In the wake of scandal, the movie industry reckons with its past and its future.
By Dana Goodyear for The New Yorker
“I’m calling it the Purge,” a friend who works in Hollywood told me, a few days into the post-Weinstein era. Off the top of his head, he listed half a dozen men in the entertainment business whose behavior, he hoped, would no longer be condoned. In the weeks to come, they started toppling, joined by others, in a seemingly never-ending cascade, the world’s longest domino trick. The morning-news anchor, the worldly talk-show host, the animation genius with the awful shirts, “feminist” men, liberals, tortured artists, moguls, icons, “bad boys,” funny guys, even the folksy curmudgeon from public radio: they are being fired; stepping down; awkwardly apologizing, engendering ridicule and pique; or defending themselves and inviting rage. Then, like a backward rapture, they disappear, with the tacit or expressed acknowledgment that this is not their time.
Amy Ziering, a documentarian who has made films about sexual assault in the military and on college campuses and is now at work on one about Hollywood—suddenly, funding has materialized—told me, “I’m stunned. I keep reading the headlines, thinking, Am I reading the Onion or the New York Times? ‘Man Accused of Assault and Fired!’ It’s surreal.”
Early in November, a headline about someone suspended for sexual harassment caught my eye. Looking at the photo, I recognized him from a local playground; our kids are close in age. It was Andrew Kreisberg, who oversaw several DC Comics shows at Warner Bros., for Greg Berlanti. The comments following the story were damning—about the companies involved, about the culture of silence and denial, and about Kreisberg’s behavior, which allegedly included subjecting female colleagues to belittling remarks and uncomfortable physical situations. But the most memorable contribution came from a commenter called Andrew Kreisberg, who provided an index to these disturbing and exhilarating times, a Polaroid we can refer to if we one day want to remember what life was like during the fall of 2017:
Nobody has accused me of rape like Weinstein.
Nobody has accused me of drugging them like Guillod.
Nobody has accused me of groping like Landesman.
Nobody has accused me of abusing minors like Spacey.
Nobody has accused me of exposing myself like Louis CK.
Nobody has accused me of asking for favors in exchange for work like Ratner.
Kreisberg denies conducting himself inappropriately at work (and also maintains that the comment in his name was written by someone who had assumed his identity). In any case, by the end of the month, the studio had fired him, citing a commitment to a “safe working environment.” Brett Ratner, who also, until recently, had a close business relationship with Warner Bros., disputed allegations of misconduct and filed a defamation suit against a woman who accused him of rape. Under pressure, he has stepped away from his projects with the studio, and he no longer has an office on the lot. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and David Guillod, who all issued denials, have faced professional repercussions, and police in various jurisdictions have opened criminal investigations against them.
In response to the proliferating accusations in Hollywood, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has established a sex-crimes task force, and the police department has assigned five pairs of detectives, including experts in reviving cold cases. So far, twenty-seven investigations have been opened, including at least one involving minors. “It’s a moment of reckoning and a moment of soul-searching, in which people must reassess and meaningfully adjust their behavior,” a former studio head told me. “It’s a wrenching time of ripping the Band-Aid off and realizing that there is a deep wound that we all have to take some responsibility for creating—for complacency, if not complicity. I’m horrified that these things must have gone on on my watch. I can say, ‘Well, I didn’t know.’ But that’s no longer acceptable.”
