When Harvey Weinstein came to the American Repertory Theater in 2014 for the premiere of the musical “Finding Neverland,” which he produced, he brought the rumors with him. I know, because I worked in the box office there at the time. It was the first I’d really heard of Weinstein, the Hollywood titan behind such classics as “Shakespeare in Love” and “Pulp Fiction” who had lately turned his sights on the theater. I don’t remember who told me, or what they even said, but from the moment I was aware of Weinstein I also knew, vaguely but surely, that he was a creep.
So when the New York Times broke the story of Weinstein’s alleged decades-long pattern of workplace sexual abuse, it came as no surprise. Everybody had heard the whispers — from Seth MacFarlane, who joked about the producer’s unsavory reputation at the 2013 Oscars, to myself, a lowly box office employee with nary a connection to the film industry. After the allegations came to light, the public reaction was so strong that big-name actors like Matt Damon and Meryl Streep felt the need to publicly condemn Weinstein and absolve themselves of any appearance of complicity — in a world in which everyone knew, somehow we were to believe no one really knew. I wasn’t the only person to wonder how Weinstein could have thrived for so long in Hollywood when his abusive behavior seemed to be an open secret.
I wasn’t the only person to wonder how Weinstein could have thrived for so long in Hollywood when his abusive behavior seemed to be an open secret.
The damning New York Times exposé, and the equally shocking New Yorker investigation that followed, go a long way toward answering that question. The reports depict a cunning and brazen serial predator who used everything at his disposal — money, mind games, legal settlements and nondisclosure agreements — to shame and silence his victims. Weinstein employed numerous enablers on his payroll, and follow-up reporting by the New York Times showed that the Weinstein Company board of directors had known of its founder’s conduct since at least 2015 but failed to do anything about it.
The women’s accounts also reveal the insidious nature of victimization. Weinstein’s favored method of entrapment was to invite actresses — often young and inexperienced — to a work meeting in his hotel room, where he would sometimes appear in the nude, try to initiate massages and, according to several reports, force his victims into sexual acts. Some of the women quoted in the articles recall feeling foolish for taking the bait. Others blame themselves for not standing up to him. They say Weinstein intimidated and manipulated his victims, and in some cases, broke them.
Still, the question lingers. It’s hard not to feel that if enough powerful people in Hollywood had simply refused to work with Weinstein, he might have been brought down sooner. It also begs the question of who might be next: the reputedly predatory celebrity photographer Terry Richardson? Woody Allen, whose stepdaughter maintains that he molested her as a child? Now that Weinstein has been fired from the Weinstein Company, will Hollywood collectively act to ostracize predators? Now that things have changed, will anything actually change?
Now that things have changed, will anything actually change?
A few well-known Weinstein collaborators have denied knowing anything about his sordid reputation. Others, like Lena Dunham, have admitted to having heard rumors. George Clooney, who in an interview with The Daily Beast said he had heard that Weinstein liked to hit on younger women and had slept with some of the actresses in his movies, put a finer point on the dynamics at play: “I don’t think that people were looking the other way,” the actor said. “I think that people weren’t looking, because in some ways, a lecherous guy with money picking up younger girls is unfortunately not a news story in our society."
But something in the air has shifted. Maybe it was the resurrection of the Cosby case, or the downfall of Roger Ailes. Maybe it’s harder to hide things in the age of the internet. Maybe feminism has finally made a dent in the impenetrable cultural perception that victims of sexual assault are not to be believed.
In recent years, entertainment itself has begun to respond to the evolving public understanding of sexual assault and, specifically, the phenomenon of powerful men using their status to both initiate and cover up sexual misconduct. Examples include a hair-raising episode of HBO’s “Girls” and a devastating sequence in Season 2 of the comedian Tig Notaro’s semi-autobiographical “One Mississippi.”
There is also a storyline in the Season 2 finale of “Master of None,” the Netflix dramedy from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, in which Ansari’s character Dev is confronted with a rumor about his co-host on a newly minted food and travel program.
“I have heard through the grapevine that Chef Jeff is a little bit of a creep,” an actor friend, played by H. Jon Benjamin, tells him, and then goes on to relate a story about the television host “crossing the line” with a food stylist who worked on one of his shows.
“What am I gonna do? I gotta work with this guy,” says Dev, at a loss.
“I dunno man, that’s a tough problem,” his friend replies. “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it.”
In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, the moment is eerily prescient. Of course, it isn’t actually — the “Master of None” plot is clearly based on similar stories that have come out in recent years, like the case of music publicist Heathcliff Berru, who in 2016 was felled by an avalanche of sexual abuse allegations, or the rumors that continue to dog the comedian Louis C.K.
After Dev learns about his co-host’s reputation, he approaches a former co-worker who he suspects was the target of Chef Jeff’s advances. She proceeds to describe a series of escalating aggressions from the television personality, beginning with sexual comments and culminating in a late-night attempt to barge into her hotel room.
It’s then that Dev’s query from the night before comes back to haunt him: “What am I gonna do?” Can he continue to work with the guy? Should he confront him? Go to the higher-ups? Or will he simply push it to the back of his mind, too afraid of the professional fallout and too invested in his own success, to act?
Fortunately for our hero — and unfortunately for us — Dev is absolved of having to make any tough decisions, because news of Chef Jeff’s misdeeds breaks the next day. It’s too bad, because had the show forced Dev to sit with the knowledge, and to benefit from hiding it, we would have been treated to a much more realistic depiction of how these things tend to go down. Sometimes people aren’t able to see the truth. Sometimes they don’t know to ask questions. Sometimes they feel powerless to act. Sometimes they simply refuse.
Before you can act, you have to be willing to look.
But it would seem that the fictional Dev was still several steps ahead of nonfictional Hollywood — when he heard a rumor, he took it seriously. He confronted it, because he recognized the truth could actually be much worse. That’s one thing that the episode, like the real-life story that it mirrors, makes clear: Before you can act, you have to be willing to look.