What a bracing coincidence!
On the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement’s explosion, disgraced movie mogul and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein is on trial once again for rape, this time in Los Angeles.
And “She Said,” a feature film about the New York Times reporters who exposed his decades of sexual assault, has just opened in theaters to generally positive reviews.
Both come at a moment when the intensity unleashed by the #MeToo movement seems to be waning in the public imagination, and the powerful men who were toppled like bowling pins five years ago — strike! — have mostly faded into obscurity. Where are they now? Who cares?
In the Los Angeles trial, Weinstein’s attorney, Mark Werksman, felt emboldened enough to describe alleged rapes as “transactional sex,” and used a misogynistic term to describe the many aspiring actresses his client is alleged to have assaulted, including California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
Seventeen years ago, when she was a struggling actor, Newsom testified, Weinstein raped her at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills. She also testified that she faked an orgasm to get the assault over with. That is a survival strategy, not consent.
Werksman, who asked her to reenact her fake climax, suggested she was “just another bimbo who slept with Harvey Weinstein to get ahead in Hollywood.”
I hope jurors consider this outlandish remark as the move of a desperate defense attorney, but sexist attitudes die hard. Many a rape case jury has returned a not guilty verdict because of what a victim was wearing. “You have to look at the way she was dressed,” a defense lawyer told a jury in a 2018 Irish rape case. “She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” The defendant was acquitted, which sparked a backlash. Women posted photos of their underwear with the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent.
I would suggest, when the power imbalance is as lopsided as it was between Weinstein, then one of the most important players in Hollywood, and the many aspiring actors and assistants he assaulted, there is no “transaction” at play. At least not in the traditional sense. He punished women who successfully fought him off, and some who were not able to. He derailed careers. He paid large amounts of money to numerous victims and made them sign nondisclosure agreements. Gagging so many women meant he was free to victimize again and again.
The “transaction” essentially was “submit to me and shut up about it or never work again.”
“He took my voice when I was just about to start finding it,” says one of his victims in “She Said.”
Rather than focus on Weinstein, “She Said,” which hews closely to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book of the same name, centers on the experiences of women and their struggle to overcome the entirely justifiable fear of going public, then being slimed as transactional bimbos.
I was moved by the empathy and kindness shown to Weinstein’s victims by reporter Kantor, played by Zoe Kazan. She and her reporting partner, Twohey, played by Carey Mulligan, feared that if none of the women who told horrifying stories allowed their names to be printed, the story might not see the light of day. But they did not coerce or cajole. They allowed their sources to make their own decisions, and the film’s emotional high point comes when the actor Ashley Judd, who plays herself, decides to go public. She is in the lead of their explosive story, which was published on Oct. 5, 2017. Days later, the New Yorker published Ronan Farrow’s equally damning Weinstein investigation.
Afterward, a deluge of women — at least 100, according to New York magazine in 2020 — stepped forward to say they were abused by Weinstein.
One of the great results of #MeToo has been the increasing willingness of lawmakers to ban the use of nondisclosure agreements. One of Weinstein’s victims, Zelda Perkins, co-founded a global anti-NDA campaign, Can’t Buy My Silence. She played a crucial role in the New York Times investigation, breaking the NDA she had signed decades earlier with Weinstein.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that bans NDAs for all forms of workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. Many other states have done the same. A federal bill, the Speak Out Act, which bans nondisclosure clauses in employment contracts (as opposed to after-the-fact settlements) was passed by both branches of Congress and awaits President Biden’s signature.
In practice, what laws like California’s mean is that victims who receive settlements have the right to publicly discuss their cases. If they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t have to, but they no longer are subject to being gagged. It puts the power in their hands.
And men, some anyway, are reevaluating their own roles in enabling terrible workplace behavior.
Last week, the L.A. Times published an essay by Irwin Reiter, who was the Weinstein Co.’s longtime executive vice president of accounting and financial reporting. A pivotal character in “She Said,” played by actor Zach Grenier, Reiter gave the New York Times an internal company memo that confirmed Weinstein’s toxic behavior, past and present.
The outrageous way Weinstein’s lawyer treated Jennifer Siebel Newsom moved Reiter to write the essay.
“I hope that the defense’s victim-blaming tactics will fail in this era,” he wrote. “Survivors bear enormous burdens. They should not have to speak out alone too. Men in positions like mine can and must bolster that truth.”
Five years out, it looks as though the #MeToo movement has helped the world shift on its axis. We owe those changes to dogged investigative journalists and the incredibly brave women who decided to speak truth to power, consequences be damned.