The reckoning disorients even those most attuned to the system’s dysfunction. Angela Robinson, who directed the recent movie “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” and is black and gay, likens the experience to being in a dive bar when someone suddenly flips a switch. “All the lights are off and it’s sexy and dark and the music’s going and it creates a whole kind of fantasy,” she said. “I feel like somebody turned the lights on, and it’s, like, ‘Ahh! Gross.’ ”
The churn of gossip and angst and exultation is unrelenting—text chains hectic with exclamation points, calls to old colleagues, Deadline Hollywood constantly refreshing with a new claim or consequence. “It is all this town is talking about,” a veteran female television writer told me. “Every meeting, every lunch, anywhere you go. I went to a birthday party at a fancy showrunner’s house, walked into the kitchen, and six white dudes—showrunners, actors, and agents—were standing in a circle having a come-to-Jesus about sexual harassment, like, ‘I looked down into my soul to ask myself, Have I done anything wrong?’ ”
An already uncertain business has a new variable: Who is safe to work with, and who might blow up tomorrow? (Rotten Apples, a recently launched Web site, provides a database of shows and movies and their affiliations with those accused of misconduct.) “All people want to know is, Who’s next and what happens? How long do these people stay off the playing field, are they done for good, does this provide opportunities for women, is this permanent, temporary, what?” a television executive said. “Is this an overreaction? Should all doors literally be glass? Nobody knows how to act now. The rules have been so changed.”
The former studio head told me, “In staff meetings, in writers’ rooms, in casting sessions, how you greet somebody in a restaurant, the language you use—every nuance has been impacted.” Unless someone’s father just died or you are best friends, no one is hugging anymore. “Unwanted hugs” featured in an apology issued by Pixar’s John Lasseter and, unforgettably, in the details that emerged about his behavior. (“He was inappropriate with the fairies,” hugging them too long, a former Pixar executive told Deadline.) Cathy Schulman, an Oscar-winning producer and the president of the advocacy group Women in Film, said that lately, when she walks into a man’s office and tries to close the door, he objects. “It’s happened at least ten times in the past two months,” she told me. “And there are constant apologies in meetings—‘I didn’t mean that to sound gendered.’ Fumbling over language to be careful to say ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they’—not everything ‘he.’ But not naturally. As in, ‘Whoever gets this job, he should—they should—she should . . . ’ ”
In a historically male-dominated business, the burden of earning acceptance has shifted with fearful speed. “Everyone’s tiptoeing,” a male comedy producer told me. “ ‘You know I’m one of the good guys, right? You’ll put in a good word with the matriarchy for me?’—as we gloriously flip into the reverse ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ society.” Every phone meeting includes a mandatory detour into conscientious talk about what repulsive lowlifes the perpetrators are and how it’s about time, and if there’s some collateral damage so be it, it’s just a fraction of what women have endured, et cetera. The assistants—young and often female, the presumed inheritors—are listening on the line. No one wants to get caught on the wrong side of history.
The actress came to Hollywood with her mother when she was three, after her father gave his secretary a fur coat for Christmas and her mother demanded a divorce. The actress was a year older than Shirley Temple, a year younger than Jane Withers. She could remember lines. On her third day in Los Angeles, her mother took her to a casting call, where she met Judy Garland and got her first role.
Upon signing a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the actress became a player in Louis B. Mayer’s stable. “If you worked for Mr. Mayer, you didn’t just lollygag,” she says. “I was loaned out to everybody. ‘Altruistic’ would not describe him. If you were under contract to him, you were like a piece of chattel. You were supposed to bow and scrape and curtsy. Mr. Mayer was, in his own mind, godlike.” In the course of the next thirteen years, she appeared in a hundred and ten films, alongside Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy, Merle Oberon—as the little-girl version of all the big-name stars. Bette Davis was the first person to send her flowers. Lana Turner, her babysitter, taught her to tweeze her brows. Harry Ruskin, one of M-G-M’s most prolific writers, made her his protégée, supplying her with books and instructing her in his view of the world. She never went to school.
One day, when she was around six, as she remembers it, she and her mother were waiting to see Mayer. The door to his office opened, revealing a woman, with her back to them, shouting at Mayer, “Don’t tell me! I fucked every one of you bastards on the way up.” The woman turned around: it was Norma Shearer, who was married to Irving Thalberg, Mayer’s partner at M-G-M. That was the first time the young actress heard the word “fuck.” Later, in Mayer’s office, she asked him what it meant. She didn’t get her answer right away.
When she turned sixteen, she recalls, Ruskin invited her to his office for lunch—a normal occurrence, as he hosted a lunch-hour salon with people who amused him, and she often went. On this day, no one else was invited. He handed her a synopsis with a part written specifically for her. “Right there came the proposition,” she says. “Just frank. Just out. I was the typical battered wife—I thought I had done something, that I had been provocative or dressed provocatively or done something to instigate this. Because why would he do this? It was like incest to me.”
