When I heard the “news” about Harvey Weinstein, I wasn’t surprised. I already knew. The rumors had been around for years. As many other women have talked about, there were “whispers” among us, telling fellow women to beware. But even if I hadn’t heard some of the actual stories about Harvey — including that he’d raped women, because someone had told me that too — my reaction would probably have been the same. I was appalled, of course, and I’d surely have been more appalled if I’d known the extent of it, how many women had been subjected to this harassment or assault or rape, how regular it was for him. But at the same time, these types of stories about men in power in the business, this system — because it is a system — was to a certain degree something I realized I’d accepted for a long time. It was part of my experience, it was part of the experience of people I knew personally, and it was par for the course. That’s the one thing Harvey said that was true: he was “used to this,” because “this” was considered how the business works. That’s why those are the words used not just by him but women trying to explain why they couldn’t say anything, or who decided they’d rather not be in the business at all than have to deal with this type of treatment. That was the choice, for many: accept and deal, or decide that a career in film is not for you. Period.
How did it get to be this way, that we just accepted this situation as the norm? I think for all of us in the industry, and particularly women, it’s a long story. It’s about how you take up visual storytelling because you love it and because you think you’re good at it. How, at that stage, when you’re first drawn to it, you’re idealistic enough to think that art is really what it’s about, and then the more you become immersed in it, and trying to succeed in it, adjusting to what it takes to succeed in it, the more you slowly come to realize that it’s about a few things that are entirely different. One of them, as I’ve written about before, is money. But another is the fucked up relationship between sex and power in the entertainment industry. But at the point at which you understand, for better or worse, you’re already a part it, maybe hoping to change it to the degree that you can from the inside, but also accepting what exists as reality, because of everything that you’ve had drummed into you along the way.
For me, that story begins in film school. When I started grad school at NYU, I was 21, and really naive about everything. In my group of college friends at Stanford, most of us knew how to either be in relationships or be single, with very little in between. At film school, full of 20-somethings released into the wild of New York City, there were not only constantly hookups and shifting short- and long-term affairs among the students, but also power dynamics that were playing out in uncomfortable ways. There was one woman I knew who always seemed to be in relationships with men who could do something for her, like provide her with a place to live or help on a project. There was another who was rumored to sleep around, not just with fellow students and TAs, but with professors who were not young or attractive (mind you we also had slutty male classmates but we didn’t talk about them in quite the same way). And then there was the fact that, while everyone in first year shot three films for their fellow students, because rotating roles was the structure of the curriculum, by the time we got to third year, the only women who were shooting were shooting for their boyfriends.
Now, you could look at these facts and make no assumptions, or you could look at them and just think they justified some truly negative stereotypes about women: that they use sex and intimacy to get somewhere, and that they wouldn’t succeed if they didn’t use those things to get ahead — and indeed, that was how a lot of people looked at the first two women I mentioned. But I looked at what was going on and saw,
1) That the people who had the power in the business were generally men. In the entire grad program, I worked with only two female professors. 75% of the TAs were men, and the students and former students who staffed the equipment room were exclusively men.
2) Everyone needed the help of these men in power, because what enabled you to move up in the business was almost purely subjective. In my undergraduate years, the grades you received, even when they involved writing or something else seemingly creative, had generally reflected how hard you’d worked. In film school, you could still get decent grades by working hard, but people only really cared about how “talented” you were. Their judgment of that was partly based on cinematic convention — at the time and in that place, we were watching and talking about Spike Lee, Nick Gomez, and Martin Scorsese (and a small number of us were talking about Jane Campion) — and partly on things like personal taste, how much they liked you, and how much they felt they’d influenced your work. This was why professors promoted their favorites, and that was now considered okay. It was why the chair of the department in my first year (who was let go at the end of that year, probably more because he was an alcoholic) was able to call in a handful of students out of 50 in the first week of school and tell them, “You are the ones I chose to succeed.” In other words, success was just about convincing other people, particularly those in power, that you had something special.
