Harvey Weinstein is not the only man in the world to pressurise stars and would-be stars to give him sex for work and money. Nor is he the first man and is certainly not the last. But he is most certainly the first man in the world to be on the firing line of accusations of sexual harassment attacking him from every side, including men even beyond US shores. Whether he is guilty or whether much of it is a media creation is not the question. The moot question is the conspiracy of silence his victims were unified by for so many years.
Why did they bear it so quietly? Why did they take so long to open up this horrible Pandora’s Box we all know was already there, waiting to be opened though everyone knows what was inside?
In her beautiful article – Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent, Brit Marling writes (TheAtlantic.com October 23, 2017), “Acting felt like a noble pursuit and maybe even a small act of resistance. Hollywood was, of course, a rude awakening to that kind of idealism. I quickly realized that a large portion of the town functioned inside a soft and sometimes literal trafficking or prostitution of young women (a commodity with an endless supply and an endless demand).” The same applies to Bollywood or Tollywood or to any film industry across the world where the point of entry is marked by the mandatory readiness for ambitious girls to part with sexual favours. Is this sexual harassment? Is this coercion? Is this sexual blackmail?
Yes, it is all that and much more. Every single profession that engages women, with or without men such as domestic work, media, advertising, modelling, works on the unwritten assumption that if forced a bit, or a bit more, subtly or bluntly or sharply or with the invisible gun pointed to her head, every single member of the female sex will surrender to sexual demands. The “or else” is kept dangling in the air, the answer a given.
Some professions are more open to a bartering for sexual favours for work, for higher pay, for a better role, for a big banner production house, for a promotion than other professions such as teaching and medicine and banking. These are professions that demand youth, beauty and body or any one of these three.
Young girls, beautiful women (and now, even young men who aspire for a career in films) wanting to step into films or modelling or politics, become cry-babies after the fact screaming their lungs out about men in the industry – from the producer to the make-up man – from the agent to the party worker of the lowest rank, of forcing themselves on these youngsters. The casting couch is structured into the construct of these careers. Nothing comes of these complaints after the fact because the perpetrators, more powerful than their so-called victims, run scot-free claiming that it was consensual sex and that there was no force involved. This is popularly known as “the casting couch.”
During the so-called “Golden Age” of Hollywood, it was not uncommon for would-be-stars to grant sexual favours to directors and/or producers in return for a role. These favours were usually rumoured to be on a couch in the filmmaker’s office. This is how the phrase “Casting Couch” has been popularized. Though the practice is veiled with a conspiracy of collective silence, concealed under thick layers of celluloid, political and social hypocrisy, the term and the practice is rampant.
The word ‘consensual’ is an adjective derived from the noun ‘consensus.’ English is a tricky language where words often have subjective interpretations that differ from person to person and from place to place while in some cases, over a period of time, they acquire definite meanings. The word “consensual” has almost exclusively come to be associated between two or more people who mutually agree to sexual activity, agenda unknown.
The main difference between sexual harassment at the workplace and the casting couch lies in the difference between forced sex and consensual sex. But in some cases, as Weinstein’s famous and not-so-famous victims have stated, “consensual sex” can also be forced. If this is true, then is it not the responsibility of the victim to take her cause further through legal and social rebellion? But then, it becomes a question of the powerful versus the vulernable and in these cases, sexual pressure and blackmail is a war between the powerful and the vulnerable, where the ‘vulnerable’ is not necessarily weak and without options.
Marling rightly points out: “Once, when I was standing in line for some open-call audition for a horror film, I remember catching my reflection in the mirror and realizing that I was dressed like a sex object. Every woman in line to audition for “Nurse” was, it seemed. We had all internalized on some level the idea that if we were going to be cast we’d better sell what was desired—not our artistry, not our imaginations—but our bodies.”
The casting couch in films or politics on advertising or modelling operates much before one even steps into a given area such as films. Sexual harassment happens most often, when a man senior to the woman in the organization, holds her job as ransom for not agreeing to compromise on sexual favours. One cannot be judgmental about this if the woman agrees because there are extraneous forces at work that force some women to adjust to sexual demands.
A daily-wage labourer at a construction site is forced to sleep with the overseer because if she does not, she will be wiped out of the roster. She has children waiting to be fed and clothed and sheltered. This can happen to a single woman working in a bank who has no support for her family, or, a top brass in a corporate organization. Hospitals are a fertile ground for sexual harassment which sometimes becomes consensual. But when an ambitious woman greedy enough for a quick promotion to the next higher post finds that this is either followed or accompanied by unwritten compromises of a sexual nature, and if she agrees to this compromise, then she has engaged in consensual sex because she gave first priority to the promotion and less to her compromise and consent. She had the option of quitting her job and finding another. But she does not take it.. This is an impasse that is really tough to solve.
Among the rare quitters who refused to give in, one recalls Savita Dhanrajgir, a beautiful model from a royal family who wanted to make it in films. She recorded her bitter experience about the casting couch where one had to go bed hopping from financier to producer to director to hero. The small ones do it for any role. The big names do it for plum ones. In Clap-Trap, a documentary on junior artistes, Jill Misquitta shows how female ‘extras’ are sexually exploited by the middle-men who give them their daily contract. This is sexual harassment where sex is not consensual but forced.
Weinstein went one better. He had the actresses sign a non-disclosure agreement which bonded them to him in every way. He is both diabolic and intelligent other than that he does not blink before abusing his power. If you have never heard of a “non-disclosure agreement” neither had I, till now. Zelda Perkins, a former assistant to Harvey Weinstein who signed such an agreement before accepting a monetary settlement from him broke the rules of the agreement and came out with horrendous details of years of sexual harassment and abuse. She is one of the eight alleged victims to sign such NDAs with Weinstein.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Ms. Perkins said that Weinstein’s sexual misconduct began the very first day she ended up with him while working out of his London office! The skeletons began tumbling out and Weinstein was thrown out of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. But will this bring back the honour his victims lost?
A young girl has the option of walking out when someone higher up makes a pass at her. By the time the girl actually reaches the door of the producer/director/financier, she is desperate to get in, never mind the price she now knows she must pay just to get through that door. Having cooled her heels at offices, living off salads, preparing for endless auditions/interviews, the quid pro quo involving a night with the ‘right’ man for a role in his film or a job in his firm does not seem to be too heavy a price. During the long months of waiting, she has learnt the hidden rules of the game and somewhere along the way, her defences come down, her values mutate.
For every such aspirant who made it to the billboards, there are hundreds of girls who surrendered to the casting couch but ended up streetwalking, or pimping for would-be starlets, or becoming a ‘junior artiste’ in films. No girl can be forced to bend under sexual pressure against her wishes. It is left to her to play the game or quit. Most play the game and a few quit. In other words, the casting couch is a consensual thing so women activists needn’t make an issue out of a non-issue. The casting couch is never empty
Written byDr Shoma A Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time