She left Ruskin’s office and found a broom closet to weep in. “I felt myself coming unglued,” she says. “My mother never permitted me to cry, unless I was being paid for it.” When she had composed herself, she went upstairs to Mayer’s office. “He said, ‘Have you seen Harry?’ I said, ‘Yes, but’—he wouldn’t let me say anything. ‘Have you read the synopsis?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Don’t you love it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘We have your favorite producer, your favorite cinematographer,’ and so forth. Finally, I got a word in. I said, ‘But, Mr. Mayer, do you know what Harry wants me to do?’ By this time I was in a chair. He was a little man, and he definitely had a Napoleonic complex, because he had huge overstuffed furniture. I was in a great big black leather chair over in a corner. He was behind this enormous square desk, and he came around, sat on the arm of the chair, put his arm on my shoulder, pulled me toward him, and said, ‘You’ll get used to it.’ ”
She wouldn’t. She went home and burned all her films, photographs, scripts, and memorabilia. Her mother didn’t believe her, and implored her to apologize to Ruskin for hurting his feelings. When Mayer realized that she was serious about refusing to play along, he threatened to destroy her career: wagging his finger under her nose, he said she’d never work on a soundstage again. “Mr. Mayer,” she said, “that is my heartfelt desire.” She confided in her friends Lucille Ball and Ava Gardner, who were not surprised. “They said he was a rat bastard, but the more you stir you-know-what, the more it smells,” she says. “Their advice was, Live with it, get over it, let it go, just let it go.”
The actress is ninety now, vibrant and witty, a favorite of the waiters in Beverly Hills. She wears heels and trim leather blazers and pencils her eyebrows. (Thanks to Miss Turner, they never grew back.) After telling me her story—a story she has not told her children, because it still fills her with shame—she paused, then said, “Does that answer all your questions about that epoch, how different it is not? It’s not a bit different than today.”
The sexual revolution, anti-harassment laws, the testimony of Anita Hill—despite them, the silence found places to hide. Women who spoke out were deemed “crazy,” unreliable witnesses and reckless self-saboteurs, or they were “difficult,” not likely to get the next job. (Cassandra, the classical figure of the discredited woman, is also a victim of sexual assault and retribution: when she rejects Apollo, he spits in her mouth and curses her to proclaim truths that no one believes.) In Hollywood, respecting the silence has practically been a condition of employment. One woman I talked to, a television writer who has worked on seven shows—and who remarked ruefully that three of her former bosses have recently been implicated in sexual misconduct—told me that a colleague cautioned her on the first day of her first job, at Warner Bros.: “This used to be the ‘Friends’ room, and you know what happened to that writers’ assistant when she made a stink?”
Amaani Lyle, the writers’ assistant who had made the stink, got a job on “Friends” in 1999, when she was twenty-seven. The daughter of a touring jazz musician, she had grown up in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles and attended progressive private schools, before studying film at Emerson College, in Boston. She was used to being the only woman of color in the room. “Friends,” then in its sixth season on NBC, was one of the most watched shows on television; being in the writers’ room meant a potential credit that would propel her career.
Lyle’s job was to write down what the writers talked about. According to testimony she gave later, several of them talked about anal sex, oral sex, “fucking,” “pussies,” “schlongs,” what color hair they preferred women to have, what size breasts, and how one of the writers had missed his chance with one of the show’s stars. They referred to a lead actress as “having dried branches in her vagina”; one writer “frequently brought up his fantasy about an episode of the show in which one of the male characters enters the bathroom while a female character is showering and rapes her.” They doodled offensive anatomical drawings, vocalized pleasure while pretending to masturbate, altered a calendar in the writers’ room so that it read “pert tits” instead of “persistence” and “penis” instead of “happiness.”
