Sexual harassment in Hollywood
And now that we have your attention: harassment. If you’ve thought about this subject recently, it’s probably because TV news directors decided seven weeks ago to give extensive coverage to a hastily convened Senate subcommittee investigation of one quiet law professor’s assertion that her former boss, a man nominated (and later confirmed) to a seat on the Supreme Court, used to trouble and humiliate her 10 years ago with provocative, unwanted, persistent, and persistently rejected sexual attention.
The Clarence Thomas hearings featuring Anita Hill already mark a watershed in the national consciousness. Before then sexual harassment was a vaguely disturbing issue about which many people, and certainly most men, knew little. Within weeks of the hearings, a preliminary study by the Equal Employment Opporunity Commission found a 23 percent increase in the number of harassment complaints across the country, and inquiries concerning the issue soared 150 percent. To air their grievances, a group of unaffiliated working women in New York organized a ”Speak Out About Sexual Harassment,” moderated by Gloria Steinem. In Los Angeles, Cinewomen, a film-industry support group, held a panel discussion to discuss legal remedies. And five women who work at Stroh’s brewery in St. Paul, Minn., filed lawsuits charging, among other things, that their company’s ”sexist, degrading” advertising — featuring the beauties of the ”Swedish Bikini Team” — created an atmosphere hostile to women and contributed to routine workplace harassment at the plant.
Those women understand the power of TV — and of fantasy, the bedrock of the entertainment industry. Show business turns the national zeitgeist into a dream that can be shared by millions. It’s the industry that translates each generation’s ideas about men and women and sex and behavior into movies and records and TV shows and books and videos-and even T-shirt slogans and perfume names and beer commercials. It teaches girls to be women like Candice Bergen (spunky) or Darryl Hannah (ditzy) or Sigourney Weaver (Valkyrian) and boys to be men like Harrison Ford (tough) or Bruce Willis (bad) or Axl Rose (worse).
If you’ve recently felt the urge to wheel and deal like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl or dance like the Fly Girls on In Living Color or dress like Madonna — if you think women are scary like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or that they enjoy crawling around like Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks or that gentlemen prefer blonds or that drinking a beer with the Swedish Bikini Team doesn’t get any better than this — it’s because the entertainment fraternity has influenced you.
That enormous influence gives the entertainment industry a lot of power, which should be matched by its sense of responsibility. The statistics are skimpy, and there actually may be more sexual harassment in breweries, factories, and fire departments than in the entertainment business. But nowhere else are personal sexual attitudes so easily translated into images that influence the sexual behavior of millions. For that reason, sexual harassment in entertainment has an importance far beyond what happens in the office or the assembly line. Like most industries, the entertainment business is primarily run by men. The casting couch? Once standard Hollywood furniture, it’s still part of the decor. Rock video babes? Got ’em. Publishinghouse cuties? This is where you find them.
”Sex is how many people get jobs in my business,” says one woman involved in music-video production. ”It’s so ingrained in this business that women don’t object to it. They entered the business assuming that’s the way it worked.”
And surely not all women in entertainment are entirely blameless about mixing sex and business. Says one female record-label publicist, ”I’ve seen more women eager to look like bimbos or sexually service someone than I have encountered men who are sexual harassers in this business.”
But in the perennial battle of the sexes there’s a difference between being a volunteer and being a conscript, even if the line is sometimes murky. Elisa Rothstein, director of development for Alliance Communications Corp. and president of Cinewomen, believes identifying what constitutes sexually harassing behavior can be dicey in the entertainment industry. ”Because doing business and socializing so often go hand in hand,” she says, ”it’s very difficult to discern someone’s intentions.”
Still, when a person realizes that promotions, raises, the job itself depend upon the performance of sexual services — or at least on tolerating an atmosphere of innuendo and suggestiveness — that’s sexual harassment. According to a series of five ABC News polls conducted during the Clarence Thomas hearings, approximately one third of all women say they have been sexually harassed on the job (compared with less than 10 percent of men). Some observers, like feminist attorney and Los Angeles TV commentator Gloria Allred, believe the percentage is much higher for women in the entertainment industry. Says Allred, ”Making a case public, (women) may feel, will make it harder for them to work in other places.”
When we began to report this story, many women came forward. Most women would talk only off the record-because the business world is small, and entertainment gossip is taken seriously. We found their testimony unsurprising but shocking. ”To be successful in this business you have to tolerate things,” says one woman, who is a film producer. And that’s the attitude the products of the entertainment industry too often convey to the American public.