ARTS & CULTURE

The 'Casting Couch' Euphemism Lets Us Pretend Hollywood's All Right

The phrase that gives us permission to ignore sexual harassment.

10/18/2017 09:30 EDT
Peter Stackpole via Getty Images
Producer Darryl Zanuck, a well-known early proponent of the casting couch.

The very phrase seems designed to prevent us from thinking too hard about what it means. Casting couch. It describes the setting instead of the act, the furniture instead of the sexual extortion and violence. It’s alliterative, a pair of plosives dancing off the tongue in tandem. The idea of the “couch” gives the whole institution a touch of domestic comfort. It’s hard to get enraged about something that sounds so cozy, so sweet.

For many years, we’ve preferred not to think too hard about what the casting couch actually means, save as a relic of Hollywood’s seamy past. In the wake of numerous allegations of sexual assault and harassment against prominent film executive Harvey Weinstein, news outlets are plastered with new accusations and old industry reports of lecherous producers. Many of these crimes ― Weinstein’s and otherwise ― were open secrets, or even reported on in mainstream outlets, for decades.

The source of our current surprise isn’t really new information; it’s how carefully we’ve protected ourselves from absorbing that information. Last week, Slate published an article diving into the history of reporting on the casting couch. Repeated exposes and individual reports of sexual assault, Slate found, did little to dislodge the perennial media framing of “the casting couch” as a fading myth.

At least in part, that’s thanks to the mythology of the casting couch, a polite, sanitized euphemism that obscures a host of ugly realities ― and has been doing so since the early days of Hollywood.

“It’s not an explicitly risque term. The word ‘casting’ and the word ‘couch’ are innocent terms,” Fred Shapiro, editor of the authoritative Yale Book of Quotations, told HuffPost. Despite its wholesome components, the phrase manages to be quite evocative. “It doesn’t, I think require a lot of explanation,” Shapiro said. “Particularly in entertainment circles, if the phenomenon was going on, people would probably understand what it meant right away.”

The exact origins of the casting couch remain somewhat murky, though it’s clear the phrase and the practice have been around for a very long time. In an etymological investigation at The Atlantic, Ben Zimmer found descriptions of the practice on Broadway during the early 20th century; powerful producer Lee Shubert was known to audition chorus girls in a private chamber containing a couch. As Hollywood’s film industry burgeoned, moguls including Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer were notorious for demanding sex from aspiring actresses. Zanuck and Cohn were also rumored to have actual couches installed in their offices for this express purpose. By the 1920s and ’30s, the phrase itself was circulating. Barry Popik found the term in a 1929 novel entitled Hangover: A Novel of Broadway Manners. A 1924 stag movie (an early pornographic film) called “The Casting Couch” may have predated that, though Zimmer points out that the title may have been bestowed later.

While sexual abuse of subordinate women by powerful men takes place in every industry, only entertainment fields benefit from the euphemism of “the casting couch.” By and large, we’ve settled on “sexual harassment,” though there are general euphemisms like “slept her way to the top.” Nothing can match “casting couch” for its glibness and ability to encapsulate an entire sector’s sexual misdeeds.

Simply the fact that Hollywood has its own special phrase for the phenomenon implies a meaningful distinction ― that casting couch antics are a separate issue from run-of-the-mill workplace harassment. It swathes the process in an aura of alien glamour. Sure, groping would seem inappropriate during an interview for a sales management position, but Hollywood, we understand, must operate by its own rules to allow for creative genius to work. Even casting isn’t just interviewing, but a mysterious alchemical process driven by intuition and inspiration.

Most of us want the film world to be different from the workplace mundanity we experience. We’ve bought into the fantasy element of Tinseltown, the home of “La La Land” and “A Star Is Born,” and we don’t want to give up the dream of a mythical place where a young woman can hop off a bus from the Midwest and become a star. Casting might be the most vital part of this Cinderella fantasy: It’s the magical step that transforms a girl with a dream into a starlet. And who wants to imagine that the fairy tale isn’t a lie, that Cinderella actually hates the prince but married him to become royalty?

The sharpest cruelty of the casting couch is that it preys on our fantasies of Hollywood, but also on our distrust of ambitious women. We thirst for that moment when an agent catches sight of us on the street and insists we have the “it” factor, but we feel nothing but disgust for women who grasp for fame. (See: the mass loathing directed at Anne Hathaway, an actress who seems to try a little too hard, and the conditional love of Jennifer Lawrence, predicated on her ability to appear natural and unstudied.) A casting couch conjures up both hope and judgment ― it’s the place where your wildest dreams might be realized, and also the place where an undeserving woman might purchase stardom with sex.

The sharpest cruelty of the casting couch is that it preys on our fantasies of Hollywood, but also on our distrust of ambitious women.