“I can’t even say I was offended,” Lyle told me recently. “That’s how steeped in the culture I was. It was such a ubiquitous thing that it would’ve seemed off to have them not do that stuff.” She didn’t want to change the dynamic of the writers’ room; she wanted to diversify the show’s all-white cast. At the time, NBC was openly referred to as “No Black Characters.” Lyle, whose previous job had been at “Kenan & Kel,” on Nickelodeon, pitched a story line involving an African-American love interest for Joey, the character played by Matt LeBlanc.
After four months, Lyle was fired, ostensibly for typing too slowly. “I wasn’t the chip-on-the-shoulder, man-has-got-me-down kind of person,” she told me, but she suspected that her typing was not the real reason. Her apparent otherness, she felt, made the writers self-conscious—and awareness of intersectionality wasn’t then thought of as a virtue. After suing, unsuccessfully, for wrongful termination and racial discrimination, she joined the Air Force and moved to Germany, where she worked as a reporter for military publications. Meanwhile, her lawyer, who had taken note of her detailed descriptions of her work environment, continued to pursue a sexual-harassment claim.
The writers didn’t generally dispute the behavior Lyle had described; instead, they made a novel argument, on First Amendment grounds, that their behavior was a “creative necessity,” indispensable to the making of a show about a group of unmarried adult friends. The raunchy patter, so long as it wasn’t directed at Lyle, was part of their job. An amicus brief, signed by Steven Bochco, David Milch, Norman Lear, Diane English, and a hundred and twenty-seven other writers, argued that “the process creators go through to capture the necessary magic is inexact, counterintuitive, nonlinear, often painful—and above all, delicate.” Self-censorship could damage their productivity.
A dissenting amicus brief, filed by a group of legal scholars, argued that the habits of the writers’ room “effectively maintained an exclusionary culture that systematically, if unintentionally, marginalizes female writers and writers’ assistants.” A First Amendment exception to sexual-harassment rules would “essentially sanction this form of exclusion in the entire television writing sector.” In 2006, the California Supreme Court sided with the writers. After that, the female television writer told me, Warner Bros. began triumphantly including Lyle’s affidavit in mandatory sexual-harassment training sessions: “It was used as proof that anything goes in a writers’ room, and there’s not really such a thing as sexual harassment in that context, because to be creative you have to be able to say whatever comes to mind.”
“Creative necessity” is a bedrock principle in Hollywood, but the extreme behavior it protects may be unsupportable now. Ivy Kagan Bierman is a lawyer who specializes in sexual-harassment-prevention training for the entertainment industry. She told me she wouldn’t be surprised if, in the coming years, legislation and case law refined our understanding of sexual harassment. “Is the Lyle case going to hold up now?” she asked. “We will see.”
Lyle, who works freelance at the Pentagon and is in the Air Force Reserve, has more or less given up on a Hollywood career—though recently she’s been invited to come back and pitch material. She told me she fears that it would be an “exercise in futility.” Retaliation can be shifty; things don’t work out and you never really know why. Amani Walker, a successful Hollywood writer and the creator of “Rebel,” told Lyle that she was once passed over for a job by a boss who had evidently confused her with Amaani Lyle.
With some frustration, Lyle referred me to a Times story about the California Supreme Court decision. In it, a fellow “Friends” writers’ assistant, who went on to a lucrative career, compared her situation with his, telling the reporter, “See what happens when you keep your mouth shut?” But Lyle never intended to mount a crusade. “Looking back, if I had kept on with that trajectory in my career and they didn’t criticize my work, I wouldn’t have scrutinized the process,” she told me. “I wouldn’t have cared how the sausage was made.”
The women the business has typically rewarded are unflappable—skilled at keeping the equilibrium, even if it’s unequal. One female television writer in her thirties, who has worked in a number of mostly male writers’ rooms, said, “I’ve been told I’m very staffable because I’m fun. I can take a lot of abuse and still crack a joke.” When she started out, her representatives told her that, as a woman, she would need to climb the ladder rung by rung; she understood that, if she ever wanted her own series, she could not get fired along the way. On a show where the female creator had been fired for being “crazy” and “difficult,” she developed methods of self-preservation, inuring herself to the indignities—such as an executive saying, as he listened to her pitch a sex scene, that he was “getting hard already,” and her male colleagues telling her to take it as a compliment. She regrets passing her methods down, teaching other women how not to ruffle the men in charge. “I had a friend who was interviewing for a staff writing job,” she told me. “I gave her the advice to have thick skin and a light heart. I felt like such a betrayer of my feminist values. What I was saying was, You have to seem fun while being abused. Everyone wants to have a good time while at work.”
