Someday we’ll look back on the great Harvey Weinstein scandal of 2017 as the moment the worm turned on the patriarchy, at least for a while. It was the critical mass that did it. Among the many remarkable things about the story has been the way it has unfolded, or unfurled, like a gradual awakening, a slow-yet-shockingly sudden coming-to from a long, ambient waking nightmare.
It was, of course, an incredibly long time coming. The drumbeat of revelations about powerful men abusing their power to harass, intimidate and assault relatively powerless women had been building since – well, since forever. But evidence of the harassment we’re subjected to on a regular basis has only gotten starker since the election: since the Donald Trump Access Hollywood recordings and the assault allegation since dropped; since Anthony Weiner’s dick-pic apocalypse; since Bill Cosby was revealed to be a serial rapist off the hook on a technicality. It’s rape culture on parade against a chorus of grievances. Anger mounts. It snowballs. It jolts you awake, screaming.
Amid all this, the Weinstein scandal seems worse, somehow. Maybe it’s just because it’s gotten more traction, because the consequences have been swift and categorical. Maybe it’s because we never expected any better from Trump; because Cosby was old and half-forgotten. Weinstein was current, relevant. For those too far removed to have heard the rumors, he represented good things: art; the Oscars; Cinderella dreams come true. Maybe Cosby could help your career, maybe even Trump could, but they weren’t gatekeepers to an industry. They weren’t the actual system made ugly flesh. Harvey Weinstein held all the dreams in his hand. He was prestige, taste, proof that you’d made it. He could make or break you. He’d even break you while making you. That was the price you paid, or rather the tithe, the pizzo.
This is not an individual problem. This is a systemic problem. There are no two sides. “Personal responsibility” doesn’t factor in. Weinstein’s pattern of behavior is emblematic of a system that runs on power differentials. It’s not just Weinstein, or Hollywood. It’s corporate America. It’s the legislature. (140 women denounced “misconduct” in the California legislature.) It’s the torrent of #MeToo hashtags on Facebook and Twitter. It’s patriarchy. It’s a system of oppression in action. You lose some, you lose some.
There’s this idea that the kind of dynamic that we’ve spent the past few days hearing about in detail is natural, somehow. That it’s embedded in our nature. That this dyad – the older rich and powerful guy and the beautiful young woman – is an evolutionary pairing; nature’s red-carpet ready way of ensuring the survival of the species. This is bullshit of the highest order. We’ll believe it the day we see Woody Allen kill a bison with his bare hands.
Flexing power to coerce sex from the less powerful isn’t natural, it’s abuse. And abuse is not natural, it’s cultural. Abuse flows from a socially-sanctioned sense of entitlement; from the belief that rich, white men are entitled to more control over speech, over resources, over law, over everything, than non-rich, non-white men and all women. That they are entitled to control who leads, who works, who speaks.
NBC allegedly killed Ronan Farrow’s story – the one he eventually placed in The New Yorker – because Weinstein was well-known for having a legal team that went after every woman who complained, or threatened to. His harassment usually ended with a coercively extracted promise of silence. The culture of secrecy was what kept the real story from coming to light. The story was distorted – in this case, by a legendary producer of stories. Weinstein (as just one example in an untriggered avalanche of examples) controlled the story at every letter. The women were there to play the girl; or, as a Facebook friend wrote recently on her wall, “the tits or invisible.”
If Weinstein represents the system, then the movies he made represent an official narrative. We recognize them as “life.” By controlling the production of stories, they get to decide who gets to fashion their experience into a “universal” tale, who gets to speak, what can be said and what has to be hushed, disowned, denied. This is culture by gaslight. It bends reality to a lie. It forces reality to comply to the story. It denies the experience of anyone who lives in the world in a body that is not like his. It offloads his shame onto others, makes his secret into theirs.
This is why it feels so significant: because the story – the story that keeps the system in place, and vice versa – is finally starting to crack. In the 1960s, the French semiotician Roland Barthes wrote an essay titled “Myth Today,” in which he showed how popular culture generates myths, and how mythology has always worked: Its function is turning culture into nature. What the Harvey Weinstein scandal shows is that the culture is broken, and that it’s time for new myths. It’s time for new stories that don’t function in the service of power, but shed some light on what’s really going on.
Carina Chocano is the author of You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages