In the year since a New York Times expose effectively ended Harvey Weinstein’s career, the #MeToo movement has succeeded in creating a groundswell of energy to hold men like him accountable for sexual misconduct—one that has rewritten the rules in workplaces across the country, and especially in the mainstream media.
Over 40 years after Ms. put sexual harassment on the cover, the subject has become a dominant force in the headlines, and Weinstein has found himself in the company of many more major Hollywood players whose careers have been cancelled in the wake of allegations of assault and harassment. But the depths of media sexism go even beyond the ways in which men leverage their power for sexual exploitation.
Take, for instance, Les Moonves. The now-disgraced former chairman at CBS who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by a half-dozen women—behavior that undoubtedly forced women out of the industry, and rewrote the trajectories of their careers and their lives.
Moonves wasn’t just a boss who leveraged his power to justify his bad behavior. He was a cultural gatekeeper. And in a scathing new essay by Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth Thomason published by The Hollywood Reporter, the hit-maker reveals the ways in which his sexism shaped the media landscape.
“In spite of my proper Southern mother’s admonition to always be gracious, I am all out of grace when it comes to Mr. Moonves,” Thomason declares at the outset of her piece. “In fact, like a lot of women in Hollywood, I am happy to dance on his professional grave.”
Thomason wasn’t harassed or assaulted by Moonves, but she does describe in vivid detail how it came to be that he single-handedly killed her popular series—and attempted to end the careers of women like her across the network.
In 1992, I was given the largest writing and producing contract in the history of CBS. It was for $50 million, involving five new series with hefty penalties for each pilot not picked up.
Designing Women was my flagship CBS show, and Evening Shade had just been lauded as the best new comedy of the season. CBS chairman Howard Stringer and president Jeff Sagansky attended many of the Designing Women tapings, reveling in the show, quoting the lines and giving us carte blanche to tackle any subject, including sexual harassment, domestic violence and pornography. They even greenlighted an entire episode satirizing Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination. It was, to say the least, exhilarating. Little did I know that it would soon all be over.
By 1995, Mr. Stringer and Mr. Sagansky were gone and a new, unknown (to me) president named Les Moonves had taken over. By then, I was producing a new pilot, prophetically titled Fully Clothed Non-Dancing Women. I was immediately concerned when I heard that Mr. Moonves was rumored to be a big fan of topless bars. Then, someone delivered the news that he especially hated Designing Women and their loud-mouthed speeches. He showed up at the first table read and took a chair directly across from mine (actress Illeana Douglas, who later accused him of sexual harassment, sat next to me). Having been voted most popular in high school, I felt confident that I would be able to charm him. I was wrong. He sat and stared at me throughout the entire reading with eyes that were stunningly cold, as in, “You are so dead.” I had not experienced such a menacing look since Charles Manson tried to stare me down on a daily basis when I was a young reporter covering that trial. As soon as the pilot was completed, Moonves informed me that it would not be picked up. I was at the pinnacle of my career. I would not work again for seven years.
Moonves’ sexism shaped the entire office environment at CBS, from the ways in which actors were treated to which photographs of television icons hung on the walls. His decisions about casting and production also created a filter that determined what viewers consumed—and thus, shaped their ideas about gender and the culture-at-large.
Moonves was a misogynist on a mission, and in many ways during his tenure he succeeded in cutting down the power women had in television and the spaces they occupied on-screen. If predators like him continue to fall in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the impact could reverberate far beyond a shift in workplace politics. Without misogynists at the reigns, we might finally find ourselves in a media landscape that reflects women’s authentic voices—and a culture that’s ready and willing to listen to them.
You can read Thomason’s full essay at The Hollywood Reporter.