Around the time that Amaani Lyle was fired, another woman I talked to was a vice-president of development at a small production company with a studio deal. She was in her early thirties, but, because she is female, she was known as a D-girl. (There was no such thing as a D-boy.) The executive on her account, a few years younger and a rising star at the studio, decided he wanted to sleep with her. He was anointed, a brother in the studio fraternity. He was, the woman heard from her boss, “our guy.”
The woman wore librarian glasses and thrift-store clothes, and kept her hair short. It was her style, but also a signal of her seriousness, her not-gameness. It provoked him, even though his own girlfriend was “hot,” as he told her all the time. “Can you believe I want to fuck you and that’s my girlfriend?” he said.
Several times a week, she had to call him to talk about a script, a writer, the status of a project. Instead, he asked her what she looked like naked, and sulked when she declined to flirt. It was impossible, under these conditions, to do her work effectively, but she had to make nice—he was their guy.
The woman and her friends didn’t use the word “harassment”; it was just the business. If it had occurred to her to complain, whom could she have complained to? The studio’s H.R.? And never get another job in Hollywood? Eventually, she left town, full of antipathy after what she considers a mediocre career. She found work that suited her. He stayed in Hollywood and became an extremely successful independent producer of thrillers and adventure tales. In the past two months, she has started thinking about him again, the feeling of being on the phone with him resurfacing, an infuriating reminder of what she sees as her own failure. She finds herself Googling his name.
Kim Masters, an investigative journalist at the Hollywood Reporter, is firm, skeptical, witheringly sane. Not long after she began covering Hollywood, Jeffrey Katzenberg told her, “Every time I see your name on my call sheet, I get a stomach ache.” She thought, “I’m winning.” The first time she met Harvey Weinstein, twenty years ago, at the Peninsula, she remembers that he verbally accosted her, asking, “What have you heard about me?” She took a breath. “I heard you rape women,” she replied. Because the meeting was off the record, she won’t repeat his answer, but, she says, it wasn’t a denial. She started trying to break a story on him then, but without accusers coming forward it was impossible to publish.
Masters has sometimes been dismissed as a muckraker, but it turns out that muck often hides morally outrageous truths. In August, before reporting in the Times and in this magazine unmasked Weinstein and the industry around him, Masters had a juicy piece about Roy Price, the head of film and television at Amazon, who in 2015 had been investigated by the company for sexual harassment. Without a strong statement from the accuser, she struggled to find a place to publish the story. (It finally appeared on the Information.) Six weeks later, the accuser, inspired by the women who spoke out against Weinstein, shared a detailed account with Masters, who published it in the Reporter. That very day, Amazon suspended Price—for behavior that had been investigated to no visible effect two years earlier. Chatter started up about Price’s misogynistic taste—he was, after all, the person who passed on “The Handmaid’s Tale”—and about the culture he fostered. Another writer told me, “Female friends who went in for meetings at Amazon would say, ‘God, I feel like I just got back from Sigma Phi Epsilon.’ ” Five days after the details of Price’s behavior became public, he resigned. Nothing had changed but the weather.
Hollywood, Masters says, has long operated like a men-only club. “This town is shot through with a culture of intimidation, boys having fun, going to Las Vegas, hiring hookers. They don’t want female colleagues anywhere near them. Women are not invited and not promoted. I remember Dawn Steel saying, ‘If only I could go whoring with these guys my life would be so much easier.’ ”
Still, Masters has been shocked to see how pervasive sexual harassment is, particularly at certain studios and agencies. “It’s not just one or two people,” she said. “It’s woven into the fucking fabric.” She went on, “What’s become clear to me is how deeply the culture of tolerating this behavior is rooted. You have a standoff—mutually assured destruction. There’s so much bad behavior, if you try to get rid of one guy then he says, ‘I will go after you. I know what you did.’ The behavior is entrenched at such high levels. You almost have to burn the companies down.”
