Saturday, February 24, 2018

Some thoughts on Weinstein

by Frank Brenner

The following was written back in November, shortly after the Weinstein scandal broke. It doesn't engage with many of the issues about #MeToo that have come up since then. I'll be posting another article that goes into some of that later. Still I think this article offers some insights into the current state of play of sex and social life.

Michel Houellebecq

The French writer Michel Houellebecq argued that neo-liberalism had “extended the domain of the struggle” into sexuality. By which he meant that just as economically the system was creating unprecedented inequality, the same was becoming true in sexuality. The permissiveness inaugurated by the Sixties didn't result in a sexual paradise for all. Quite the contrary, for a great many people things didn't get any better and often they got worse. The normalizing of sexual promiscuity worked mostly for those with good looks, money, power, celebrity or any combination thereof. And also mostly for men. For the outcasts – the ugly, the old, the poor, the mentally wounded, the nobodies – there was/is little opportunity for anything resembling sexual satisfaction. Except for porn. And even that is mostly for men. 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men are getting no sex at all – staggering numbers which attest to a schizophrenic divide: publicly we are sexually liberated but privately lots of people aren't a whole lot better off than the Victorians.

(And one should add that despite the ubiquity of 'hookup' culture among millenials, this generation is actually having less sex than its predecessors, indeed probably the least amount of sex since the oppressively conformist Fifties. For a sombre account of the emotional wasteland of contemporary sexuality, see Emily Witt's memoir, Future Sex.)

This isn't meant as a defense of traditional conformity. Rather it's to underscore the point that if you try to fix things within capitalism they inevitably get fucked up, twisted into a new form of oppression.

Much more could be said about the many ways in which sex, bodies and images of bodies have been commercialized and consumerized. Permissiveness is now the new conformity, in its own way as oppressive as its predecessor, as writers from Marcuse to Zizek have pointed out. It's a vast subject. My point about Weinstein is that I think his downfall signals a change. The extension of the domain of struggle is hitting its limits. Again there is a striking parallel with the economy: just as capitalism is crumbling without any obvious alternative emerging, so too with the 'political economy' of sex.

Weinstein epitomizes that economy. He gorges himself on young, attractive female bodies in the same vampirish way that capitalists are addicted to profit. Of course in Weinstein's case sexual exploitation is tied directly to his economic role as a movie producer. He profits in a double sense, and it's hardly a big stretch to conceive of his female victims as a sexual proletariat. That he is a bully in the boardroom as well as a predator in the bedroom reinforces the parallel.

(A small aside about language. In the last twenty or thirty years, it's become commonplace to speak of 'hitting on' women. We don't talk much about seduction anymore or flirting – those terms seem to belong to a bygone era. This use of language is a telling sign of the coarsening and brutalizing of sexual relationships. First you 'hit' on a woman and then you 'bang' her. We have gone from Casanova to Howard Stern.) 
Of course the euphemism of the casting couch has always been a sick joke masking sexual violence. But if there is something distinctive about the current crop of Hollywood moguls like Weinstein, it is their level of hypocrisy. The old studio bosses didn't have to pretend to be feminists. But maybe hypocrisy and pretend aren't exactly the right words. Pundits like Thomas Frank explain Weinstein as a case of blatant hypocrisy, but I think this is too simplistic. I don't think Weinstein was just a predator in liberal/feminist clothing. For one thing I don't think he could have produced the quality of films he's made – films that often had a critical edge, including about sexuality – without some commitment to the progressive ideas he espoused. A blatant hypocrite would have just been a hack. I think the divide in such a person runs deeper, just as it does in the culture as a whole. Steve Jobs thought of himself as a revolutionary who was changing the world for the better – not as a brutal taskmaster running a global army of sweatshop labor. And he had millions of fans who saw him the same way he saw himself. This is not just hypocrisy, though it is partly that. It is also ideology: in a world where There Is No Alternative, where utopia is dead, being the best capitalist you can be is not just good for you but good for the world. You are not a ruler exploiting wage slaves but an innovator forging the way to a brighter tomorrow. You are a 'visionary', a 'disruptor', a 'creator' – and everyone knows that 'creative' people are not bound by the moral constraints that apply to ordinary folk. Again this might look like hypocrisy when written with scare quotes but it looks very different when you and everyone around you buy into this. When, for example, a world famous actress publicly addresses you as god.

