Meryl Streep 'truthers' are a distraction from America's Harvey Weinstein problem
When Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood's biggest movers and shakers, was fired — by the board of his own company, for a predatory pattern of alleged sexual misconduct — America went into one of its periodic paroxysms of blame. How did this happen? Why did it happen?
There are millions of answers, of course: It happened, first and foremost, because of Weinstein. Structural inequality in no way mitigates the predatory cruelty it took for one man to allegedly victimize dozens of women. But there are structural factors too. This happened thanks to toxic cultural scripts that make concepts like "the casting couch" seem sleazy but pragmatic. It happened because we teach men like Weinstein that their worst impulses will be celebrated and defended. It happened because Hollywood is stuffed with cutthroat James Damores who fancy themselves maverick truth-tellers. Impressed by their own "objectivity," these self-described realists secretly believe that sexism is a myth and Hollywood a meritocracy.
It happened, finally, because people are very good at not believing things they haven't seen, especially when it benefits them. This last group is the one most worth studying, because the Meryl Streep "truther" controversy — a microstorm amid the Weinstein hurricane — is exposing an interesting schism. And it's not between men and women. It's between the structurally powerful and the structurally weak.
It's undeniable that Weinstein's alleged behavior — first detailed in a New York Times story, and confirmed by accusers including actors, news anchors, assistants, and models — depended on a hefty network committed to supporting him and suppressing his wrongdoing. Journalist Rebecca Traister came forward with a story in which Harvey Weinstein allegedly called her a "c--t" for asking about a film — and assaulted her then-boyfriend, Andrew Goldman: "Despite the dozens of camera flashes that went off on that sidewalk that night, capturing the sight of an enormously famous film executive trying to pound in the head of a young newspaper reporter, I have never once seen a photo," Traister writes. Sharon Waxman has detailed how a story she was writing for The New York Times about Weinstein's procurer got watered down to nothing. Weinstein was awash in reputation-launderers: Lisa Bloom and Donna Karan are his most recent defenders, but there are hordes.
So why is Streep drawing ire? Well, she called Weinstein "God," for one thing. For another, amid Hollywood's response, which has ranged from condemnation in some quarters to an increasingly freighted silence in others, Streep's statement stood out for how carefully it challenged the claim that "everybody knew" about Weinstein. "One thing can be clarified," she wrote:
Not everybody knew. Harvey supported the work fiercely, was exasperating but respectful with me in our working relationship, and with many others with whom he worked professionally. I didn't know about these other offenses: I did not know about his financial settlements with actresses and colleagues; I did not know about his having meetings in his hotel room, his bathroom, or other inappropriate, coercive acts. And If everybody knew, I don't believe that all the investigative reporters in the entertainment and the hard news media would have neglected for decades to write about it. [Meryl Streep, via HuffPost]
The Streep truther controversy is simple: They say she's lying.
She might be. Many people have argued, quite persuasively, that Weinstein's conduct was basically public knowledge. Gawker ran a post asking for anonymous tips about him back in 2015. "It's a despicable open secret," Jennifer Senior (then a writer at New York) wrote. "No one knew? Even the world's greatest actress can't sell that line," Maureen Callahan writes at the New York Post.
But one quirk of this moment in the Weinstein story is that it's forcing celebrities — whom we ordinarily consume gossip about — to reveal what gossip they consume and how they consume it. Is it reasonable to suppose that industry insiders like Streep didn't know the rumors about Weinstein? Maybe, maybe not. My guess is most of them live in the same space Louis CK fans currently occupy — unsure what to make of the rumors that he exposed himself to women who didn't consent, especially since no women have come forward. And that's a space worth thinking carefully about, because it's the space most of America lives in when it comes to rumors of sexual assault.
The women who did come forward to describe Weinstein's malfeasance had every right to expect better. Actors like Rose McGowan — one of Weinstein's accusers — have expressed justified anger while calling for the resignation of The Weinstein Company's entire board. She's also pointedly rebuked women who are refusing to speak out.
Ladies of Hollywood, your silence is deafening.
