As his criminal trial gets underway in New York City, disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein would like us to forget what’s going on in that courtroom and instead focus on all he has done to help launch the careers of female filmmakers. As he complained in an interview with the New York Post, “I made more movies directed by women and about women than any filmmaker. . . . It all got eviscerated because of what happened. My work has been forgotten. I want this city to recognize who I was instead of what I’ve become.”
We should absolutely give credit where credit is due. In Sister Rosa, the Neville Brothers paid tribute to Rosa Parks for her role in launching the civil rights movement. “Thank you Miss Rosa, you are the spark, You started our freedom movement.” Well, thank you, Harvey Weinstein. You are the spark that started the #MeToo movement.
Although what happens in that New York courtroom is important—and may determine whether Weinstein spends all or a portion of his remaining years behind bars—it is not a referendum on the #MeToo movement, which is so much bigger than just Weinstein and his long career of abusing women. Nor does it capture the sum total of the harm Weinstein has wrought. But before we inevitably conflate the outcome of his criminal trial with either of these things, let’s look back and remember Weinstein’s “contributions” to the lives of women.
In October 2017, the New York Times published an investigative journalism piece detailing three decades of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. (The incredible journalistic efforts that led to this article and subsequent ones is chronicled in the powerful book She Said, in which Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey describe what it took to break one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets.) The piece detailed three decades of Weinstein’s imposing himself on actresses and others in the film industry in situations that could be variously characterized as threatening, coercive, and perverse. The story also revealed that Weinstein had entered confidential settlements with at least eight women who had complained of sexual harassment and assault by him. Even more was revealed about Weinstein’s behavior in a New Yorker article, published just a few days later. Together, these articles wove a web of misconduct, retaliation, silencing, and intimidation that might have seem farfetched as the plot of one of Weinstein’s own movies. The revelations led to Harvey Weinstein’s removal from his own company and a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the New York Times authors. They also led to the criminal charges he is currently on trial for in New York—and two new rape charges just filed against him in Los Angeles. And Weinstein just inked a civil settlement, in which he agreed to pay $25 million to a group of his accusers, ending most of the lawsuits against him and his now-bankrupt company.
The revelations about Weinstein would have been damning had they stood alone—and important if they had led only to the professional, civil, and criminal consequences for him personally. (The allegations against Weinstein were so widely shared that lawyers in that Manhattan courtroom are having a hard time picking a jury because so many have been influenced by the media coverage.) But, in addition, they sparked an entire movement.
Ten days after the initial article in the New York Times, Actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the following invitation: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.” The hashtag #MeToo went viral and used millions and millions of times all around the globe. In the 2+ years since, #MeToo has become the one-word descriptor of a movement, as well as a shorthand for single incidents—“We’ve got a #MeToo problem.” Although Milano was not the first to use the “me too” framing—civil rights activist Tarana Burke founded the Me Too campaign over a decade earlier, through a nonprofit organization designed to help victims of sexual harassment and assault, especially women of color—the 2017 hashtag sparked a movement.
Before Weinstein, there had been other serial harassers who had been outed by lawsuits or media coverage. Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, and Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News television host, were each terminated after revelations of serial harassment of female employees, made possible in part by secret settlements totaling tens of millions of dollars. (These cases are explored in more detail here.) But those cases, which peaked in 2016 and 2017 respectively, dropped relatively quickly out of the news cycle. There were other cautionary tales, but they, too, were largely ignored. Weinstein was the spark that lit the movement.
Sparks Lead to Fir(ing)
The immediate aftermath of the Weinstein revelations was a string of allegations against other powerful men. Many of the allegations culminated in serious consequences. Longtime public radio figure Garrison Keilor was fired. Judge Alex Kozinski retired to avoid a judicial conduct inquiry after fifteen women, including several former clerks, came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct. Democratic Senator Al Franken resigned from the U.S. Senate. A New York Times article published just two months after the initial Weinstein article profiled 47 high-profile firings in the first six weeks. Gone from very public roles are Matt Lauer, Morgan Spurlock, Mario Batali, Kevin Spacey, and several members of Congress.
After the initial flurry, attention shifted from high-profile individuals to entire industries. We learned about pervasive harassment not only in Hollywood, but also in finance, law, politics, fast food, and retail jewelry. New revelations resulted in a variety of consequences for companies—class action lawsuits, damaging media coverage, and customer boycotts, to name just the most common ones. Sexual misconduct, long ignored and swept under the rug, became an issue that organizations were forced to take more seriously.
