Oxford 2017. I’m waiting to get my microphone set up as we go in for the shoot. He requests my permission to mic me up, and affirms that “my cleavage will hold up the mic”. I say nothing. We’re ready for the cameras to roll. The cast and crew are set. He stops the shoot, comes up to me, and says: “pardon the expression, but I’m going to have to switch you on”. He switches my mic on. I say nothing. No one does. I just want to get my scene done, and do the best I can. There are fifteen other people in that room.
I go back home; frozen, tired, guilty, angry, confused. Me, woke af. Angry, brown, radical feminist. Me, silent. I forget about the incident, as we tend to, pretend to. Then I read of Harvey Weinstein. Yet again, we wonder how Weinstein got away with his entitlement and abuse for so long. We shame women and femmes for their silence; after all, these are women with social and cultural capital.
He affirms that “my cleavage will hold up the mic”. I say nothing.
Do you want women to not be silent anymore? Then shake up the system that manufactures their silence. Femmes and women are not silent – they are silenced. Make sure that survivors of sexual abuse who speak up are not compromised in their health, safety, right to work and right to life. Ensure their words are valued and that they receive support. Understand that global capitalism demands of feminine-identifying people emotional labour, silence, tolerance, patience, and tears. Appreciate that the women who spoke up against Weinstein were threatened with losing their jobs and replaced on projects. Realise that sexual abuse is about power.
Hollywood cannot wish Weinstein away as anomalous, as a scapegoat to cleanse it of its own complicity. It is telling that stories of abuse against Weinstein have been buried by leading newspapers as late as two years ago, and that the only form of punitive action we take against perpetrators of sexual violence is through seizing social and economic capital – firing them and socially condemning them. We are not interested in addressing whether and how the entire board of directors of the Weinstein company knew about this. We are not interested in addressing Weinstein’s abuse and harassment as a (now badly kept) open secret. We are not interested in recognising that architects of oppression rely on many hands, many choices, and many collusions.
This is an industry that celebrated Woody Allen with a Cecil B. DeMille award the year Dylan Farrow spoke out against him. An industry that continues to celebrate Roman Polanski and his genius without a thought for his abuse; that awarded Casey Affleck an Academy Award the year multiple allegations of sexual harassment were raised against him. Let us not let Hollywood absolve itself, when it creates the machinery that allows people like Weinstein to get away with their actions in the first place.
Punishing an individual through the means we know best – temporarily seizing capital – will not be effective; we know how abusers of power and people with sexual harassment allegations continue to benefit in this system. Hollywood routinely demands that we draw distinctions between geniuses, their art, and their personal lives, and fails to draw those distinctions itself. It uses genius to obfuscate the violence these geniuses commit. This is an industry that feigns ignorance while breeding a culture of silence, yet it is also an industry which determines the ways in which we view society, sexuality and gender.
Dismantling cultures of sexual violence needs imagination (something which systems of oppression routinely deny). It needs us to ask multiple questions and be intersectional even in our indignation – to know that women like Donna Karan and Hilary Clinton will be targeted far more for their association with Weinstein than frequent male collaborators like Quentin Tarantino and Michael Moore. To realise that female actors, both allies and survivors, will have to justify their silence more than the male actors who have stayed silent. It requires recognition that the ability to speak out is impacted by roles on set, age, race, class, sexuality, wage laws, contracts. To know that trial processes and incarceration disproportionately affect men of colour and economic disadvantage.
Do you want women to not be silent anymore? Then shake up the system that manufactures their silence.
Hollywood is not alone. As occupants of elite spaces like Oxbridge, it is easy for us to be inured into thinking rape and rape culture exist in remote places, as problems for us to solve on a summer project, as a citation or footnote. But worlds where (cis white) men’s testimonies matter more than those of femmes and women are not far from us. Nor is the trauma of having to maintain professional relationships with people who misuse their power and privilege. Neither are experiences of self-doubt, the fear of not being believed, of trivialising the ways in which femmes and women are demeaned and harassed, of not wanting to rock the boat, of being told to fight larger fights, to not speak out against people who position themselves as allies, people who are sensitive to our concerns. None of these experiences are truly far from us.
The demand for a world where the violence committed in the name of gender and sexuality is systematically addressed is not a zero-sum game. Weinstein is not the first liberal in Hollywood to abuse his power, and unfortunately, he might not be the last. We need to understand the networks of privilege that underpin allyship. For instance, recent reports mentions how a male actor threatened Weinstein after his then-partner was harassed, which is when Weinstein got the message.
Another actress called out an actor for feigning ignorance and expressing disgust, when the actress had told that same actor about how Weinstein had harassed her years ago. It is crucial to question the ways in which allies intervene, and question a system that makes it possible for a cis-man’s indignation to be responded to more seriously than a survivor’s fear and concerns. This, after all, is a system in which “I have a partner” is a clearer marker of denial than “no”.
What we need is real feminist allyship. This means calling out misogyny in boardrooms and pubs; in WhatsApp conversations, jokes and memes; in intimate spaces and in our personal relationships; when the cameras are turned away and no one is heart-reacting. This means acknowledging the ways cis-ness, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism work, recognising our complicities, and amplifying the voices of those who are silenced. This means sharing the discomfort that usually escapes us, bearing witness and calling it out, even if it means impediments in professional and personal environments. This means showing up when no one’s watching, showing up when you stand to lose, knowing when to stand up, and knowing when to sit down. This means demonstrating strength of character outside a world of 140 characters. This means reimagining the worlds we live in and live for.