Film, News & Commentary, Screen

Are Brave Feminist stories enough to slay every Weinstein in the workplace?

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A few weeks back, I was invited to publicly utter my thoughts on recent television hit The Handmaid’s Tale to a mainstream feminist audience. I declined, and I am pretty sure this polite decision was made possible only by my therapist. “You don’t have to go out of your way to upset people,” Helen, he regularly advises. “Especially as you seem to upset them anyhow when you’re not even trying.”

It’s one thing to suggest online, as I did, and as others have, that this lauded show was, in fact, less a first-class patriarchal allegory than a low chance for progressive viewers to covertly enjoy violence in a legitimised way. It’s quite another thing to call a mainstream feminist audience masochistic middle-class white fantasists hungry for porn to its actual face. That’s the good thing about online or printed criticism. People who find it troubling are not seated before you, and they can simply turn away.

Well, that’s the good thing about marginal criticism, such as the type we offer here at Daily Review. If you want to read, say, one of the two orthodox views of feminism-and-the-arts, you can get the “women are always treated terribly and we must uncritically celebrate all cultural works that reflect this” criticism from The Guardian and you can get the “Women? What are they even complaining about?!” fairly reliably at News Corp. We have an understanding, you and me: this byline and this masthead produce fringe criticisms, easily ignored.

It may be no less humiliating or terrifying to be assaulted, or clumsily chatted up, by a powerful man in a bathrobe that by a relatively powerless one in overalls.

Not so easily ignored, even if they do appear in print, are those other prevalent perspectives. On Google, on Facebook and in native advertising missteps, I am encouraged at every turn to see criticism about feminism, and a whole bunch of other things, I’d rather skip. I could not, for example, avoid news last week of film producer Harvey Weinstein and his reported fondness for hotel bathrobes, and of committing alleged acts of abuse from within this terry towelling cocoon.

At a personal and gut level, I’d would rather have not read these ubiquitous stories. The experiences alleged were too close to some of my own as a young woman working not in cinema, but in the then-heady world of music radio. A married record executive once thought to courier me some spike heels (note, not even Jimmy Choos) in the hope that I would don them, appear at his hotel suite and walk on his naked body while snarling, as I recall it, “a dirty little pig boy”. Which would have been fine if this request had been in any way preceded by a declaration of mutual attraction, whereupon he might have learned that I had no interest whatsoever in dominatrix work. I am far too lazy to be a Top. There are other stories, too. But, you know, who cares?

Who cares, because my stories, like the stories offered by alleged victims of Weinstein, hold an uncommon narrative promise. That is, the “favour”, if proffered, could have ended in substantial reward. If I had addressed “pig boy” as he had hoped, I stood to win possible career advancement, and certainly some very nice gifts.

For most subject to sexual abuse, or the threat of it, this financial exchange has no possibility of taking place. It is clear in the accounts of Weinstein’s alleged violence that they took place, or would take place, on the “casting couch”. It may be no less humiliating or terrifying at an individual level to be assaulted, or clumsily chatted up, by a powerful man in a bathrobe that by a relatively powerless one in overalls. But, there is a significantly different background, to which most accounts of the Weinstein story remain oblivious.

Unlike many workers, I stood to gain through my consent, or through the decision to remain silent following an act of abuse.

Often, and in many industries, it is better for a worker to shut it and keep their gig, than to lose it by “making trouble”.

Incidentally, this was not a decision I took. I gabbed. That guy eventually lost his gig when similar allegations became too several to ignore. Which is not to say this justice always unfolds: it doesn’t. So, you know, don’t feel bad if you have copped something awful, but deem it better not to report. Often, and in many industries, it is better for a worker to shut it and keep their gig, than to lose it by “making trouble”.

Which is the source of my frustration on overwhelming feminist press consensus on the matter of the Weinstein allegations. An attitude seen concisely here in Teen Vogue under the headline Harvey Weinstein is More Proof That We Can Take Down the Patriarchy With Storytelling.

The author, Lauren Duca, makes the claim that this moment gives other female workers (she doesn’t say anything about male workers subject to harassment) the chance to speak up and be heard. To prove this, she talks about her own experiences of abuse. Which are much like my experiences of abuse: elite and the result of her elite work, but in no way truly threatening to the terms of her employment. Sure, she may experience, as I certainly experienced, an eventual exhaustion due to threatening behaviour by men, and find herself unable to work. But these are not so precisely comparable to the everyday experiences of harassment that workers endure.

Public people who seek justice for others should not do so based on their own experience of victimhood.

