United States / Sexual Harassment

The Abusive Underbelly of Politics, Art, and Media

Images of powerful women have defined the last two years of American media coverage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the favorite for the 2017 presidential election, overcame decades of sexist media coverage when over a million self-proclaimed “Nasty Women” and allies took to the streets in pink-hatted droves after President Trump’s inauguration. Stunningly wealthy women dominate pop culture with their self-made brands; consider the Kardashian family, Taylor Swift, or Beyoncé. The American media flaunts a glossy veneer of gender equality, boasting that if these rare, romanticized female moguls can succeed, surely any woman can. Yet, ironically, the media is fraught with an undercurrent of sexism.

Throughout October, two male leaders in American media dominated news headlines, largely due to their sexist behavior. Hugh Hefner, the owner of Playboy Enterprises, passed away at the age of ninety-one on September 27. While his magazine defined the 20th-century sexual revolution, and his brand was brilliantly marketed, Hefner himself was abusive and exploitative to women. Praising his business savvy and astute understanding of the repressed American psyche while condemning his exploitation of women is difficult.

On a slightly similar note, film producer Harvey Weinstein, who reigns over Hollywood with artistic blockbusters and high-powered collaborations and is a prominent Democratic campaign donor, has been recently hit with dozens of sexual harassment and assault allegations. Though Weinstein’s films shaped twenty-first-century cinema through their emotional nuance, cinematography, and screenwriting, and he influenced Democrats such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren, isolating these cultural and sociopolitical impacts from their abusive source is challenging.

From art and culture to activism and politics, Hefner and Weinstein’s impact on American culture is omnipresent; now, America must reconcile these social achievements with the cycles of abuse and sexism they allowed. It would be politically naive to ignore the progressive politics Hefner tapped into in order to further Playboy’s message of sexual inhibition; Hefner’s politics can be explored and even respected, but all who consider giving money to the Playboy brand should be aware of Hefner’s abusive tendencies. On that note of politics, Weinstein’s influence on the Democratic party should not negate the party’s platform of gender equality; Weinstein acted independently of the politicians he donated to, and those supported by him now condemn his abuse. Furthermore, while it would be foolish to negate the artistic significance of Weinstein’s cinema, one should not praise or support the serial abuser himself.

Hugh Hefner, a media tycoon who converted silken pajamas to daytime attire and endorsed bevies of bunny-eared women as the pinnacle of American sexuality, generates polarizing headlines. Though a rallying cry against Hefner and his lascivious Playboy brand has recently arisen, some argue that Hefner was a pioneer of the American sexual revolution, for, as he advertised, “Playboy is the antidote to puritanism.” He also showcased the female body and may have opened dialogue about sexual pleasure. However, Hefner’s born-again identity as a progressive and feminist makes little sense.

Many use Playboy’s socially progressive content as examples of Hefner’s commitment to social justice. Though Playboy occasionally incorporated gay, reproductive, and transgender rights, these hopeful moments created sexualized shock waves and did not improve the social standing of LGBT people.

In 1957, Playboy featured science fiction author Charles Beaumont’s dystopian piece “The Crooked Man,” depicting a future where heterosexuality was outlawed while homosexuality was accepted. In the face of vehement reader opposition, Hefner responded, “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong, too.” Hefner denounced homophobia—the “reverse” of the heterophobia Beaumont cleverly presented. The fact that Hefner was unafraid to speak his mind and lose readers less than two years into Playboy’s lifespan is impressive; Hefner clearly embraced artistic liberty.

In dealing with birth control and sexuality, Hefner seemed offended that women did not gladly accept his olive branches of quasi-feminism. As he told Vanity Fair,Playboy fought for what became women’s issues, including birth control. We were the amicus curiae, friend of the court, in Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose [abortion]. But the notion that women would not embrace their own sexuality is insane.” He claimed that feminism had a “puritan, prohibitionist element that is antisexual;” feminism does indeed incorporate discussions of sexuality, but not featuring the male perspectives that satisfy Playboy’s readers. Feminism is only “antisexual” to someone who sees sexuality as inherently misogynistic.

Playboy later represented the trans community, perhaps out of goodwill or, more likely, for shock value. In 1991, transgender actress Caroline Cossey appeared in a Playboy spread; she had already modeled for Playboy before being outed as trans by British tabloids, and her return to the magazine was a self-described triumphant one. Cossey told Cosmopolitan, “…I wanted to show all the jocks and heterosexual Playboy readers that transgender people could be sexy and attractive and help them lose the preconceived notions they had about us.”

Though Cossey felt respected by Hefner and honored to represent her community, this moment was exploitative, not empowering. For Playboy to show a woman featured in shocking tabloid headlines was a moneymaking opportunity that presented her as entertainment, not a person.