How did you do that? Well, that was the question. If you were a man, you often did it with boldness, confidence and swagger, but by and large, those things didn’t benefit you if you were a woman. Ergo,
3) If you were a woman, a large part of how you gained recognition was through the relationships you created with men. Sexual or intimate relationships certainly were not the only kind that worked. Throughout my first three years of film school, I had a boyfriend, so I generally built friendships with my male classmates by crewing with them on other people’s films. Nothing helps you get to know someone like long days sweating in a swamp in Jersey or long nights freezing on a rat-infested trash pile in the East Village on a disorganized student film, and doing those things with Jim, who ran the equipment room mafia, is how I ended up getting HMIs and the good tripod for my thesis. But I could only get two fellow classmates to let me be their DP after first year — both women — despite that the two guys I’d shot for in first year, who were friends of mine, had been really happy with my work. Basically, I found out that I could become friends with men, but that they generally developed stronger bonds, the kind that made them trust them trust each other with what was important (like the look of their film), with other men. Men generally just did not form those types of relationships with women unless they were intimate with them.
The next couple of lessons I learned in my first years out of film school, when I started working in production while trying to write feature scripts that, I hoped, would help me break into the business as a writer/director. One day, I was at a local cafe and I ended up sitting next to an older man with whom I struck up a conversation. That wasn’t something I normally did, but I was trying to be better about learning how to network, since I knew that this was necessary, and he’d noticed the screenplay on which I was working. This man said that he was a professor and a successful screenwriter, and he gave me his card. I sent him a copy of my script and called him soon after (email wasn’t yet a thing) to see if we could meet up for him to read and talk about my script. When he wrote back, he invited me to go over my script at his apartment. I declined. He didn’t call back. Huh, I thought, this shit really does happen. I was lucky, I guess, in that I really had no incentive to get into an ambiguous situation with a man I didn’t know but who was clearly not earning his living as a screenwriter if he was also a professor. As I started to work in independent film, I learned the second half of this equation: that men will finance any piece of crap another man wants to make if it enables them to live out their sexual fantasies. I saw this over and over and over again in the 90s — I mean, it was embarrassing. The film about the cab driver who gets the supermodel to fall in love with him and leave her boyfriend because of sexual prowess so amazing that he gives her an orgasm the first time they meet without touching her (and without her touching herself either, which to me really only makes her amazing. But anyway, the dirty talk that makes her orgasm is in the script in graphic detail); the one about the man who can have all sorts of wild sex with any woman he wants (again, in the script in graphic detail) but yet gives all that up when he falls in love with the right one, only to be confronted with (surprise!) a supermodel who he must resist at all cost (fun fact: James Toback had a part in that one, and I was treated to listening to him talk to the director about the women on set were while he leered at me, like I was a piece of furniture with breasts. Scumbag). I’d go on, but that’s the point when they were basically all the same? What these things add up to is
4) Sex in the entertainment industry is a commodity, plain and simple. You may have gotten that just from watching movies, television and commercials, but seeing it play out within the business while you’re working in it? That really drives it home.
Especially when you’re trying to navigate dating and relationships. If you were one of the few women on a film set in the 90s, you got a lot of attention, and it was often difficult to figure out what that meant. Spending those intense hours together day in and day out but now for weeks or months, people developed intense feelings about each other that didn’t necessarily have to do with anything real. I often had flirtations or crushes, which I thought meant something, that just ended suddenly ended when you each moved on to other projects. At wrap parties, I’d be the recipient of sloppy drunk kisses, or solicitations for my phone number, from multiple guys with whom I didn’t think I’d had any real connection other than a fine working relationship, but in which there probably had been some flirtatious content, because, well, when you were the only woman on set, that was how everyone interacted with you. And that content often included those things said to you, or to a group of people of which you were a part, that were not appropriate for the workplace — sexual jokes, innuendoes, etc. — but that you had to ignore if you were going to keep working with these people. So, I figured out
5) The rules of behavior for women in the film business often require a certain degree of “friendliness” and tolerance that isn’t required from men. You need to be smiling and nice even when you’re not feeling it, or ignore what makes you uncomfortable, because that’s how you survive and stay employed. There were times when I responded that I considered successful, because only one guy felt uncomfortable around me afterward despite my efforts to explain my feelings to him – and that person didn’t have any control over my job. More often than not, though, like when a sound mixer I was booming for made sexual jokes to me on the private line that only he and I could hear, or when another chose to kiss me on the lips every time we said goodbye at the end of the day, I felt like I couldn’t say anything and still have them hire me, and so I didn’t.
