Hollywood's disappearing actresses
I had wondered what happened to Eliza Dushku.
Even if her name is unfamiliar, you probably know her face. Over the years, the actress has played a badass cheerleader in Bring It On, a badass vampire slayer in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and a badass FBI agent in Banshee. Whenever Hollywood goes looking for a woman who can kick butt with charisma — you know, a badass — Dushku has often been on the short list of stars who can deliver.
So it wasn't much of a surprise last year when Dushku signed on with the CBS show Bull to play, naturally, a badass lawyer. It was a mild shocker, though, when her character disappeared from the show after only three episodes.
As The New York Times reported, Dushku had complained about being sexually harassed by her co-star, Michael Weatherly. Then, suddenly, she found herself written off the show. CBS ended up paying her $9.5 million in a confidential settlement, but she hasn't been on TV or in the movies since then. Hollywood is missing one of its best badasses.
It's been more than a year since the first #MeToo stories appeared in the Times and The New Yorker, and it seems like new stories still emerge every day. Just this week, actress Yael Stone went public with allegations of harassment by the actor Geoffrey Rush; model Babi Christina Engelhardt stepped forward, claiming to have been Woody Allen's secret, underage girlfriend while he made the movie Manhattan; and the CBS board of directors announced that Les Moonves, the former CEO outed over sexual harassment allegations, will be denied the $120 million severance package he was expecting.
And it's only Tuesday.
Taken together, these developments should raise fresh introspection about how we make and consume popular culture. Remember, when the first #MeToo allegations emerged — in stories about Harvey Weinstein, during the prosecution of Bill Cosby, and in the middle of a decades-long debate about the status of director Roman Polanski — one question that plagued those of us who consumed and enjoyed the works of those accused was this: Can we separate the man from his art?
As 2018 draws to a close, the answer is clearly no.
It's one thing to acknowledge that leering and lecherous men make the shows and movies we love. But the issue is actually way more insidious: It's increasingly clear that many of those shows and movies — and their ability to be seen — are shaped by the appetites and power of those leering and lecherous men.
There's a Dushku-sized hole in Bull now, not because her removal was demanded by storytelling logic, but, it seems, because the show's star couldn't restrain his tasteless comments. Manhattan — with its gorgeous black-and-white mix of Gershwin music and the New York skyline — might exist purely because Allen found a muse in an underage girl. And the actress Cybill Shepherd now claims her own late 1990s sitcom was cancelled because she refused Moonves' advances.
Attaining stardom is no protection for women: Salma Hayek says she performed a sex scene in her passion project movie, Frida, because Weinstein threatened to pull the plug on production otherwise. What should play as a tender moment in the movie now reads as an act of coercion. How can that knowledge not taint our viewing of the film?
This stuff matters in our media-saturated society, but these issues aren't limited to Hollywood. Harassment occurs in all corners of society — politics, religion, education — but perhaps it's easier to understand what it costs all of us when one of our favorite actresses suddenly and inexplicably disappears from the screen.
What can be done?
We can't undo popular culture, but we can begin to reshape it. #MeToo will be a success when more powerful men learn to respect women, yes, but also when there are more powerful women employed as producers, directors, writers, and composers for the shows and movies we watch. Right now, women are underrepresented in those positions. It's time for that to change.
In other words, it's very important that Les Moonves lost his job and was denied his golden parachute. But it's equally vital that Eliza Dushku get her next role. TV still needs a badass or two.