Hollywood, the Sexual Violence Factory

“The statement that the primary function of movies is entertainment is clearly not the end of the question. All entertainment is education in some way, many times more effective than schools because of the appeal to the emotions rather than to the intellect.”

— Hortense Powdermaker, Hollywood, the Dream Factory

As of this writing, more than 40 women have accused actor and comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault. When the Cosby story finally went viral in October 2014 (not, notably, because of the gravity and proliferation of complaints, but because of comedian Hannibal Burress’ videotaped stand-up act), the Hollywood spin machine got thrown out of alignment. People, including Cosby’s former co-workers, rushed to his defense. TV son Malcolm Jamal-Warner responded to the allegations, saying, “Just as it’s painful to hear any woman talk about sexual assault, whether true or not, it’s just as painful to watch my friend and mentor go through this. … The Bill Cosby I know has been great to me and great for a lot of people.” Phylicia Rashad took a more aggressive stance on her Cosby Show co-star, complaining, “This is not about the women. This is about something else. This is about the obliteration of a legacy.”


Cosby’s was not the only high-profile sexual assault case to rock show business over the past few years: Last year, CBC talk show host Jian Ghomeshi was fired from the show “Q” after the network’s execs were shown evidence that Ghomeshi had physically assaulted a woman. Emails leaked in the 2014 Sony Pictures hack point to a police investigation of acclaimed director David O. Russell for groping his transgender niece. Although Russell admitted to assaulting his niece in a Florida gym, he never faced charges and continues to work on films despite repeated reports of on-set environments rife with hostility, verbal abuse and violence, often directed towards women. In August, actor Emile Hirsch began serving a 15-day jail sentence for assaulting Daniele Bernfeld, a studio executive, during the Sundance Film Festival.

What is going on here? If this were the sports world, there would be some discussion about the patterns of sexual violence these cases highlight. Yet in entertainment news, these stories appear as scandals either involving men whose fame has led deranged women to cook up false allegations, or as individual aberrations, sick and rogue individuals who are then purged from an otherwise healthy system.

But the history of the entertainment industry reveals that people like Cosby, Ghomeshi and Russell are not isolated serial offenders. Rather, they are men engaged in practices that have long been considered normal in an industry invested in production practices and representations of sexual violence. Stories about sexual violence in Hollywood are not stories about bad apples transgressing moral and ethical norms. These stories emerge from a rotten tree—a system of naturalized sexual and racial violence.

Histories of Intimate Partner Violence

“I can’t talk about Hollywood. It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on. I can’t imagine how I did it. When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. Out there, I called it.”

Dorothy Parker

What the CDC describes as intimate partner violence has long proliferated in the pressure-cooker context of Hollywood, an industry that has also controlled how sexual violence has been represented. Structures of production, where cast and crew work long hours on isolated sets, spending months on a single film, create a kind of intimacy derived from on-screen chemistry and spending every waking hour with co-stars and crew. These structures also forge a social world where the only possibilities for intimate connection exist within a world of highly unequal power—young stars are reliant on directors, producers and others who hold the keys to their success.

In the early days of Hollywood, few spoke about sexual violence (a topic also not covered by major newspapers with anything approaching the regularity of its occurrence), except through euphemisms like “the casting couch.” Only when sexual violence resulted in death did it make headlines: Fatty Arbuckle’s three trials (he was acquitted in all three) for the murder of starlet Virginia Rappe in 1921; the murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947; the murder of Johnny Stompanato by Lana Turner’s daughter in 1958; Dorothy Stratten’s 1980 death at the hands of her husband and manager, Paul Snider; Dominique Dunne’s murder by her boyfriend in 1982; the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 by a stalker.

But patterns and histories lie behind what continue to be represented as exceptional, high-profile tragedies on lists of “bizarre Hollywood deaths.” The accounts of women and men working within this system are replete with instances of sexual violence, often at the hands of serial offenders. What we now know about survivors of sexual violence—that often they have histories of trauma and violent encounters—is true of many of the most celebrated “bombshells” or “sex symbols” in Hollywood, including Judy Garland, Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, mythologized for what was perceived to be their inexplicably suicidal behavior.

According to Jean Harlow: Tarnished Angel by David Bret, Harlow, for example, was beaten by her stepfather, Marino Bello. As writer Tony Rennell said in a review of the book, Bello “pestered [Harlow] for sex, milked her for money and, whenever she tried to escape from his clutches … kept her in line by threatening to make public pornographic photographs of her from her teens.” There are many other reports of men abusing the actor: Director James Whale, according to Bret, is said to have forced Harlow to be on set for a two-day Technicolor shoot that resulted in permanent damage to her eyes. And Harlow’s second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, reportedly beat Harlow severely with a walking stick on their wedding night.