The writer Lucy Preeble seems to me to strike the right balance in assessing Weinstein, whom she briefly worked with: “Weinstein has become a public monster overnight. But he’s not a monster, he’s a man. Today’s monster is yesterday’s ‘character’. And I could easily have liked him (it’s important to say that you can be harassed by people you like). Hollywood is run on charm as well as tantrums. There are elements of machismo that are glorified as an eccentricity of showbiz power ... In the arts, professionalism can be interpreted as a sort of inauthenticity, and those who can’t control themselves are seen as more ‘instinctive’. To be dangerous is to be artistically daring, particularly for men. Sometimes I wonder if being in the ‘feelings business’ pushes weak men to over-compensate with swearing, stunts and sexual conquest.”

But Thomas Frank is right to call out the insidious role of what he terms the “creative class”, i.e. “well-heeled executives in industries like Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood” for whom “modern-day liberalism is a way of rationalizing and exercising class power ... This is a form of liberalism that routinely blends self-righteousness with upper-class entitlement. That makes its great pronouncements from Martha's Vineyard and the Hamptons.” The Clintons are the great exemplars of this kind of liberalism, as is Obama, whose ties to Weinstein include having his daughter intern at Weinstein's company. Obama was also close to Terry Richardson, an elite fashion photographer facing multiple sexual assault accusations by models who worked for him. Maybe nowadays every time we hear the word 'creative' we should reach for a gun.

It's ironic that Hollywood produced one of the deeply critical portrayals of 'creativity' when it comes to sex – Hitchcock's great film Vertigo. The main character (played by Jimmy Stewart) is obsessed with a young beautiful woman and feels compelled to control her totally, even to the point of choosing her hair style and clothes. Which is not so different from Weinstein, who also happens to be into fashion in a major way. His (now ex-) wife runs a high end fashion label called Marchesa which does no advertising but which Weinstein promoted through his movie company and connections with the likes of Anna Wintour. After browbeating and/or assaulting and/or raping his victims, he would (some of the time) turn into their Svengali - put them in movies, build their image and (like the Hitchcock character) dress them in designer clothes, the added twist being that the designer was his wife.

Scene from Hitchcock's  'Vertigo'
But comparing Vertigo to Weinstein is like comparing poetry to porn. The sheer number of women 'consumed' by Weinstein, and his host of enablers – staff, agents, business partners, reporters, lawyers with their non-disclosure agreements – add up to an image of an almost impersonal system of sexual degradation. It's hard to imagine that the bodies didn't just become interchangeable after a while. But for the victims the experience couldn't be anything but personal.

Will anything change?

The plausible answer is yes, but not necessarily in a good way. Again, as in the Sixties, efforts will be made to make sex less oppressive. Weinstein's career is ruined, and no doubt other famous names will follow. (Including cases where accusations of abuse become a cover for settling old scores.) For a while powerful men will probably think twice about 'grabbing pussy', as Trump would say. And yet surely the problem goes way deeper than this. Sarah Polley, a talented director and actor, who had her own run-in with Weinstein when she was 19, called him a “festering pustule in a diseased industry.” This is not only an apt description but also a useful diagnosis because it makes evident that bursting a few pustules like Weinstein does not, on its own, clear up the disease.

In this regard, a recurring theme of the stories about Weinstein comes to mind – everybody knew, and if they didn't it was probably because they chose not to. This was true not just about Weinstein but of other big name actors, producers, directors and assorted movers and shakers. Informally there was a kind of 'predator alert' system operating, where women in the movie business would share information about who to avoid, who never to let yourself be caught alone with. This is strikingly similar to the way street prostitutes keep each other informed about dangerous johns – a comparison that says a good deal about the status of women in Hollywood. But there is something else that it says: if everybody knew, that was because it was considered normal for a powerful man to be a sexual predator.

