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Harvey Weinstein and the good guy/bad guy problem

Art by Mariechel sudoy
 

It was never a secret that Harvey Weinstein is a horrible person. Stories of him berating actors, directors, distributors, and all manner of industry insiders have been part of modern Hollywood lore since the glory days of Miramax, the film company he founded with his brother Bob Weinstein. So it wasn’t much of a shock when accounts of sexual assault and rape committed by the notoriously unscrupulous Hollywood bully surfaced this month. It was certainly startling to see that they spanned decades and involved big-name actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie; but they weren’t exactly earth-shattering revelations considering the person accused.

This is perhaps the biggest reason why Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace has been swift. I suppose it helps when A-list celebrities speak out but Mia Farrow is practically a Hollywood legend and her accounts of ex-husband Woody Allen’s child molestation haven’t derailed the filmmaker’s one-movie-per-year career, so I’m not so sure. What I’m sure of is that Woody Allen was successful in constructing an adorable on-screen persona based on decades’ worth of movies, while Harvey Weinstein was successful in conducting his business like a complete pig. 

It’s been fascinating to see the ongoing conversation about sexual assault spurred by Hollywood — a place and an idea where truth and fiction liberally mingle. We know, intuitively, that actors, filmmakers, and producers are real people. But because they are in the fiction business, this knowledge tends to be distorted. They traffic in myth; public personas crafted by PR people and entertainment products that create second-hand emotions. Their products are designed to be relatable while their lives are deemed to be not.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has made actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Rose McGowan more relatable than they’ve ever been because it is a story that plenty of women find familiar. This week’s #MeToo hashtag demonstrated this universality, as women all over the world shared their harrowing experiences with sexual assault. It served a reminder of how common and quotidian sexual assault really is, that it’s not just some Hollywood breaking news blip in our cultural ecosystem. The idea of relatability is a common theme in discussions about sexual assault. Matt Damon, who has been closely associated with Weinstein for years, used the “I have four daughters” card in reassuring the public that he does not condone his friend’s behavior, because this response apparently is the magic fairy dust against misogyny. It’s as though every man who’s ever committed sexual assault was never related to any female and was just born into this world through some combination of musk and sweat. Is it possible that sexual assault isn’t an issue of relatability but of basic human decency? That even if that fully-grown woman you work with doesn’t remotely remind you of your four-year-old daughter who still worships My Little Pony, that she deserves still the bare minimum of respect?

I think it’s apt that this discussion is playing out in Hollywood because this is the same fiction machine that supplies us with this instinct to simplify things — the good guy is good because he only does good things and bad people are people who only do bad. What if the alleged perpetrator is not an obvious monster like Weinstein? What if he has a “harmless” and “charming-dweeb” movie persona like Woody Allen? What if he’s a sensitive comedy-poet like Louis CK who’s recently been accused of sexual assault by a number of women, including two fellow stand-up comedians? Should we believe these women who are not named Gwyneth? I already know the answers to these questions because unlike Weinstein, Woody Allen and Louis CK still have jobs and upcoming projects. We are faced with this tragic reality where sexual predators are judged based on their pre-established persona. There is this other simplified truth that often gets lost in the Hollywood haze: Sexual assault is wrong and it doesn’t matter who commits it.

I am personally a fan of these guys’ works — Weinstein, for his ’90s Miramax movies; Woody Allen for movies like Annie Hall and Purple Rose of Cairo; Louis CK for basically everything he’s ever done — but I don’t find myself conflicted over these reports. People who seem good are capable of bad behavior. If we really want to deal with the issue of sexual assault honestly, then this is the fact we need to digest because this means anyone can do it — your friends, your family members, your idols. Once you open up that possibility, then your first instinct won’t be to doubt these women who speak up. Your first instinct will be to question the very idea of maleness and the way it is shaped in our culture, how the objectification of women is deeply ingrained in all of us as some sort of rite of passage into manhood, and how this idea is considered normal even for conventionally “good guys” when it shouldn’t be. Then we can truly get to the crux of the problem, minus the perception filters, and without that familiar Hollywood haze.

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