Lives of women said to be cut “tragically short” by fame were actually—like Harlow’s— cut short by the sexual violence that infused the industry. In the 1950s, aspiring young women hit the Hollywood party circuit in the hope of cashing in on the promises of the dream factory. According to Marilyn Monroe biographer Barbara Leaming, parties like those organized by former United Artists board chairman Joseph Schenck and others—some of Hollywood’s most powerful men—comprised a “a brutal, degrading, sometimes dangerous business” where “in exchange for dinner and the chance to meet some of Hollywood’s most important players, the women were expected to make themselves available” to the guests of rich and powerful film industry executives. That volatile mix of power and alcohol continues to be celebrated today in television shows like Ballers and Entourage.

When sexual violence was acknowledged, studios created narratives that cast it as anomalous—acts of deviant men. In Harlow’s case, the studio circulated rumors that Bern had a genital abnormality and was a hermaphrodite; his frustration over his handicap caused him to lash out at women. But the truth of the matter was very different.

That men who were known to be abusive toward women or had reputations as sexual predators continued to dominate the industry points to just how deeply sexual violence was knit into its fabric. Howard Hughes, Jeffrey Jones, Sean Penn, Stephen Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George C. Scott and Sylvester Stallone all had reputations for sexist and often violent behaviors, but they remained secure in their positions of power within the so-called dream factory. Their very presence on screens—like the later presence of Bill Cosby— signaled trauma and terror for the women who survived their violence, vividly reminding them whose stories would be trusted.

The Sexual Violence Factory Today

In 2014, Lena Dunham, star and creator of the HBO show Girls, published a New York Times bestselling book, Not That Kind of Girl. The stories she tells about her encounters with sexual violence are depressingly familiar. In a chapter titled, “I Didn’t Fuck Them, But They Yelled At Me,” Dunham details her encounters with predatory men in Hollywood. She writes, “I’ll tell everyone about what the men I met in Hollywood said to me that first whirlwind year….‘I’ll bet you never say no.’ ‘You should be a little more grateful.’” Of interactions with men that shifted from talk of craft to the men’s sexual dissatisfactions, Dunham says, “What that translates to is … you aren’t a model but you sure are young and probably some bold new sexual moves have emerged since the last time I was single in 1992, so let’s try it and then you can go back to being married to your work … and I’ll never watch any of your films again.” Dunham’s experiences say much about the persistent belief that the pathway to success for women in Hollywood lies in being sexually available to the men who run the industry.

Over the past three years, sexual violence in institutions ranging from the Catholic Church to the military to university campuses has finally begun receiving the attention it deserves. But sexual violence in media industries presents an extraordinarily important challenge for movements against abuse. Media industries (and universities) are in the business of producing representations of, and knowledge about, sexuality and gendered behaviors. When it comes to Hollywood, industry-wide sexual violence has been normalized by images of sexual violence on screen, eroticizing it and making it a narrative staple. Horror films endlessly recycle tropes of sexually active women who are violently dispatched. When other genres include women (and a significant number still do not in any meaningful way), their narratives often begin with the rape, torture or death of women: Braveheart, The Fugitive, Gladiator, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Inception, The Prestige and others too numerous to list. On television, franchises like the eponymous Law and Order series, as well as “quality” shows like Top of the Lake, Twin Peaks, True Detective and The Killing, repeat messages that emphasize these narrative conventions. Dream worlds that show women of all colors and sizes as sexual agents who are happy and healthy and—importantly—alive, such as Magic Mike XXL or Scandal, remain rare indeed.

Although the industrial and representational practices of the sexual violence factory persist today, the breakdown of traditional journalistic media and the rise of social movements aimed at ending sexual violence are providing survivors with powerful ways to take control. “People often these days say, ‘Well, why didn’t you take it to the police?’” says Tamara Green, one of the women who has accused Cosby of assault. “In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media. We can’t be disappeared. It’s online and can never go away.”

As audience members who sit in theaters or watch shows at home, our silence contributes to the collusion at work in the sexual violence factory of Hollywood. We need to take seriously the stories of survivors. We can utilize social media as a tool in reframing the conversation, in combating the spin that protects the interests and reputations of powerful men accused of sexual assault. In 2014, actor Angelina Jolie called for an end to sexual violence in war. We urge Jolie and others to join forces with the survivors who have been speaking out in order to shut down the assembly line that continues to churn out survivors and narratives about eroticized female victimization in Hollywood, the sexual violence factory.

 Photos via Shutterstock; Wikimedia Commons

About and

Carol Stabile is a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches interdisciplinary courses on gender, race and class in media. From 2008 to 2014, she was director of the University’s Center for the Study of Women in Society. She is the author of several books, including The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist.
Jeremiah Favara is a doctoral candidate in Media Studies and teaches courses in the Women's and Gender Studies Department at the University of Oregon. His dissertation research focuses on military recruitment advertisements to explore dynamics of gender, race, sexuality, and class in the project of military inclusion.