In the past several weeks, the Hollywood Reporter has created a sexual-misconduct beat and assigned seven reporters, who are fielding ten to fifteen tips a day. Masters decides which to pursue based on the criteria of egregiousness and reportorial difficulty—very egregious and very difficult she pursues assiduously. “These companies, they know,” she said. “They know that very high-level people are vulnerable. And I have no doubt they are in a state of absolute panic. With some of these people, it could hurt the company’s stock if these things get revealed. There’s a huge burden of responsibility, with implications all the way to Wall Street.” While pursuing the John Lasseter story, which she broke, she reached out to a Disney source and said, “I guess you know what I’m calling about.” He simply said, “Yes, I do.” More bombshells were coming, she assured me. “There are people on the job right now exhibiting very dubious behavior,” she said. “They know who they are.”
In some quarters, “How are you?” doesn’t feel like a neutral overture anymore. “I’m fucking awful,” one of the accused replied bitterly, when I got him on the phone. Another man I talked with joked grimly, “I’m hiding under my desk.” He told me, “I believe I have a clean record, but anything’s possible. They’re going back fifty years on people.” If complaints come, he said, “you can’t defend yourself. And of course that’s right for a better set of behaviors, for people being more conscious. There is a good side to this. For those who have done something really terrible, that’s all good.” But what about the murky, in-between behavior—remarks or innuendos that at the time seemed fine, to the one initiating them? “I’ve never done anything like those guys,” he went on. “But I’m not perfect.”
Among his peers, there is a growing concern about the optics of having a young woman as an assistant. (This is backlash at the threshold: for many, the assistant desk represents the entryway to an entertainment-industry career.) His own assistant, who recently graduated from a competitive college, is professional, good-natured, and, problematically, female. “I’m thinking, Jesus, they’re looking at me,” he said. “Before, it might have been ‘He’s sleeping with her—and whatever.’ ” Now he worries that having a young female assistant will invite speculation, and speculation begets reporters’ calls. The very idea provokes hysteria. “Men are living as Jews in Germany,” he said.
For one sector of the industry, it is a golden age. “I get a call every single day,” a Hollywood sexual-harassment investigator, who is currently looking into two rape allegations, told me. “If you’re a workplace investigator and you’re not busy now, give it up.” Prompted by journalists, companies are combing through their files, seeing who must go. “Majority is, someone’s come forward and we’re investigating this now,” she said. “That’s now-now. Not in a few days or a week. It’s gotten very frantic.”
In the past, men who got caught used a magic spell: “I am an alcoholic/sex addict and am seeking treatment.” Arnold Gilberg, a prominent psychiatrist who has treated many high-profile people in Hollywood for sex addiction, sees the display of compunction as evasive. He told me, “They get nailed and go into facilities to avoid the penalty for their behavior.” The men currently under scrutiny, he said, are experiencing “a masturbatory equivalent—they exposed themselves and now they’re getting exposed.”
One measure of the completeness of the atmospheric change is that the magic spell no longer works. In its place is the righteous meme of “zero tolerance.” Companies have cited it; Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm, invoked it as she announced a commission that she is forming to address the problems of harassment and inequality. Cathy Schulman, of Women in Film, says that what the phrase means in practice is “We’re going to no longer cover up all that stuff we knew that person did while he was making money.”
All at once, the investigator said, “the Zeitgeist has changed. What might not have cost you your job a year ago, this cannot stand now. Now you’re gone. In the past, it was possible to counsel somebody and they would stay. Sometimes it was surprising. I’d think, Wow, you’re letting him come back?”
