Movie mogul and Oscar winner Harvey Weinstein has been greatly honored in his time. He has been decorated by both the UK and France. The UK awarded him an honorary CBE for his contribution to the British film industry. He is also a knight of the French Legion of Honour, in recognition of Miramax’s part in promoting foreign films in the USA. He and his brother Bob grew Miramax from nothing to the showbiz colossus it is today, albeit that it went through a series of complicated ownership deals. Miramax was the studio which distributed legendary independent films, among them Pulp Fiction, The Crying Game, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Harvey won his Academy Award for producing Shakespeare in Love. Subsequently Harvey became co-chairman of The Weinstein Company (TWC). The King’s Speech was a TWC film.
Last week, everything changed. Harvey Weinstein was outed by the New York Times as a serial sexual predator and even rapist who had exploited his huge influence in Hollywood to prey upon young actresses and would-be actresses over the course of three decades. Outrage, disgust and condemnation immediately exploded into the media. Harvey Weinstein got more headline space than the California fires. He lost his job, his wife and his Oscar within 10 days. Harvey Weinstein, it was said, represents everything evil about the culture of chauvinist male privilege that prevails, not only in the film industry, but in every aspect of American life. Proof positive that women are still regarded as nothing more than pussy-grabbing fodder by the rich and powerful males who dominate the planet and every female on it.
In South Africa, the abuse of women is at epic levels. Thousands of women are routinely beaten and raped by their drunkard husbands, and they endure it because they have no other way of protecting their children against starvation. Rape, even of small girls, is too common to mention. Blessers can get whatever sexual favours they want with a few gifts, because teenage girls are desperate to survive the poverty that guarantees them no hope of a better life. Some girls sell themselves to blessers for fancy clothes and bling. That’s a kind of prostitution, yes, but they have no education and there are no jobs. They will never get anything nice any other way. Is it any wonder that too many South African women do not have the right to the dignity of owning their own bodies?
The accusers of Harvey Weinstein, however, did not have problems like that. They were not helpless victims. They were young, attractive women with everything going for them. They had educations, talent (maybe), plenty of opportunities to thrive in a prosperous economy, and – most importantly - the constitutional right to human dignity and equality. There were dozens of them, apparently. There is strength in numbers; their allegations could not have been ignored if they had come forward as a group. Harvey Weiner’s casting couch was an open secret in Hollywood circles. So why did they put up with that disgraceful behaviour? Why did they tolerate the intolerable?
It could only have been greed and ambition. They saw Harvey Weinstein as a ticket to fame and riches. They were blackmailed into complying, they said, because the alternative was the death of their tinseltown dreams. Did it matter that it was well known that he was a habitual sexual abuser? Did it matter that he would carry on abusing woman after woman if he wasn’t stopped? No, it didn’t. Each woman was prepared to sell her soul for what she could get out of Weinstein, and to hell with the others. Jane Fonda herself said that she knew but said nothing because she didn’t think it was any of her business. In other words, despite her influence and her history of activism, she couldn’t be bothered to get involved.
It is not right to blame the victims of abuse for being abused. But in this particular case, there was complicity. Unpopular as it may be to defend an abuser – indeed, abuse can never be condoned – I have to say that the shame is not all on Harvey Weinstein’s side. Not one of those women was prepared to risk anything to stand up to systemic exploitation. Not one of them was prepared to do the right thing for the sake of their own integrity and the protection of Weiner’s future victims. More than one head should be hanging in shame today.