L’Affaire Weinstein: A Progressive “Watershed”

The Harvey Weinstein affair cannot be brushed aside as the culture of the casting couch. It is not one more story from the Hollywood fiction factory. It must not be allowed to be another tawdry milestone. It must be the watershed.

Reading these lines in The Guardian one week after the New York Times published the first explosive allegations about the former co-chairman of The Weinstein Company, I have to say I was sceptical, not to say dismissive. The Weinstein affair, a watershed? Really? The allegations came on the back of stories about Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, both exposed in 2016 as sexual harassers and workplace bullies, and just four months after the Bill Cosby saga had reached the trial stage in Pennsylvania. Notwithstanding that the Weinstein allegations had expanded in the course of that week from claims of sexual harassment/shakedowns to claims of sexual assault and rape, it was difficult to see why this particular controversy should be regarded as a tipping point.

Well, that’s a win for The Guardian, I guess. For whatever else the Weinstein scandal tells us about our rotten culture, there is no denying that it is “a watershed” of sorts – that the reaction to it has catalysed a particular way of doing politics. I still can’t envisage a future tome entitled, oh, The Women’s March: A History of Feminist Activism from Mary Wollstonecraft to the Harvey Weinstein Scandal. But I am beginning to see this moment as a significant one on the liberal/progressive side of the aisle.

Why has l’affaire Weinstein so captured the progressive mood? The answer, surely, can be given in three words: “Donald”, “J.”, and “Trump”. Trump, the Pussy-Grabber in Chief, was not supposed to win the election, not least because of his taped admission to a busload of media boofheads and hangers-on that his fame afforded him pussy-grabbing privileges. But not only did he win the election, he won it against a very “qualified” woman, whose success was supposed to blaze a trail for women and girls the world over. The Women’s March was in many ways an expression of profound frustration that a man with such regressive attitudes could win an election in 2016, and much of the commentary of the past ten months – from the characterisation of Bernie Sanders and his followers as “brogressives” and “brocialists” to the remarkable reaction to a patchy adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – is similarly exasperated. That is the essential difference between the Weinstein scandal and its analogues. It has come to light in the year of the Donald.

The thousands of acts of solidarity that comprise the #MeToo campaign, and the way the scandal has spread as a consequence to encompass yet more public figures, is thus a political phenomenon in a way that, say, the Cosby saga is not. And it is as a political phenomenon that I would like to critique it, not in the spirit of attempting to minimise the seriousness of the allegations made against the co-founder of Miramax, or any of his fellow harassers, but in the spirit of constructive analysis. To be clear, my aim is not to deplore, as some have, the “witch hunt” mentality of the commentators: quite apart from the inappropriateness of the metaphor (witch hunts were, more often than not, themselves misogynistic in nature, as was the anatomisation of the condition that is said to characterise them, “hysteria”), it isn’t in my nature to argue for a calmer, more conciliatory politics. No: I want to take issue with the form and content of the politics on display – to analyse its character and its limitations. This is a watershed all right; but of what sort?

The first thing to note is that the current stage in the battle for sexual equality is focussed overwhelmingly on the media, or on men who have high public profiles and are thus subject to the media maelstrom. This may seem like an incidental point, even a tautological one, for why would be talking about this stuff at all if the perpetrators weren’t known to us in some way? But it raises the important question of whether or in what ways the lives of the rich and famous can be taken as a paradigm for the lives of the relatively poor and unknown. The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, declared itself in no doubt on the matter. “Hollywood isn’t a world apart,” it op-eded at the height of the scandal; “it holds up a mirror to who we are.” But in what sense, if any, is this true?

A very limited one, would be my response. For while the “power of stories” paradigm is perhaps inevitable in an age of celebrity and social media, and may be used to good effect, it is also clearly stacked in favour of those whose “stories” are already public property. Yes, the experiences of an Ashley Judd may resonate with those of the McDonalds staffer being felt up by her prick of a boss. But I can’t quite see how “awareness” of those experiences benefits both parties equally. The assumption seems to be that the fallout from the first thing will “trickle down” to the second one. (“When a movie star says #MeToo,” says Time, “it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”) But since the McDonalds manager doesn’t depend for his position and power on his public image, calling him on his foul behaviour is not going to have the same effect as it does on a Louis C.K or a James Toback. It seems to me that the call-out model applies a thick layer of gloss over this distinction, assuming, Hillary Clinton-style, a deep connection between women and girls, regardless of their class and culture. It obscures the reality of material inequality in the name of an identitarian essence.

Conferring its mantle of “Person of the Year” on what it calls “the silence breakers” – i.e. the women and men (mostly women) who have blown the whistle on the assorted scumbags exposed in the course of the #MeToo campaign – the staff writers at Time Magazine give the most strenuous version yet of what we might call the “trickledown model”:

When movie stars don’t know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope is there for the janitor who’s being harassed by a co-worker but remains silent out of fear she’ll lose the job she needs to support her children? For the administrative assistant who repeatedly fends off a superior who won’t take no for an answer? For the hotel housekeeper who never knows, as she goes about replacing towels and cleaning toilets, if a guest is going to corner her in a room she can’t escape?