I asked her to describe her remediation work. “My experience of coaching these people is that they really don’t see why what they did was wrong,” she said. “It’s a failure of empathy or of introspection. Or they’re just sociopaths, or they’re really stupid. There’s a range. I sit down with these guys one on one. I start by saying, ‘Why are we here?’ Some say things like ‘I was set up.’ ‘It was a witch hunt.’ ‘You should have seen what the other guys did.’ ‘She participated.’ ‘I’m a Christian.’ All these deflective things people say. They just don’t get it. The workplace is a sandbox where they play out their social stuff and their family stuff.”
Zero tolerance cuts a ghostly swath; since October, the remediation business has been in a slump. “Totally over,” the investigator said. Photographs of the accused have come down from the walls; their names are being scrubbed from donated buildings; performances have been reshot with replacement actors, online libraries pulled, movies shelved. The investigator said, “An association with the accused is totally toxic now, with this wave upon wave upon wave, and Soviet Union-style erasure.” Siberia, in this case, might be defined by what one fired agent told a former client: he was “pivoting away from representation” and planning to reinvent himself in tech.
The blackball system, perfected by Hollywood’s most powerful men as a means of financial and social control, has been turned on its practitioners. It’s a moment fraught with peril, for women and for men. “There’s an explosion of stories that are about trial by press,” Schulman said. “Obviously, I’m a leader of the women’s movement, and I’m in no way suggesting there aren’t heinous crimes, but we’re in a voyeuristic trend. Now, based on a single allegation, there’s firing, there’s blacklisting. There’s a very fine line between criminal harassment and sex crimes and other things like freedom of speech and bad behavior.” An environment where men won’t mentor women for fear of opening themselves to harassment claims will only aggravate the disparity between the sexes. She said, “We’re already seeing blowback from men, saying, ‘The last thing I want is to be in a room privately with a woman and say one little thing and get accused.’ ”
Jeremy Zimmer, the C.E.O. and a co-founder of United Talent Agency, fired Bill O’Reilly as a client, and when the Weinstein news broke he quickly wrote a letter expressing unambiguous support for the accusers (some of whom are his clients). For him, the revelations have been bracing. “You wake up one day and look back and say, Holy shit,” he told me. “What world do I want my daughters to live in? The first place I can do something about it is at U.T.A.” (His agency recently signed the actor Terry Crews, who accused an agent at William Morris Endeavor of sexual assault, and left W.M.E. when it failed to fire the agent.) But he has qualms. “It’s really tricky stuff, and it’s very politically incorrect to wonder if we’re going too far,” he said. “People in my position are talking about the pendulum. How far in one direction does the pendulum go? And how much collateral damage does it do?”
These days, a sign of virtue—or is it contrition?—is to cancel a party and donate the savings to supporting victims of sexual harassment and abuse. Creative Artists Agency, which was named in a recent Times piece as a critical cog in Weinstein’s “complicity machine,” pledged to create a legal fund with its pre-Golden Globes party budget. W.M.E. paid for a sexual-harassment help line in the offices of Women in Film.
Wary of appearing unenlightened, companies are scrambling to put women in leadership roles. Amazon is reportedly looking at a number of female candidates to replace Roy Price. But, while it’s one thing to celebrate women moving into a few positions vacated by disgraced men, actual progress will require a change in policy at the studios and at the networks. Katherine Pope, a television executive in her forties, who insists on interviewing women and people of color when she hires directors, said that the situation is dire. Even at companies where women hold impressive titles, there are layers of white men with veto power above them. “The studios and networks have got to get more meaningful about the makeup,” she said. “It’s like a patient’s flatlining and you’ve got to shock it back. It’s going to take extreme measures.”
Changing century-old norms will require overcoming deep unconscious biases. “The women have to be the most qualified, brilliant, perfect people in the world, and men get to grow into the job,” Pope said. “You hear code—‘You have to mature. You’re still learning.’ Or ‘I know she’s a great development executive, but does she know the business?’ ” Aside from applying reactive zero-tolerance policies and adding a few hotlines, studios and the networks have yet to make decisive moves. The former studio head told me that he has urged old colleagues to implement some quick fixes—say, no more meetings in hotel rooms, on pain of firing—but they have ignored him. For the time being, he says, it’s a “bunker mentality.” Perhaps the companies are wary of claiming a moral high ground they can’t defend.