— rose mcgowan (@rosemcgowan) October 7, 2017
Even more curious than the silent women are the stunningly silent men:
— Melissa Silverstein (@melsil) October 10, 2017
But this framing is a little misleading too. Several celebrities whom Weinstein evidently didn't target have expressed shock and disgust. To name a few: Kevin Smith, Seth Rogen, Mark Ruffalo, Glenn Close, Kate Winslet, Dame Judi Dench, and Streep herself have all condemned Weinstein's behavior. That women who weren't victimized are speaking matters, just as it matters that men who weren't victimized talk about their role in stories like this one, entire patterns of behavior that distort their industry. In an interview with The Daily Beast's Marlow Stern, George Clooney also claims to have worked in relative peace. As America wrestles with this latest example of how women are treated in this country, this paragraph encapsulates most of the problem:
I've heard rumors, and the rumors in general started back in the nineties, and they were that certain actresses had slept with Harvey to get a role. It seemed like a way to smear the actresses and demean them by saying that they didn't get the jobs based on their talent, so I took those rumors with a grain of salt. But the other part of this, the part we're hearing now about eight women being paid off, I didn't hear anything about that and I don't know anyone that did. That's a whole other level and there's no way you can reconcile that. There's nothing to say except that it's indefensible. [George Clooney, via The Daily Beast]
That's a useful and revealing paragraph. For one thing, it tells us (through suitably sanitized filters) something about how Clooney and folks at his level of fame received celebrity gossip. It shows a) how women's careers are constantly smeared by allegations that they slept their way to the top, and b) how it seemed to non-targets like Clooney like the "enlightened" choice was to ignore those rumors. It shows, in other words, how just a whisper about any form of sexual contact automatically attaches more to the woman in this equation, even among the celebrity set. Even the phrase "paid off" (which Clooney rightly sees as an indictment of Weinstein) accidentally suggests an unsavory transaction rather than a violation.
There's no question that there's a face-saving aspect to this approach. Any public relations representative tasked with managing their client's reputation after Weinstein's image was shredded would approve of these startled professions of ignorance.
But it's worth thinking seriously about why some people might not have known. Or why they chose to leave Weinstein in the predatory equivalent of Schrodinger's box. One of the most persuasive accounts of why this matters came via Refinery 29's Ashley Ford, in a Twitter thread in which she describes being confronted many years later by a college acquaintance who wrote to say she couldn't like Ford's writing because she'd befriended a man who was later discovered to be abusive. "I was confused because this was a guy I had cut off years ago, and actually helped a woman get away from when I found out he was an abuser. But she insisted that he'd been an abuser before I found out, and there was just no way I couldn't have known that was the case," Ford writes.
This woman was close to his ex-wife who had confided in her that she as being abused. I was not close to his ex-wife. Nobody told me. She just kept saying, "There is no way you didn't know. Everybody knew." So I started questioning myself wondering, "Did I know?" I remember his ex-wife being distant, but that seemed par for the course. They were divorced 22-year-olds. When I asked this woman who was the "everybody" who knew about this, it turned out to be just the people she'd personally told. I asked why she never told me or asked if I knew, and she said, "You seemed intimidating, and I didn't want to fight with you about it." [Ashley Ford, via Twitter]
Ford's point is that she herself wasn't part of the gossip network this woman was taking as representative of the whole. Some people aren't. And those who are might tend to overestimate the communities these rumors reach.
Halt and Catch Fire writer Angelina Burnett made a related point here, by detailing how she recently learned that a former colleague of hers was fired for sexual harassment. "My first response when told, and I am not proud of this, was I DO NOT BELIEVE IT," she said.
Much has been said about the importance of speaking out in the wake of stories like Weinstein's. It's also hard to overstate the importance of stories like this one — stories in which women, people who would presumably be targets too if the relevant categories were just "women" and "men," weren't victimized by the men in question. Predators choose their targets carefully. This is not just a story of male perfidy against women. It's about someone in a position of power preying on people without it. That those categories tend to overlap along gender lines (thanks, structural inequality!) can blind us to the differences.
Any account of what happened during the decades Weinstein spent allegedly harassing people with total impunity fails if it gets too hung up on Streep trutherism. What Streep truthers want is the truth: They want to know what really happened. If we want things to change, let's accept that reality is much messier, so messy that there might even be some truth in the PR-speak.
It's possible Streep knew all about Weinstein's awful alleged behavior and villainously chose to ignore his victims because she's evil and self-serving. It's more likely that she heard a rumor or two, the way we all frequently do about people we know or like, and thought no more about it. Why? Because it was easier, because she had power and never experienced anything like that from him, because it benefited her, and because we fetishize "innocent before proven guilty" when it comes to sexual crimes (in ways we don't for other types). The first story might be more thrilling — there's comfort in distancing ourselves from the seamy side of Hollywood, with all its ugly moral compromises — but the latter is the experience most people in America have.
An approving agnosticism — maintained by non-targets, male and female alike, whom the predator genially cultivates — is exactly what lets sexual predators thrive. It's not a Hollywood thing, it's an America thing. We must be more vigilant about letting these quieter, less sensational enabling systems work. That begins with recognizing that the systems exist (and recruit us). I hope that those who've remained silent so far think hard about the roles they've played (however unintentionally) in empowering Harvey Weinstein to destroy people and careers, and that they do the right thing in response. I hope that we do, too.