasted to an Oscar victory in February despite allegations that he had sexually harassed a co-worker, although 18-year-old rape charges against Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker damaged the film’s awards hopes.

Part of the recent shift may be simple math; with more women in higher positions in the workplace, there may be a lower tolerance for the sort of Mad Men behaviour that was once commonplace. And one woman speaking out enables others to be taken seriously when they go public.

While one woman all too readily can be dismissed as an opportunist, “bands of women all telling the same story” are harder to ignore, Traister says. “It’s so sad that you have to have a dozen women, two dozen, a hundred women before you’re willing to believe one of their stories against one guy.”

Attorney Bloom says her client, model Janice Dickson, was moved to go public with a story against Cosby after seeing others do the same. She points to Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes as a major game-changer.

“Ailes was probably the most powerful man in American media, one of the most powerful men in the world. Everybody said, ‘You’ll never bring down Roger Ailes.’ She brought down Roger Ailes,” Bloom says. “It made me feel like you can really aim high.”

Carlson said in a statement: “I’m inspired that after jumping off the cliff all by myself last summer, other women have taken similar brave steps to stand up, speak up and be fierce.”

Quantity may have also factored into the downfall of O’Reilly, who’d been dogged by claims of inappropriate behaviour for years before the New York Times reported that the network had paid some $45 million to settle lawsuits against him.

In Cinefamily’s case, the investigation came after an anonymous letter alleging rape, and revealing a settled sexual harassment case, circulated on Facebook. No one has yet filed charges or, with the exception of the settled case, a complaint, but prompted by an outpouring of anger and protest on social media, the organisation is now conducting an investigation.

“I’m encouraged by how survivors are connecting, and we are in a time of heightened awareness,” Roland says, “but there’s also still a very serious problem that has not gone away.”

Los Angeles Times

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