The article, which comes with a video of Rose McGowan granting her fellow women “permission” to get angry, is careful to include the stories of poor women who have suffered at the hands of male employers, and goes on to mention a joint sexual harassment case against the New York Plaza Hotel, where female hospitality workers appear to have been treated appallingly. But nowhere does it make a case for, or even broach the subjects of, a higher minimum wage or representation at work. The one time it mentions workers’ pay it is merely to underline the point that misogyny in the workplace affects all women, regardless of their pay and conditions. But surely, when it’s the threat of the sack, or of not being hired at all, or not eating, or not being able to give your kids a holiday or a serviceable pair of shoes that underwrites the boss’s power, your pay and conditions are fundamental. “There is a solution,” writes Rebecca Solint in The Guardian, “but I don’t know how we reach it, except in a plethora of small acts that accrete into a different world view and different values.” Really, Rebecca? You can’t think of anything that might improve the position of women in relation to their male tormentors? Better protections for casual workers? A minimum wage that allows those workers to save and so leave when the boss gets gropey? A union with a zero tolerance policy?

Solint’s approach is to emphasise what she calls an “extreme version of masculinity”, and I’ve no doubt such a thing exists. But I’m also convinced that a politics that regards this masculinity as something that can be separated from the power imbalance between, say, boss and worker – and I mean by that all bosses and all workers, of whatever sex or race or gender – is reductive and ultimately self-defeating. For surely it’s that power imbalance that allows the extreme masculinity to thrive – to find an outlet in the material world of human bodies and inhuman conditions. It’s no coincidence that O’Reilly, Ailes, Weinstein and their analogues stand accused, not just of sexual abuse, but also workplace bullying more generally. Theirs was an abuse of power, after all, and that the power they abused was used to abuse others, in non-sexual ways, is hardly surprising. My point is not to minimise the misogyny on display in these cases, still less to complain, as some commentators do, that this women thing is all getting a bit out of hand. It is simply that in order to shrink the imbalance between men and women we also need to shrink the imbalance between the positions in which they are, respectively, over- and under-represented.

Why is this so difficult for liberals to say? Because, as many feminists have argued (especially feminists of a Marxist stripe), the modern liberal doesn’t actually want to challenge the system that underwrites that imbalance. No, s/he would rather talk about “stories” and “respect” and “workplace culture” and the like than organised labour or the minimum wage. Notwithstanding the acts of personal courage that make up the #MeToo campaign, much of the commentary around l’affaire Weinstein and its spinoffs dovetails all too frictionlessly with the worldview of many a knowledge-class liberal, who while wishing we could all get along a bit better is disinclined to critique the system to which s/he is now so central, economically and culturally. It’s all too easy, intellectually, politically. On the evidence of his recent chinwag with Stephen Colbert, even Billy Bush would appear to agree that the key thing we have to do, going forward, is to keep the “conversation” alive. Sorry, but when even this Oompa Loompa can get a round of applause for saying the right lines, one is obliged to consider just how demanding, and indeed challenging, the message itself is.

In a fascinating interview for The Hypocrite Reader, the writer and activist Yasmin Nair has this to say on the political uses of storytelling and “trauma” in progressive politics:

I can see that [this sharing of personal stories] as having emerged as a response to a time and a discourse where all of that was actually erased. I get that! I get the historical reasons why people have been encouraged to reveal their trauma, I totally get it. In the US, for instance, until recently, women in marriages could not be raped, legally speaking. So I get the historical reasons why all of this is important, but it makes for shitty organising, and it makes for really shitty analysis.

Yes, the personal is political, but the political isn’t personal, or cannot be reduced to such. Stories are important, certainly; but they cannot, in themselves, effect major change. I would add that I think the personal story, and certainly its celebration in the liberal prints, is itself, increasingly, the ideological projection of a class that retains its sense of moral outrage about certain kinds of inequality and injustice but has swallowed whole the late capitalist idea that it is only through the individual that progress – moral, economic – is made. Much is made – and rightly so – of the thousands of small acts of “solidarity” that have been made in the course of the #MeToo campaign, but that word, which used to describe an understanding that one’s personal (and material) advancement was tied to the advancement of others, is going to ring very hollow indeed when we hear, as we surely will down the road, that employers have been checking the social media accounts of prospective employees for claims of workplace sexual harassment, and hiring (and not hiring) accordingly.

Harvey Weinstein is rich. He’s also a bully. These facts have been known forever and a day. That he is now revealed as a shakedown merchant, sexual predator and (alleged) rapist has led many to ask how he could have insinuated himself into the liberal Hollywood milieu, with its fundraisers and broadly tolerant atmos. And the answer they’ve given, more often than not, is that misogyny is no respecter of boundaries: it cuts across political lines. But a politics that still retained a notion of how class and class power shape society would have had nothing to do with such a man in the first place, nor, I imagine, him with it. Of course misogyny is everywhere, but some things facilitate it, make it worse, and the role of radical politics should to make the things that make it worse better. The progressive class appears to think it can do that with “a conversation”. I say it’s living in the city of broken dreams.

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First published at 3 Quarks Daily