My rather exceptional experience was played out in press and TV. I regret permitting this now very deeply, and I regularly attempt to dissuade other high-profile and elite women not to talk about their own experiences of abuse so often, as I ardently believe that these are not as “relatable” as they presume them to be. I often try to point them, especially if they are journalists, to this wonderful piece by my comrade Yasmin Nair, which sets out very plainly why public people who seek justice for others should not do so based on their own experience of victimhood. Such tactics mean that these journalists become, inter alia, narrators only of their own experience, and thereby less trusted as sources who can report on the broader experience.

I have written accounts of my own trauma in the past, and now, they provoke my remorse. First, no victim of any sort of trauma can, or should be expected to, offer a clear account of what happened. We all know this. Frightened people, no matter how professional they may be as journalists, communicate through the fog of fear. More than this, though, it is the “one size fits most” communication offered by writers like Duca that I believe perpetually prohibit the very justice they perpetually seek.

There is more than one background to the abuse, whether of a sexual or otherwise physical or bullying kind, that most workers experience. It’s never just patriarchy. FFS, it’s the fact that you can get the sack.

There is a small but prominent group of feminist celebrities who have elevated themselves in no small part by providing evidence of their abuse to a wide audience.

In Australia, more than 40% of all workers are engaged in independent contract, self-employed or casual work. The figure, I surmise, is much higher for Millennial workers, a group, due to their youth, more likely to be screwed with by their elders. Now, a worker can be more easily dismissed without notice or review. This is what years of legislation that favour the employer, not the employee, have given us.

It is possible for a media class woman to actually advance her freelance career by disclosing the abuse to which she has been subject. I am sure I don’t need to name names when I remind you that there is a small but prominent group of feminist celebrities who have elevated themselves in no small part by providing evidence of their abuse to a wide audience. That’s great for them. It was “great”, I suppose, for me that I got to write a book about it, a long time ago. But this didn’t sit well with me as a writer. To construe myself repeatedly as a victim didn’t only feel like an unpleasant commercial decision, but it would prevent me from writing about things that I thought might actually be of interest to everyday, not-famous readers. Readers other than my fellow media class women.

So, to say that a group of actors are helping the rest of the female workforce “tell their story” and “end patriarchy” is an actual falsehood.

For us few women with a “voice”, we can turn our abuse into money. For most female, or male, workers, the abuse is very likely to end in dismissal.

We have no convenient and efficient means to stop acts of abuse, or of bullying. We can’t expect that “calling out” alleged perpetrators will have a measurable result for the many. What we can expect is that secure work conditions for the many will enable them to report acts of abuse without fear of being let go for creating more work within a firm, thereby eating away at that firm’s profit.

For us few women with a “voice”, we can turn our abuse into money. For most female, or male, workers, the abuse is very likely to end in dismissal. AKA the absence of any sort of money at all. I can trade my experience of unfair labour for cash or publicity if I fancy. Most people jolly well can’t.

So, yes, identify the patriarchy, if you are in a position to do so. But do not expect that this will be of value to the people you seek to assist if you do not also identify their insecure working conditions. Not all abuse can end in glory. Not all “stories” bring down complexes post by post.

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[box]Image of Harvey Weinstein by Thomas Hawk. Creative Commons[/box]

28 responses to “Are Brave Feminist stories enough to slay every Weinstein in the workplace?

  1. Excellent piece, Helen.

    Here in the United States, the worker’s protections are reduced in most states to those of a freelancer, even if they work full time. Almost all employees are employed “at will” in New York, which means that their employer can fire them for any reason, at any time, as long as the reason for their dismissal does not fall under a protected class under the law (eg dismissal based on age, gender, race, disability). (As an aside, note that lesbians and gays do not fall into this category.)

    To that end, I had many male and female colleagues who have worked for Mr. Weinstein over the years, and the one thing they had in common – regardless of gender – were tales of emotional abuse, physical abuse, and day-to-day harassment. Although none ever told me of sexual harassment, I was certainly not surprised to hear these many tales.

    But the key point is that they all stayed quiet, for fear of being fired. That same dynamic has applied to many colleagues who have worked for the editor of Vogue, and hundreds others in the elite world of film and media and TV.

    Is it worse to be a woman seeing Harvey in a bathrobe, or to be a man having a stapler thrown at their head by Anna? The power dynamic is the same, both behaviors are illegal, and both occur on a daily basis.

    So the patriarchy is only one problem in this world. I think we need to talk about capitalism first.