The Flame Continues to Burn
The firings of high-profile individuals were the beginning of the story rather than the end. The focus on Weinstein has expanded to a focus not only on other high-powered men who have abused their positions, but also on the organizational structures that permit sexual misconduct to go unpunished. We have learned a great deal from his story.
We have learned that sexual misconduct remains pervasive in the American workplace. The revelations about Weinstein paved the way for a seemingly endless cascade of credible allegations against other powerful men (and, yes, the occasional accusation against a woman). One study found that accusations were at their highest in November 2017 and, although the initial spike has subsided, the rates per month still far exceed the pre-Weinstein levels. Polls and surveys suggest, in fact, that over the past several decades there has been relatively little change in the likelihood that a woman will encounter sexual misconduct at work—despite the fact that an entire legal regime to prevent and correct harassment was erected during that time. We have learned about the limits of law to change attitudes, behavior, and social norms.
We have learned that sexual misconduct is often severe. People often assume that the more explicit and severe forms of sexual harassment must have disappeared as the law has evolved and social norms have changed. Sexual harassment law gets maligned for ruining office banter and punishing people for paying a co-worker a compliment. But that misguided criticism ignores the very real misconduct that law has not been able to eradicate. The allegations against Weinstein—and many others—involve incredibly disturbing behavior. The worst allegations involve rape, forced oral sex, false imprisonment, forced viewing of masturbation, and groping, to say nothing of the threat of withholding jobs or ruining careers for women who failed to comply.
We have learned that women feel strength in numbers, and that women are more willing to come forward and report harassment in an environment in which they are not alone. This is a welcome change given decades of studies showing that targets rarely file formal complaints after being harassed, despite the law’s emphasis on internal dispute resolution. But we have also learned that women might still suffer retaliation or other adverse consequences of complaining, even when they are not alone.
We have learned that accusations have been greatly amplified by technology and social media. Survivors have been able to connect with others, and journalists have been able to ferret out accused individuals who have long been able to keep their behavior under wraps. The #MeToo movement has given rise to crowdsourced information, like the “shitty media men” spreadsheet that appeared early on. This has the effect of making women understand they are collectively vulnerable, perhaps in ways and to a degree they didn’t fully appreciate, but that they are not alone.
We have learned that men who face credible accusations of harassment might now suffer consequences. Much of the history of sexual harassment law has been characterized by employers taking insufficient action—often no action—despite credible evidence of harassment. Internal investigations are often biased, and research shows that employers tend to recast harassment and discrimination as a problem of interpersonal conflicts that might justify intervention but not discipline and to overlook misconduct when the harasser is too valuable to lose. But severe discipline—usually firing—has been a centerpiece of the #MeToo stories since 2017.
But we have also learned that women will also face consequences for men’s bad behavior. The increased pressure and escalated discipline for sexual misconduct come with an increase in gender sidelining—the practice of limiting contact with female co-workers or subordinates in order to minimize the risk of a sexual harassment accusation (true or false) by limiting contact at work with women. This is a well-documented phenomenon, which has become more common in the wake of #MeToo. While it is an actionable form of discrimination to refuse to work with women or assign them work on the basis of sex, these practices are pervasive and hard to prove. Avoidance can be devastating to a woman’s career, especially when her success depends on networking, mentoring, or business-building.
We have learned about the common practices that have played a role in permitting serial harassers to evade a reckoning. Settlements with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) were used by many of the highest-profile harassers to quiet complaints and permit them to continue in their positions. NDAs are not new, but many of the high-profile men at the center of the #MeToo movement had a history of similar misconduct that had been kept quiet in part through such agreements, funded in many cases by their employers. In some instances, harassers and their corporate backers were maintaining silence through more aggressive means. Harvey Weinstein’s relied on a team of consultants and lawyers to dig up information that could be used to discredit his accusers. In other cases, employers “passed the trash” by quietly removing someone for sexual misconduct but protecting him from disclosure to future employers. Through these and other means, men who had engaged in often egregious misconduct were left in positions to continue visiting harm on women with impunity.
Weinstein’s criminal trial will come and go. He may or may not spend the rest of his life in jail. But the harm he has wrought on dozens of women over four decades cannot be undone. He has harmed women physically and emotionally, as well as ruined careers. Nothing he did to promote the careers of women in Hollywood offsets this harm. But the silver lining of his despicable behavior is the #MeToo movement, and our collective opportunity to do better in the future at holding people accountable for their behavior—and protecting the rights of all people to work, learn, and exist in public space without being sexually harassed or assaulted. For that, Harvey, we give thanks.