Playboy announced its November 2017 Playmate as Ines Rau, a French, transgender female model and the magazine’s first transgender Playmate. In a Playboy Tweet released on October 8, Rau poses in lingerie with the tagline, “Being a woman is just being a woman.” More recent Playboy tweets flaunt the magazine’s newly adopted twenty-first-century liberalism, with posts ranging from fans’ positive responses to Rau’s spread to posts about body positivity and having safer sex in the shower. Given Playboy’s declining circulation numbers in recent years, the company’s liberal, millennial-friendly image is more of a desperate marketing ploy than an effort to enact social change.

Also, in all of Playboy’s aforementioned progressive moments—“The Crooked Man,” being amicus curiae of Roe v. Wade, and supporting Caroline Cossey and Ines Rau—overt sexuality is present. Abortion is a convenient aspect of sexuality; as Susan Brownmiller writes for The New York Times, “The image of the playboy [Hefner] promoted in his magazine was a fellow who loved his stereo equipment, his expensive liquor and his bachelor pad, and refused to be cornered into marriage just because a young lady he had bedded had the misfortune to get pregnant.” Also, gay and transgender people have unfortunately been ridiculed by stereotypes of sexual promiscuity or depravity. Current headlines are entirely misled—Hefner is not a progressive or an activist; he only ventured into politically controversial territory when generating flashy, sexual headlines. Even those headlines was more to generate a sense of personal freedom and lack of responsibility in the Playboy reader than to empower individual sexuality; as Brownmiller explains, “The magazine’s real message was not eroticism but escape from the bondage of breadwinning.”

Harvey Weinstein is now another complicated figure in progressive politics; his influence on the Democratic party is tainted by sexual assault allegations against him. Weinstein first rose to prominence when he founded Miramax in 1979 with his brother Bob. Miramax created box office giants such as “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Good Will Hunting” (1997), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). In 2005, the brothers left Miramax to start The Weinstein Company (TWC), launching silver-screen stars like “Django Unchained” (2012), “The King’s Speech” (2010), and “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012). Miramax and TWC combined have been nominated for 341 Academy Awards and won eighty-one of them.

Politically, Weinstein is a longtime Democratic donor who gave approximately $2.3 million to politicians such as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, according to Business Insider. He hosted a 2016 campaign event for Hillary Clinton, hired Malia Obama for an internship, and helped fund the Democratic National Convention; ironically, his company produced “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about college campus sexual assault. On October 9, the GOP used Weinstein’s misbehavior as a political insult, tweeting, “The Weinstein scandal put Hollywood’s hypocrisy in broad daylight. RT if you agree the DNC should return his donations.”

Given how many noteworthy Hollywood figures were silent bystanders to Weinstein’s abuse even while collaborating on his films—for example, director Quentin Tarantino, actors Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Tom Hanks all knew that Weinstein was a “jerk” to female coworkers, if not aware of the full extent of abuse—the sense of “Hollywood hypocrisy” rings true in how the industry has condemned this abuse after decades of idly letting Weinstein run rampant. Granted, negative media coverage of Weinstein, including early allegations against him, was often crushed when he secretly visited the superiors of publishing houses, but while media outsiders could not bring down Weinstein’s brand, Hollywood could have.

Nearly all of the aforementioned Democrats who received campaign donations from Weinstein plan to return his money, but the Clinton Foundation took the opposite approach. On October 16, the Clinton Foundation announced that Weinstein’s donations had already been spent on causes such as childhood obesity and HIV/AIDS prevention and thus would not be returned. The Clinton Foundation’s choice is a respectable one; it helps reduce the individual weight of Weinstein’s brand name, for rearranging a foundation’s finances for the sake of one man would inherently give him some power, and it uses his still-lingering influence for the common good. Perhaps Weinstein’s money is “dirty,” but spending charitable donations is a consequentialist process and not a deontological one; saving lives is far more important than fretting over the identity of the donor.

While Weinstein’s story now includes clear and highly documented instances of abuse, Hefner’s story includes patterns of abuse and worker mistreatment that often went unnoticed. On October 5, a New York Times exposé revealed incidents of Weinstein’s misconduct throughout the last three decades, documented via legal records, emails, and internal documents, in addition to interviews with film industry workers and current and former employees. Women such as Lupita Nyong’o, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie, and Gwyneth Paltrow have come forward with harrowing stories of Weinstein making lewd comments to them, bribing them for sexual favors with the promise of prominent roles, or asking for massages or masturbating in front of them while in states of undress; McGowan was raped by the producer.

Hefner showed abusive tendencies in his personal relationships in sometimes more subtle ways. Over the last two decades, he set strict curfews for women living in the Playboy Mansion and was known to force women to compete for his affection. Many Playmates speak of feeling isolated, depressed, or even suicidal while in the Mansion. Similarly, Playboy nightclubs had abysmal working conditions. In 1963 exposé “A Bunny’s Tale,” activist Gloria Steinem posed undercover as a “Bunny” waitress at a New York Playboy club, where she documented injustices such as uniforms so tight that their zippers could burst from a mere sneeze, the threat of workplace “demerits” for failing to perform specific tasks, paying for workplace cosmetics and clothing out-of-pocket, and a highly invasive physical examination required of all waitresses. Though Hefner could not oversee every Playboy club, he was complicit in letting these violations of worker rights continue.