Despite the cultural stigma against using sex as currency, we’re quick to believe that actresses would willingly have sex for roles. There’s a long-standing slippage between our ideas of actresses and sex workers. Until the late 19th century, their careers were viewed with similar disdain. “Because they worked outside the home and occasionally emphasized their attractiveness and sexuality in performances,” wrote Noah Berlatsky in 2015, “actresses on the stage were also perceived to be disreputable, publicly available women—whether or not they actually sold sex for money.” The casting couch is deeply entangled with this idea, that actresses are sexual performers and that filmmakers must try out the goods in order to cast an actress who can make America (that is, straight American men) fall in love.

The link between sex work and acting shouldn’t matter, of course; sex workers and actresses do not forfeit, through their choice of profession, the right to turn down sex. But it provides a foothold for rationalization: She wanted it, she does it all the time, she asked for it, she deserved it. Our minds jump quickly from the idea of a female performer to the loaded assumption that she would be willing to do anything, especially for fame.

And yet, more often than not, the casting couch is also dismissed as a fiction. Perhaps it’s the quaint specificity of the metaphor, which conjures images of a cigar-chomping producer coaxing an ingenue onto a couch in his private office, offering a role in exchange for a blowjob, or perhaps it’s just because we’ve reflexively ignored evidence of its reality for so long. Regardless, the common assumption is that it’s not real. ”‘Casting Couch’: Fiction or Fact?” read a 1975 Variety headline found by Slate.

A 1995 book compiled by Michael Viner and Terrie Maxine Frankel, Tales From the Casting Couch, is a prime example of this flippant assumption. It’s a book of anecdotes from actors and industry people about casting experiences ― some traumatic, some funny, some frankly dull ― that largely uses the term for a transgressive laugh. When working on the book, wrote Frankel in the introduction, they heard criticism of the title from members of the Casting Society of America who believed it “perpetuates a Hollywood myth they have been saddled with since the first want-to-be’s stepped off the bus from Iowa and found themselves lured into unsavory situations with unfulfilled promises of stardom in exchange for sexual favors.” In this odd framing, it’s the poor casting agents who are victims of a smear by unscrupulous, weak-willed nobodies who don’t exist anyway.

“These seedy stories,” Frankel continues, “are rare.” (Given the torrential onslaught of allegations against Weinstein, this strains belief.) But in fact, Frankel and Viner hardly seem troubled by the idea of such “seedy stories.” An entire chapter of the book deals with anecdotes about inappropriate advances. The stories are presented without editorial comment, save for section headings like “Ready, Willing, and Wacky! Who says sex isn’t funny? The following titillating tales will arouse your libido, kick start your kundelini energy, and make you laugh.” The chapter is entitled, “SEX, SEX, SEX!” 

The casting couch, in popular imagination, perfectly blends “it never happens” with “of course it happens, and who cares” ― and either way it’s the victims who shoulder the burden. If women try to draw attention to the phenomenon on a broader scale, they’re naive to have fallen for a fiction. If newcomers to the industry are shocked by it, they’re naive not to have expected it. (“Welcome to Hollywood, sweetheart.”) If they fall victim, they’re both naive and greedy, dumb enough to ruin their reputations in the name of a shortcut to fame.

Hollywood schmucks like Zanuck, Cohn, and Mayer didn’t keep their antics secret. Biographies and film histories often make mention of their strings of “affairs” and, of course, their fondness for the casting couch. Mayer, noted The New York Times in 1984, was “notorious for his endeavors on the casting couch.” Zanuck was “famously ‘in conference’ with an endless succession of aspiring actresses between 4 and 4.30 every afternoon.” In 2010, the Daily Express called Cohn “one of the original kings of the casting couch.”

These are crimes hiding in plain sight, draped over with the discreet gauze of cliché. “Casting couch” sounds gentle; “he extorted sex from vulnerable women” does not. The difference is purely semantic, but it works. And it enabled us to ignore the words of the many women of Hollywood who weren’t silent ― for decades.  

A phrase may seem like a small thing, but it can be powerful. Euphemizing “keeps us from having to face what we’re up to,” Ralph Keyes, the author of Euphemania, told Time in 2011. “David Lloyd George — he was Prime Minister of Britain during World War I — once said that if we ever spoke plainly and clearly about what was going on on the battlefields, the public would demand that we bring an end to war.”

The reason euphemisms like “the casting couch” survive isn’t because of people like Weinstein and Zanuck. It’s because of the rest of us, people who want permission to gloss over the problem and claim, later, that we had no idea anything was wrong. Sure, we knew about enhanced interrogation techniques, but we’d never stand for torture. Seriously: One 2010 study found public support for “harsh interrogation,” but minimal support for specific techniques like electric shocks and waterboarding. No wonder the Bush administration scrambled to rename torture with bland phrases like enhanced interrogation: Like the lecherous kings of Hollywood, they just needed to offer the public a couple words that would give everyone permission to look away.