Normal here doesn't mean acceptable. The public discourse was and is all about female 'empowerment'. But another thing that everybody knows in a business like Hollywood is that there are unwritten rules that are far more important than public rhetoric. You learn about them through experience, often with conversations that begin with lines like: Let me tell you how things really are. These unwritten rules are about a different kind of 'empowerment' – the one that comes with money, status, fame. Weinstein had all the power and I had none – this is how some of his victims talked about their feelings of finding themselves suddenly alone with him in a hotel room. This explains why many of the victims remained silent for years, and the same goes for the many more who were 'in the know'.

Or it's part of the explanation. Part of it is also that Weinstein's behavior wasn't seen clearly as predation, even by his victims. Part of it is also that, for some of the women, their sense of how much they 'consented' to was murky (though for the others their sense of being violated was painfully clear).

This power imbalance is the underlying sickness in Hollywood, and not just there. But how likely is that to change? There isn't much meaningful discussion of that in the torrent of coverage over Weinstein. Mostly there are the painful confessions of the victims and contrite apologies from some famous men (usually claiming that they didn't know what was going on and that they will try to do better in the future). There are calls for more female directors and producers, as if we haven't had lots of examples (e.g. more black cops, more female politicians and executives) of how this kind of tokenism changes nothing.

Sarah Polley argues for a change of heart: "I think we need to look at what scares us the most. We need to look at ourselves. What have we been willing to accept, out of fear, helplessness, a sense that things can't be changed? What are we willing to turn a blind eye to, in all aspects of our lives? What else have we accepted that, somewhere within us, we know is deeply unacceptable? And what, now, will we do about it?" These are all good questions but they don't so much answer the problem as pose a new question: where does “fear, helplessness, a sense that things can't be changed” come from?  And once we ponder that question, it eventually becomes clear that a change of heart is never going to be enough. In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street crash the bankers and their political hacks were all publicly remorseful, but it's common knowledge that nothing serious has changed and that it's only a matter of time before the same reckless behavior and economic anarchy endemic to capitalism lead to another crash.

To paraphrase a Clinton-era quip, It's the system, stupid. And in Hollywood, the system is not just about greed, it's also about sex. Here I don't just mean what goes on behind the camera but also what goes on in front of it. Can anyone believe that women in Hollywood will be significantly safer off screen so long as their bodies continue to be exploited on screen? In a sense Weinstein was living out the ultimate Hollywood sex fantasy, a dream it's been pandering since the It girls of the silent era. If love means never having to say you're sorry, then Weinstein-type power means never having to take No for an answer. But so long as what goes on the screen doesn't fundamentally change, then neither will the abuses off screen by future Weinsteins. The worst temptation in these circumstances is to imagine that the business of Hollywood will go on as before but that the men (or women) in charge will be nicer to women.

What is called for, then, is a much more radical analysis of the problem. Can we imagine a Hollywood that wouldn't be dependent on sexist images of women? It's so hard to conceive that. We'd have to do away with the label Hollywood itself and talk about rebuilding a new film culture from the ground up. This doesn't mean a return to the Hayes code, which only replaced an overt with a covert fetishizing of female bodies. This is not about censoring sex but about changing its represenations.


Houellebecq discusses this issue in a number of his novels, but most directly in his first one, whose title, literally translated, is Extension of the Domain of the Struggle. No doubt Houellebecq's English publishers didn't think that would sell, so they replaced it with a throwaway title, Whatever.

Sarah Polley's essay on Weinstein appeared in the NY Times in October:

Thomas Frank's comment on Weinstein appeared in The Guardian in October:

Lucy's Preeble's comment on Weinstein appeared in The London Review of Books in November:


Anonymous said...

Although I may sound like steering away from the discussed issue, I've always wanted to express my admiration for your use of language unlike that of any doctrinaire Marxist and your citations of examples across diverse fields. I don't mean something of a wrapping paper by language. Rather, use of language sometimes reflect the degree of the breadth, depth, or practicallity of its user's thinking, I think. And what inspiring opportunities for thinking you are offering with the cases of Houellebecq or Vertigo! I hope you will continue to write articles like this, to all my gratitude.

gerdowning said...

This is streets and leagues ahead of the WSWS appalling coverage. Well done.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to your upcoming pieces.

I'm sure that Adam guy from the WSWS will come and tell you that you are part of the "pseudo-left" but this analysis is already 5 times more penetrating than the trash the WSWS puts out on this topic.