I also ended up erring on the side of not having sex with people I worked with when things were complicated, which largely meant (although not always) my not having sex with anyone, because I was always at work. The actor I was flirting with on the first professional film I ever mixed, but was nervous about getting involved with because it was my first professional film, and because I thought maybe he was only interested in me because he was the one non-gay actor on the film and wanted to prove he wasn’t gay? While I was trying to figure that one out, he slept with my boom operator. The AD I was into who seemed into me but who had a girlfriend? I waffled, he slept with the makeup artist, and I hooked up with someone else – after the film was over, because even when I was desperate to get laid, I was absurdly cautious about getting into awkward situations in the workplace and how other people there might perceive me. I found, however, that there seem to be no rules for most people, because
6) It’s easy to get involved in inappropriate and often fucked up relationships on film sets. This is probably true of many work environments, because workplace sex is fraught (and if HR is ineffective now, in the 90s it basically didn’t exist), but it’s even more true, I think, when you have short-term jobs with an ever-changing cast of potential partners, which creates an even greater incentive to think only about yourself and fuck all else, sometimes literally. A lot of people have an affair or two on every job, which is just complicated in the normal ways (especially when it’s two). But then there’s the key PA who always seems to hook up with the hottest guy on the set she’s on, who is usually the main actor (once it was a good-looking AC, but that was the exception), or the European DP who assumes his AC will be his mistress for the duration of the shoot (on the job where I met him, the first AC told me she had turned him down, so he was sleeping with the second). This is where it gets particularly murky: when it’s a seemingly consensual relationship between a man in power and a woman who’s not, whose career he can directly affect. Where do you draw the line on who’s doing something wrong? I bet many of you would draw it between those two women: the key PA, like the European DP, did this serially, so she was clearly “no innocent,” whereas the AC was in a position where she may have felt pressured. I bet some of you would just say that they were both adults, making their own choices. Some might even say that both women used sex for personal gain, and using that calculus, you might look down on the AC more, since she’s now a successful camera operator. But to me, both situations are indications of something just plain rotten in the industry. We don’t know what really went down between these men and these women, except that the men had power and the women didn’t, and sex was involved.
Maybe all of this still doesn’t make sense to you, how so many of us could know that this is how things work in this business and still work in this business. But let me point out one more thing in case it’s not clear:
7) What’s at stake is huge. It’s the fulfillment of your creative aspirations, plus fame that opens doors to everything, and financial reward beyond what any human being really needs. This is what the film industry promises to all of us, and even once you realize you’re probably not going to get those things because hardly anyone does, and that the people who have them aren’t necessarily happy because they’ve made loads of compromises to get there, once you’re a part of the system, once you think you understand it, even once you know how rigged and wrong it is in every way, it’s really hard to let go of the dream. Especially when you’ve been through or put up with or done so much that you never thought you would.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re in this industry, you knew because you know. You know that this is what it’s like, and that makes you culpable, because you’ve compromised, just like we all have. A business where men have all the power and relationships with them are everything, where sex is a commodity, where women are constantly placed in inappropriate situations and forced to choose between poor options, and where the stakes are incredibly high, is just going to be a bad business for women. So if you’re a part of the business, you’re also a part of the bad. Yes, I’ve been a victim, but I’m also part of the system, I’m one of those cogs that keeps it chugging along. I’m taking responsibility for that, as hard as it may sometimes be, rather than just shrugging and saying, as I have so many times, That’s just how it is. That means speaking up not just occasionally but whenever I see something that shouldn’t happen happen. It means creating work with complex female lead characters instead of just Madonnas and supermodels. It means supporting women and helping them move up whenever possible, to change the power imbalance. And even if I’ve failed at changing much because I’m nobody, I need to keep trying, or I need to get the fuck out.
What about you?