2017 has been been marked by sexual harassment allegations against some of the entertainment industry’s biggest names. In music, film and television, men with decades-long careers are falling from grace—and, in many cases, positions of power—as women break the silence around the sexual harassment and abuse they face in media.
To be fair, the stories women are telling in 2017 aren’t without foreshadows. In 2016, Roger Ailes stepped down at Fox in the midst of a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit. In 2015, an explosive expose in The Cut shed light on the survivors of Bill Cosby’s nearly 50-year career of sexual assault. In 2014, Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter in The New York Times detailing how her father, Woody Allen, sexually abused her as a child.
But something is different in 2017: The accused are facing consequences. Harvey Weinstein was fired from the firm he helped build after the New York Times published an expose unearthing 30 years of sexual harassment allegations against him. Bill O’Reilly finally lost his top spot at Fox, being forced to resign as sexual harassment allegations spanning decades had sparked massive protest; Jamie Horowitz, head of Fox Sports programming, also lost his job after a sexual harassment investigation.
For too long, and even still, accusations of sexual harassment or assault levied at powerful men in entertainment have come at too high a price to women. Those who dare to speak up and out have been insulted, silenced and threatened. Although stories may snag some air time, charges were rarely filed, and men accused of sexual misconduct were able to go on with their lives—without so much as a stain on their reputation.
Woody Allen denies the allegations against him by his daughter, despite his ex-wife and children speaking out in support of Farrow and her story. Bill Cosby insists he didn’t rape anyone, although he is keen to teach boys how to get away with it. And after the 2016 premiere of Birth of a Nation, when past allegations of sexual violence resurfaced against them, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin remained relatively unmoved. “I don’t feel guilty,” Parker once said on the record of the 1999 rape allegation against him and Celestin, his college roommate at the time, and the 2001 trial that left him acquitted and Celestin charged. Their victim, a 4.0 student at the time of the alleged assault, went on to kill herself.
Men in Hollywood have been facing rape, assault and harassment charges unscathed—even collecting award and reward in their wake—since the industry was created. Hollywood is an American staple—a patriarchal, racially-exclusive “Boy’s Club.” Change has come to the entertainment world too slowly, especially at its top ranks, and media workplaces remain some of the hardest to regulate.
The Harvey Weinstein debacle is a perfect example of how rape culture manifests as part of women’s day-to-day lives in Hollywood. It is important that we look to the executive assistants and employees of Weinstein Company, and the Hollywood starlets who were newcomers when they were approached. Weinstein targeted young, inexperienced and relatively unconnected women. He was able to leverage his powerful professional presence to make them feel vulnerable, threatening to destroy their careers right after they’d signed for their first film or had a successful audition. He waited until women got in the door—of a casting call or of a role in a film—so that he could have something to take away from them.
Systemic rape culture in entertainment is real, and that culture puts women not only at risk for abuse, but at risk for the backlash that comes with telling the truth about it afterward. But the silence is breaking—and the accountability men in media are now facing, paltry as it may seem in the face of the scope of these problems, gives us reason to hope that change may finally be afoot.
“People became more willing to speak,” reporter Jodi Kantor said of the Weinstein investigation on New York Times podcast “The Daily Podcast” this week, “and all summer I’ve been telling my sources, ‘the dynamic is going to reverse.’ If these allegations are true, if these allegations begin to pile up, all of the sort of fear you’ve experienced over the years—you know, the feeling that these things could not be talked about—if these allegations are what we think they are, then you are going to hear a lot more people coming forward. And so, essentially, that’s what happened.”
Feminists, too, have hope. “Silence is the enemy of justice, and these powerful men know that,” Kathy Spillar, Executive Editor of Ms., told the Associate Press. “I think this is going to start an avalanche, I really do.”
So, what makes 2017 different? It could be a generational gap—that those of us who didn’t grow up, in the words of Weinstein, in the “culture then” don’t see it as normal or acceptable now. It could also be the product of a culture shift—the popularization of feminism by celebrities like Beyoncé and changing norms after decades of feminist activism may have made women more comfortable speaking out. But it may just be that women are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore—that across workplaces and across industries, women are banding together and sharing their stories collectively. Surely the growing number of women in positions of power and all the way down the corporate ladders across various sectors provides a boost for sparking change; an influx of women in media could have a lot to do with this “reckoning.” So, too, could growing public discourse on these issues, and the willingness for mainstream media outlets to explore topics of gender, sex and race; as well as the ways in which technology has empowered women to find knowledge, resources and community around their own liberation.
Women aren’t just finding their place and finding each other in spaces where they were once made invisible, powerless and silent. They’re building platforms to speak out.
A feminist reckoning in Hollywood is long overdue. The tension between changing attitudes and an outdated culture of violence is a stew that has been boiling to the brim for some time. Sexual harassment and assault have been treated as taboo topics for too long—and the time has finally come where a new era of safety and inclusiveness can, and should, emerge.