Stacy L. Smith is a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who specializes in gender parity in the entertainment industry. For years, she has been pressing Hollywood to adopt a gender-based version of the Rooney Rule—the N.F.L.’s pledge to interview diverse candidates for head-coach jobs. In her research, she has looked at inequities in onscreen speaking roles (66.5 per cent male), characters over the age of forty (74.3 per cent male), and sexualization (more nudity, suggestive clothing, and references to attractiveness for female characters). More than seventy per cent of writers in the industry are male, as are nearly eighty-five per cent of directors. She has also found that, when women direct, all these numbers become more representative.
“The number of women onscreen is unchanged from the nineteen-forties,” Smith told me. “Onscreen and behind the camera, many of these cultures are very similar. Hollywood perpetuates the view of women as marginalized and unimportant, and that’s mirrored throughout top film markets globally. Hollywood is also the place that can address and change this.” Women in Film, which commissioned Smith to examine pipeline problems for female directors, has started pitching studios and agencies on the idea of adding an inclusion clause to their contracts, with an accompanying stamp to signify “gender parity in decision-making.”
Throughout the fall, some of the industry’s most powerful women have been meeting in secret, determined to capitalize on a rare and possibly short-lived opportunity. In October, core members of the movement, including Oprah Winfrey, Shonda Rhimes, Constance Wu, Ava DuVernay, and Reese Witherspoon, gathered at Creative Artists Agency to discuss ways of transforming Hollywood. “We’re using Naomi Klein’s notion of disaster capitalism—where the hurricane hits and capitalists shove their company into the chaos,” one of the attendees told me. “We’re doing disaster feminism. In the chaos that is ensuing, how can we create institutional, structural change, so if the moment passes those things will be in place?”
Like a post-sexual “Lysistrata,” the women’s best leverage may be to withhold business from those who refuse to play along. In early December, there were signs of a coördinated effort, beginning with the agencies. Rhimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” is a client at I.C.M. Partners. At her urging, the agency announced that it would commit to achieving fifty-fifty gender parity among its department heads, partners, and board members by 2020. C.A.A. recently promoted two women to its management committee. It, too, pledged to achieve fifty-fifty gender parity by 2020, and issued a blanket apology to “any person the agency let down for not meeting the high expectations we place on ourselves.” Michelle Kydd Lee, the first female partner at the company and now its chief innovation officer, acknowledged that, for C.A.A. and the culture at large, the challenge is significant. Still, she said, “I am optimistic that we’re having these conversations across genders. These conversations were happening within our gender forever. There’s a real drive for self-awareness.”
In the meantime, before deeply held attitudes have a chance to change, there is a disjunctive new normal. Not long ago, Zimmer and several other members of the U.T.A. board cleared their Friday afternoon to welcome Anita Hill and Fatima Goss Graves, the president and C.E.O. of the National Women’s Law Center, to the agency’s theatre. (A few days later, Kathleen Kennedy announced that Hill, who has reëmerged as a feminist prophet, would lead her commission, which aims to create “more equitable and accountable workplaces” in the entertainment industry.) Tarana Burke, the activist behind #MeToo, was in the front row, sitting near Alyssa Milano, who helped popularize Burke’s hashtag by using it in support of Rose McGowan’s rape claim against Weinstein. Speaking before a backdrop that said #MeTooWhatNext, Hill described her experience testifying about sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “At the end of the hearing, in 1991, there was a public poll taken, and roughly two-thirds of the population believed I had lied under oath,” she said. “I think in today’s atmosphere more people would believe my story, would understand my story.”
Afterward, Hill attended a reception on the patio, which is next door to the headquarters of Playboy. “I definitely don’t think we can go back from this moment,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that there won’t be a period where we’re going to see some pushback, and there probably will be even some severe backlash. But I also think that we’re not going to be the same. You’re not going to be able to put all that back into a box—that people know the truth of what happens to women.” ♦