    1. When it is a labour problem, of course we must talk about capitalism first. This doesn’t mean (to be clear to anyone reading this and deciding I am anti-feminist or whatever) we cannot also think about gender. But, if it is a labour problem it is a labour problem.
      I would also go further, Sam, and say I am sick to death of hearing about labour problems of people in media. Yes, we have them. But we are a small class. We also have certain advantages, even if freelancers. We are not going to be replaced by robots at a great level for decades. We own part of the means of our production (a router and a PC) and we have cultural privileges, very often.
      Most people work in retail, hospitality or healthcare/care industries in Australia. Pretty sure it’s the same or similar in the US. These are the people we must fight for. Not ourselves.

  2. Thanks for this Helen. I saw Ms Duca speak on Sunday night and in response to a question about how we can fight back against Trump (etc) her response was to tell more of women’s stories. And yes, while it is true that history has favoured men’s stories, this is only part of the picture. Economic power has meant that women such as Mary Wollstonecraft were telling their stories hundreds of years back and there was certainly no material change for working women as a result of that. So how telling stories about individual people is going to change the material reality for those not in elite jobs is beyond me.

    1. Yeah. Like a lot of people inspired (even if they cannot name it) by social constructivism, they don’t really think through the “have people got enough to eat” question.
      Think thinking.

      1. Re the Handmaid’s Tale I had exactly the same response to the movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that it did for feminism and female empowerment what circuses do for animal welfare.

        1. Liz. Are you referring to the execrable American movies, or the superb European version that popped up on SBS
          recently?

        2. The Girl with the dragon Tattoo was not about feminism. It was about men preying on women and corruption in high places in business and government and criminal networks supported by them that also traffic women and girls across Europe and what happens to those who try to expose it. You need to read the books, all three, to get the full very European story. I much prefer the Swedish movies, haven’t bothered to see the American one. The real title of the first book is translated to English “Men Who Hate Women”. It wasn’t really about Lisbeth Salander as the English title suggests, but about the men who do these evil things.

  3. Handmaid’s Tale was just a faithful adaptation of one of the best novels of one of the best Canadian novelists.

  4. There’s not a lot more I can say, that you and Sam haven’t already said.
    I worked as an employment lawyer for longer than I care to remember, and the current ‘tell your story to take down the patriarchy’ seems to completely miss the glaring point: workplace, discrimination and harassment laws are the real issue. And telling your story as a worker, will (as you correctly point out) generally get your fired or on the receiving end of a long ‘investigation’ where you’ll never know the outcome and be (usually) destroyed emotionally, to the point that you can’t work from stress and won’t be covered by workers’ compensation laws.
    I have seen this so many times and the machinations that employers use to shield themselves from liability (coupled with the lack of action from safety and workplace regulators) has no real gender bias at all. The issue is labour, the cost of it and the protection of a corporate name. If any of these ‘you go gurl’ authors took a moment to see beyond their own story, they’d see the greater structural issue and how it impacts on the worker who doesn’t have a media profile or flexible market to easily bounce to the next job.
    Great article – and I don’t think of it as a fringe critique – its a nuanced and well thought out dissection of the real issues underpinning workplace harassment.

    1. HR, Outstanding.

      Jimmy – you are so right. When I see some of the advice the ‘You Go Gurl’ authors are giving other women it’s from a position of power and privilege. If you’re living in the real world, the chasm between good intentions and good advice is enormous.

    2. Well said. Railing against the “patriarchy” is well and good, but offers no real analysis let alone solutions.

      All of us are capable of abuses of power.

  5. Thanks HR
    Nicely put, its all about power, using fear as a lever, fear for job security, fear of being absolutely dominated and harassed by another person.Ive been in media for a long time seen it from all the sides, I was bailed up in a room with a TV actress not taking No for an answer as a young assistant and the first thing I thought about was my job, Ive seen it from men to women ,women to men and the worst case of all from a gay man to another gay man.I stepped in where I could, could I have done more?always with hindsight, but in the past it just seemed everyone accepted the rules of the game.Ive done three films for the Weinstein Co ,Harvey is not the worst thing out there.Thats upsetting.

    1. Everything has its time. The momuntum has shifted enough to finally bring this out. Weinstein is not the only one and is certainly not without enablers, like all abuse it takes the majority suppport to get away with it..

  6. When I feed them stories about being made to feel creeped out by a sleeze they call me a feminist, when I ask why women can’t have better job security they interview someone else with a sleezy encounter story……. Brave Helen.

  7. Some years ago Marlon Brando was reported as voicing some anger in Hollywood by complaining ‘this town’s run by Jews’. One of the movie gurus of the day, when he was told this, said, ‘right that’s the last movie he’ll make in this town’. Quod erat demonstrandum.
    One has to wonder if much of this current outpouring of vitriol against Weinstein is the eventual release of a pent-up anti-Jewish feeling.