Even if one considers the cultural dialogue that Playboy generated and ignores the mistreatment described above, Hefner was still not a crusader for any woman’s sexual empowerment. Playboy’s business model, relying on imagery of women as hypersexual Bunnies or dainty pin-up dolls, is a sleek and nonthreatening model of conformity that annihilates any individual’s deviation from the status quo.

Feminists cannot argue against Playboy without acknowledging how Playboy is demeaning to men, too. The notion that women should advertise their bodies for men’s enjoyment while men must be desperate to consume hyper sexualized culture to assert themselves among male peers is demeaning to all people and crushes dialogue about sexuality into the narrowest of binaries.

Like Playboy, Weinstein’s films embraced controversial topics and ensuing dialogue, yet the artistic heft of Weinstein’s films is undeniable, whereas Playboy is more entertainment than art. As Tom Carson writes in GQ of the explosive Weinstein & Tarantino collaboration “Pulp Fiction”, “More than any pop landmark since “Star Wars” and Steven Spielberg’s early dazzlers, it got a generation of wannabe filmmakers and budding cine-heads jazzed to the teeth by redefining art as cool fun and cool fun as art.” Rogert Ebert praises the psychological complexity of “Good Will Hunting”, especially via the guarded protagonist, and lauds the clever Shakespearean elements of “Shakespeare in Love”, making the film more anthological than comedic. In The New York Times, Rachel Abrams and William K. Rashbaum sum up the producer’s versatility: “He knew how to blast small films to box office success, and deliver polished dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’ and popular attractions like the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise. Mr. Weinstein’s films helped define femininity, sex and romance, from Catherine Zeta-Jones in ‘Chicago’ to Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’”

The aforementioned influences on cinema and politics cannot be ignored; therefore, there needs to exist a practical strategy for engaging with Weinstein’s films. Weinstein’s films can continue to receive accolades, but he himself cannot. If one of his films wins an award, invite anyone involved who was not a bystander to his abuse to accept the trophy.

There is a caveat when discussing “bystanders” in the Weinstein case, for not everyone who knew of Weinstein’s misconduct felt safe to come forward. Women who voice concerns about sexual assault are often accused of lying or exaggerating or seen as an inconvenience; when wealthy Hollywood women voice concerns about sexual assault, many inaccurately argue that women who publicly show sexuality are “asking for” unwanted advances, or that anyone with so much money cannot possibly face injustice. Hardworking female actresses did not want such social stigma to erode their career progress. In her New York Times op-ed, Lupita Nyong’o described her fear after refusing Weinstein’s advances; she writes, “ I needed to make sure that I had not awakened a beast that would go on to ruin my name and destroy my chances in the business even before I got there.” Furthermore, prospective employees for entertainment companies often must sign nondisclosure agreements that forgo their right to pursue legal action in the case of workplace mistreatment. New York employment lawyer Wayne Outten told the Los Angeles Times that such binding agreements should be illegal; he says, “The scope of [these contracts] is just wildly overbroad and I don’t believe it would be enforceable.”

Hopefully Weinstein’s accusers felt safe and supported in their decision to come forward, and fortunately, these victims have encouraged entertainment companies to place faster and harsher punishments on perpetrators. On October 17, Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios, was suspended hours after a Hollywood Reporter article detailed producer Isa Dick Hackett’s sexual harassment claims against him. On October 30, actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey, star of Netflix series “House of Cards,” of sexually assaulting him while underage; on October 31, Netflix suspended production of the series. These zero-tolerance policies are essential in limiting abuse; more individuals and companies should follow this example.

On paper, Weinstein has already faced some consequences for his actions. Three of the nine members of TWC’s Board of Directors resigned; Weinstein took an indefinite leave of absence from the company, and it may be renamed. On October 15, Weinstein was expelled from The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences. Police in London and New York opened investigations of the producer’s misconduct. These are tangible steps toward justice that must be continued.

Let film classes discuss the jumping cinematography in “Pulp Fiction” and the comedic nuances of “Shakespeare in Love,” but be sure the professor makes it known that these films were born out of a cycle of abuse, and their origins are not worthy of respect. Bar Weinstein from receiving film royalties, let him produce no more films, and prevent him from donating to political campaigns; when his money and sociopolitical power is reduced, he will be less able to coerce victims and bystanders into doing his bidding. Silence Weinstein’s toxic voice and let the art speak for itself. Similarly, while Playboy is far too entrenched in American culture to be realistically dismantled, Playboy’s political voice should be considered warily, remembering the financial motives behind the magazine’s social persona and Hefner’s own hypocrisy in claiming to empower women while treating them so poorly.

As America works toward the ever-lofty goal of gender equality in personal and professional life, the personal decisions of abusive, sexist men must be condemned regardless of the men’s professional successes. Political activism and creating magazines and films can be noble cultural pursuits, but as soon as those achievements conflict with the rights and dignity of other human beings, finding justice for those wronged must take precedence over the comfort of the status quo.