Before any of us even learn the term “popular culture,” our ideas about the world are shaped by screens. We’ve seen E.T. soar across the moon with his new friend Elliott, the Wicked Witch of the West get vanquished by a good-hearted tourist, a cartoon lion croon about his desire to rule the kingdom, a West Philadelphia teenager relocate to posh Bel Air. We carry these images, surely the work of preternaturally gifted wizards, well into adolescence and adulthood, somewhere along the way realizing, to some degree, that actors, writers, directors, producers, boom and camera operators, set designers, prop masters, makeup artists, chefs and dozens, or hundreds, of additional helping hands and corporate suits contributed to their creation.
And now we are forced to reckon with the fact that many ― so, so many ― of those hands were dirty.
The onslaught of allegations lodged against sexual abusers this year will be remembered as a cultural landmark, the moment a century of rape and harassment moved from gossip fodder to a national talking point. It is, conceivably, the last will and testament for a tribe of men who intimidated subordinates, threatened tenderfeet hoping to land their big break and wielded insurmountable power, often in the midst of making the art that would entertain, or even enlighten our worldview.
None of us watching Hollywood from the sidelines have suffered like the women and men who’ve had their dignity defiled by Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and the many others with years of red-carpet toasts, magazine glamour shots and multimillion-dollar business deals to their names. But, in America, popular culture is more than a frivolity ― it’s a way of life. What do you do when the ecosystem that supports it is littered with pigs?
Maybe we can separate the art from the artist, but we can’t separate the artist from the business.
I realized I was a movie fanatic when I was about 8. I used to line up Blockbuster rentals alongside my family’s VHS tapes and pretend to run a video store in my living room. By 11 or 12, I’d vowed to see everything on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies. That led me to “Annie Hall” and, in turn, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” both directed by Woody Allen, who, I later learned, had allegedly molested his 7-year-old adopted daughter. AFI gave me “Pulp Fiction,” financed by Weinstein, who’s since been accused of harassing or assaulting more than 80 women. It was around that same time that I fell in love with “Kramer vs. Kramer,” starring Dustin Hoffman, who allegedly harassed a 17-year-old intern in 1985. All the while, I was devouring reruns of “The Cosby Show,” years before it became widespread knowledge that its namesake is an alleged serial rapist. “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Repulsion,” the work of confessed child rapist Roman Polanski, are two of my favorite movies.
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Almost everyone has a version of this same outline. Maybe you adored “That ’70s Show” and must now contend with Danny Masterson having allegedly raped four women. “Star Trek” disciples must be reeling at the thought of their beloved George Takei allegedly groping a male model. Maybe you revered Ben Affleck or Jeremy Piven or Casey Affleck or Ed Westwick or Matthew Weiner or Jeffrey Tambor or Terry Richardson or Sylvester Stallone or Steven Seagal or James Toback.
The rub is not just that a smattering of talented, influential contemporary artists are predators. We knew that already, more or less. No, the rub is that the very foundation of Hollywood was built on the dynamics between predators and their prey, captains and their wannabe ingenues ― and we’d dismissed the consequences of this power imbalance as rumors of yesteryear, when studios used to contract players, mold their public personas and control their lives.
For years, tales of misconduct ― in trailers, on backlots, during soirees, in executives’ hotel suites ― were categorized as celebrity-related “gossip.” Tabloid bombast was galvanized by the 1921 rape scandal that (possibly erroneously) incriminated the handsomely paid silent-film comic Fatty Arbuckle; MGM famously covered up the 1937 rape of a 20-year-old dancer; in 1943, swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn stood trial for statutory rape; umpteen Old Hollywood luminaries who defined what it means to be a movie star, including Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, dropped accounts of harassment at the hands of male moguls in their memoirs and elsewhere while we scrutinize the details of their overdoses.
When we were skirting conversations about such deviancy, creeps like Woody Allen and Louis C.K. were projecting their alleged misconduct into their work, telling stories about rape, sex offenders and girls romancing older men. The attention that was paid to their apparent transgressions wasn’t enough to prevent studios and networks from handing over hefty paychecks. Maybe we can separate the art from the artist, but we can’t separate the artist from the business.
These horrors have unfolded over the better part of a century, and the assaulters in question are some of the same men who for years greenlit the perspectives of other men. You know those dismaying statistics that surface every year, calling attention to how few movies were directed by women and how few people of color had speaking lines? They’re the result of an institution shepherded by dusty dudes who view women (and certain dudes) as playthings. When Oliver Stone was reportedly groping an actress at a party, a skilled woman of color was probably being told her story wasn’t worth telling.
As more and more power-hungry dogs are outed, it’s not unfair to assume that most major films and TV shows involved at least one person who’d used his stature to intimidate or assault colleagues, even if it didn’t occur on that particular set. Or at least it's likely that most major film or TV show involved someone who was complicit in keeping a man’s wrongdoings under wraps. That we’ve handed our time and money to these people, thinking we’re merely engaging with the latest entertainment, hurts. That we’ve feasted on narratives about difficult actresses and glorified gatekeepers, never fully reckoning with the extent of these implications, rankles. That we’ve been blind to our heroes’ exploitations ― so blind that the Oscars handed a Best Director trophy to Polanski nearly three decades after he fled the country on statutory rape charges ― will be an enduring stain on Hollywood history.
There’s a reason we love stories about unrequited love ― the deterioration of romance is one of life’s cardinal stings. And that’s what’s happening with Hollywood right now. An industry we love has been exposed as one that does not love us back, that actively works to cover up crimes in hopes of bolstering the chosen few whose influence swells.
No more. What’s unfolding across Tinseltown right now will not stamp out sexual perversion altogether. But the exposure of long-standing abusers will hopefully help to restore accountability to the medium that has gifted us with fantasies about bicycle rides across the moon. It will hopefully foster an infrastructure in which such nightmarish backstage transactions are the anomalies, not the norm. And it will hopefully bleed into other facets of discrimination that haven’t yet been properly unearthed.
In a century from now, if all goes well, the annals of pervasive debasement will be a far-flung memory. Because for every gross man out there, there are a dozen women and more than a few decent men who poured themselves into the big- and small-screen jewels that enrich the world. Their contributions cannot be discarded just because a handful of villains overshadowed them. They’re the ones worth fighting for, and they’re the reason these painful truths must continue to emerge. Soon, it will be their stories that define our popular culture. Soon, seeing the men behind the curtain won’t lead to disappointment.
The little Blockbuster obsessive inside of me isn’t giving up on Hollywood.