A few days ago, I first heard the phrase “Weinstein Effect.” Also, a more troubling term, “national dialogue on gender and power,” which masks the fact that (a) this isn't much of a dialogue, which implies two sides having a mutually beneficial discussion, and (b) “gender and power” acts as a cover term for the fact that this is a discussion about rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment perpetrated by men in power... but this is the American approach, isn't it? Put a good old positive, Norman Vincent Peale spin on the fact that rapes, sexual assaults, and sexual harassment were perpetrated by men in power.
The Weinstein case is fairly cut and dried it seems, as do a number of others – men who, without question, abused their positions to take advantage of multiple victims and ensure their silence. Perhaps I'm the odd man out, but I can't say I was shocked. I just assumed massive numbers of film and music producers, fashion photographers, and other gatekeepers of nubile talent exploited that power dynamic. Take Conde Nast's recent firing of Terry Richardson. Everybody has known for years that he is a sexual nightmare, to the point that this reputation, combined with his omnipresent creepy smile and rapey-uncle glasses, has become a critical part of his persona. And yet it's only now that a major publisher is actually choosing to do something about it, given that the zeitgeist has made their normal policy of sitting on their asses a strategic impossibility.
But the Louis C.K. case interests me. This is a guy who committed predatory acts, and in a way very much in keeping with his comic persona, they were creepy and rather pathetic acts.
You have social commentators (as, for instance, in a recent GQ article) mining Louis C.K.'s humor revolving around his immense awkwardness and inappropriate behavior as a smokescreen for his guilt. That, by making jokes about jerking off too much and the “town child molester,” he was providing cover, making it easy to dismiss any future allegations. Or the recent Guardian article claiming that by laughing at Louis C.K.'s creepy-sex jokes, you are fully complicit with his abuses. Sure, the masturbation scenes in Louie are made all the more uncomfortable now, and the trailer for I Love You, Daddy makes my skin crawl – but this sort of ad hominem pseudo-criticism, vague sentiment masking itself as textual analysis, seems just as mindless and lazy as the kneejerk responses of the fanboys who couldn't believe that their heroes could do wrong.
There had of course been echoes, hints of creepiness from the past, short on specifics. And I categorized it in my head as “certainly plausible, ultimately unprovable,” which put Louis C.K. in the same class as Woody Allen or Michael Gira from Swans. Their work was filed under “great art made by potential awful people.”
But the admission of guilt pushes Louis C.K.'s work into another category, “great art made by confirmed awful people,” the Roman Polanski category. For Polanski, it has become the Thing You Know About Him (a characteristic that Bill Cosby is fast on his way to attaining as well), even if you couldn't name a single one of his films.
And yet our intuitive responses are short lived. Let's take Polanski, for example, who still had no trouble receiving an Oscar for best director for The Pianist in 2002. And there are countless others whose sexual crimes we continue to ignore. We forget about the infinite numbers of questionable encounters on the part of Jimmy Page, or countless other old rock stars. Their reputations are forever going to be protected by the nostalgia blanket, the romanticized dissolute rock & roll lifestyle of a time that was supposedly more innocent, even in its un-self-conscious decadence. We forget that Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist, and now he's the funny guy with the tattoo in the Hangover movies.
And sexual crimes actually seem to make more of an impact on the collective imagination than the more general ethical and ideological failures of public personae, the things that actually seem far more likely to have a direct impact on their work. We know Wagner as the anti-Semitic composer, Ezra Pound as the Nazi poet. The forgetting happens quickly. I would have told you a few years ago that Mel “fucking Jews!” Gibson's career was irredeemable, but now he's back in the limelight, his smile as dopey as ever.
Rather, we cast a harsh light for a few seconds, and are then distracted by something else. Consider how quickly it died down for a certain elected official noted for his yen for pussy-grabbing.
And even while that harsh light is present, there is minimal questioning of the power structures that make sexual crimes by men in the entertainment industry possible. Projects are dropped, contracts are thrown out, and that's it, all hands washed. Which to me reflects the way that media agencies perceive the spate of sexual assault allegation less as a series of actual, real crimes committed within a social system that facilitates them, than as a series of PR liabilities.
And the public response, likewise, is more a sense of satisfaction that the market is behaving appropriately, alternating with a sense of titillation at who will show up next in the scandal sheets. And make sure you're the first of your friends to share an article about it.
This is perhaps the real Weinstein Effect, a tendency towards public shaming in lieu of real action.
Which is a characteristic I've known myself to be guilty of as well, to have cast my own blind spots, to lack empathy.
And I know how actually writing about the process ultimately vilifies me in the eyes of many. To certain feminist critics, everything I say will come off as mansplaining about something about which I can say nothing meaningful. To others, what I say will seem like arrogant, bloodless over-analysis. And to others, whose opinions I will cheerfully write off, will deem any attempt at rectification to be a sign of a feminized society.
And as every reaction fades, only the trauma will remain.