    1. I think the term you are looking for is “antisemitism”.
      This is not a “feeling”. It is bigotry. Bigotry with a long and violent history. There were plenty of non-Jews who ran Hollywood, and still do. The idea that they are “in control” of the culture industry is as false as the idea that they are in control of the banking system.
      What IS true is that often the only work Jewish immigrants could get in the US was s independent entrepreneurs or as entertainers. (Just as Jews were forced by Christians to look after the un-Christian matter of usury in previous centuries.)
      And, yes. I think that antisemitism has resurfaced. This is not to defend Weinstein. It is to say that I acknowledge great antisemitism in the accounts of him.
      Also. Brando continued to work.

      1. I must say, in defence of my comments above, it hadn’t even occurred to me the men I named were necessarily Jewish.
        That they were Jewish was incidental to my commentary. The early history of movie-making did involve a number of
        people who were actually movie theatre proprietors. There was a lot of money being made and members of the Jewish
        community passed on the good news – there was money to be made. It didn’t take long for the smart people to
        transition from movie showers to movie makers. Control the means of production, distribution and theatres
        and the motza became a lotsa.

        As I said their Jewishness was not the point – their rampant amorality and the was they abused their position of trust, was!

  8. As regrettable as it is, there’s nothing new, here. Mayer, Zukor, Sam Goldwyn, Selznick, Jack Warner, Cohn, were all part of the same disgusting behaviour. The correlation of Sex and Power never gone away. Wiener Weinstein is just the latest manifestation.

    Hate to say it, but the situation will not change. It will simply go underground. Meanwhile, the objectification of women will
    continue. And as long as the porn industry persists in commodifying women, nothing will change.

  9. Well said, Helen. It is about job insecurity and job insecurity generally through the casualisation of work especially through increasingly making people “contractors” through agencies where even if they keep their jobs they lose had fought for rights such as sick pay, public holiday pay, holiday pay etc.

    1. Yup …

      Not to mention, the Turnbull Government invoking the Weinstein Gag Rule on all APS employees who might wish to actually stand up and voice a moral objection to the ridiculous Marriage Equality Voter Survey or — heaven forbid — their actual support for gay marriage.

      Threatening career extermination and a destitute future to silence ‘thems that make trouble’ is pretty much a strategy across the board in this day and age.

      I just hope those who have chosen to succumb to such stand-over tactics in any shape or form and chosen to stay shtum about a clear wrongdoing to protect their own skins remember their actions before condemning the women and others in the Weinstein case for doing likewise.

      But then again, the best kind of outrage comes laden with blatant hypocrisy !

  10. I’m not sure why you think women in the media have it so easy and are in such a privileged position in regards to other women in lower paid industries. I worked in a lot of crappy retail, hospitality and temp secretarial jobs throughout my 20s but nothing came close the absolutely visceral sexism I saw while working as a production assistant on television. Women are meat. I often saw a lone woman on set, surrounded by male camera operators who would test the close up by zooming in on her genital area and leaving it on the test screen. The constant comments coming from the control room were viscously obscene. I would be attaching the microphone to a presenter with large breasts and they would be making lewd comments. It sounds low level but in an environment where you are on set in a very stressful live to air situation, the men (and there were a few women but they were either ‘cool girls’ or ditzes who played along) can see you and have cameras everywhere. You can’t see them but you have their words in your ears all day, telling you to ‘get your arse in there and move the stupid bitch to the left so the camera can see her’, or whatever, it does a lot of damage. I would work 12 hour shifts where I would hear this all day, and came to hate these men and have panic attacks. I was almost never a target as too plain to be noticed in the environment of gorgeous blondes, but i had one colleague who was constantly referred to as “tits” – the thing was, they appeared to be normal ‘nice’ men when they interacted with you socially but the environment itself was an absolute incubator for misogyny. I think it’s the place it should come from and yes, the women who stand up to that are brave.

  11. There have been no satisfactory solutions proposed in all of the above. I would suggest that women adopt the tactic of giving such offensive men a good kick in the nuts. Seriously tho’ looked at from an evolutionary perspective, it seems the Weinsteins of the world are acting much as the top alpha male of any animal herd might behave. It is just that we have graduated, at least some of us. Now that we can explain the behaviour what is the next step? Sexual aggression is not the only sin of the powerful. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is not just men, who can forget Germaine Greer’s comment about Julia Gillards bum.

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