Jessica Chastain didn't "admit" anything. She contributed to a vital conversation.
On Oct. 5, the New York Times published an exposé on major Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, detailing decades of alleged sexual harassment and claims of at least eight settlements which he paid out women who made accusations. Weinstein was fired three days later from The Weinstein Company, but even that significant move on the part of the industry feels frustrating, revealing a profound indifference to a culture of sexual harassment until negative publicity no longer makes it viable. Had he been paying those alleged settlements out of his own pocket, eight times? Did the Weinstein Company not know that its female employees were warned not to be in rooms alone with him, or to wear extra layers as a buffer between their skin and his? Employees speaking to The New Yorker described “a culture of complicity at Weinstein’s places of business, with numerous people throughout the companies fully aware of his behavior but either abetting it or looking the other way.” (The Weinstein Company did not respond to Entertainment Weekly’s request for comment; in a statement to the New Yorker provided by a rep, Weinstein “unequivocally denied” allegations of non-consensual sex and also claims of “any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances.”) People knew, people knew, of course people knew, and Harvey Weinstein was still permitted his seat of power, a Hollywood throne to dictate the futures of young actresses who wanted to succeed.
That knowing itself becomes its own insidious problem, the way all of Hollywood seemed to tacitly acknowledge something without doing anything about it. 30 Rock had a joke about it.
(30 Rock also had a joke about Bill Cosby years before comedian Hannibal Buress would acknowledge the miserable open secret in his set, sparking the tinder that would finally bring Cosby’s alleged crimes — which both Cosby and his lawyers deny — to mainstream attention.)
“I was warned from the beginning,” actress Jessica Chastain had tweeted out about Weinstein. “The stories were everywhere. To deny that is to create an environment for it to happen again.”
On Oct. 9, The Hollywood Reporter wrote up Chastain’s comments with an interesting phrase: “Jessica Chastain Admits She Knew of Harvey Weinstein’s History of Abuse.” The photo above the story as it was tweeted is Chastain dressed for a red carpet event, hair in glistening red curls down one bare shoulder, standing close next to Weinstein and smiling. The word “admits” smokes and hisses. She knew, the word “admits” says, she knew and she did nothing about it. The photo and the headline frame her as a co-conspirator.
Of course, that’s not the case. Chastain was one of the Hollywood elite brave enough to come out explicitly against Weinstein, and brave enough to acknowledge that far from just dismissing Weinstein as a single bad apple, the producer’s misdeeds require a painful examination of the culture that allowed him to thrive for so long.
Framing a headline to paint someone like Jessica Chastain as complicit or asking why women didn’t speak out sooner is a shameful misrepresentation of the way sexual harassment operates. Ask any woman you know if there is a Harvey Weinstein in her life, an older man in a position of power who either made her feel uncomfortable or who she was warned might. Women grow up in a world of touches that last a little too long, lingering glances towards our chest, “jokes” that make us want to curl up into ourselves that we’re told are just in good fun. We tell you again and again and again and nothing happens. We’re called feminazis who can’t take a joke. We’re told boys will be boys. And when people are caught, like Harvey Weinstein, we’re told he was a bad man, and everyone moves on. And so when you ask why women didn’t speak up sooner, the answer is: They did. People knew about Harvey Weinstein and those with the power to do something about it, didn’t.
“I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then,” Weinstein wrote in a statement. “I have since learned it’s not an excuse, in the office – or out of it. To anyone… I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.” His advisor at the time, attorney Lisa Bloom, described Weinstein as “an old dinosaur learning new ways.” His misdeeds, they seem to posit, lie not with bringing vulnerable women alone back to his hotel room and sexually intimidating them but rather a failure to simply change with the times.
And there is an infinite number of ways to blame women for the sins of men. Designer Donna Karan, a friend of Harvey Weinstein, dodged reconciling his misconduct with a classic: They were asking for it. “I also think how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?” Karan said in an interview with The Daily Mail. She has since apologized. Political opponents have dug up a picture of Hillary Clinton at a party with Harvey Weinstein and thrust it out as evidence of deviltry — as if women have to be responsible not only for their own conduct but the conduct of everyone they have ever encountered in public. Weinstein had donated generously to the Clinton campaign and held fundraisers for her, and it’s tempting to let anger towards Weinstein bleed like a stain onto everyone he’s ever touched. But it’s a deflection, a defense—a means of approaching the problem from the side instead of acknowledging its painful, uncomfortable core.
Gossip fiends on Twitter are playing licentious guessing games with Weinstein’s most famous lead actresses, insinuating they must have slept their way to success. The innuendo reveals a cultural misogyny deeper and far more subtle than the type of sexism that, say, would incite someone to masturbate into a potted plant in a woman’s presence after she refused your sexual advances. It’s a culture that knows what Harvey Weinstein did was wrong, sure, but still needs to squeeze some slut-shaming in for good measure, to find any possible way to diminish successful women.
Do not blame women for the patriarchy, for a culture of powerful men who seem to be able to do anything they want for far too long. Do not dismiss Harvey Weinstein as a single, depraved individual. He is a symptom of a massive societal problem by which men in power feel entitled to women’s bodies and the world scurries to diminish and justify and hide it out of fear or shame or impotence or all of the above. And do not pretend the women who have been trying to protect themselves against the consequences that befall those who do speak out share any responsibility for the deeds of Harvey Weinstein and men like him. We have been screaming this entire time.