Hollywood’s culture of sexual harassment is finally making headlines

Republican candidate for President Donald Trump appears for his campaign rally at the Henderson Pavilion in Henderson, Nev. on Oct. 5.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump. Stories of older, powerful men preying on young women may not be new in Hollywood, but in the last year they have finally, and collectively, become news.

To the point that when actress Rose McGowan recently revealed on Twitter that she’d been raped by a studio head, it was not so much a shock as a confirmation, just one more instance of the “casting couch” being challenged by women not in theory but with disturbing portrayals of actual assault and harassment.

Although many of these allegations were first made on social media, they are increasingly taken seriously by multiple news platforms instead of simply becoming fodder for celebrity gossip sites.

“We’re now in an era of women making the men who hurt them accountable, of shifting the blame off them and onto the men who inflicted injustice upon them,” says Gloria Allred, an attorney who’s tried a number of high-profile cases involving the discrimination, abuse and assault of women.


Allred now represents Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice” who recently came forward with allegations that Trump sexually assaulted her when they were both working on the reality show.

“Women are no longer bearing the full cost of what men have done to them,” she said. “By women breaking the silence and speaking out in cases like Cosby and Ailes, men are learning a lesson. The old saying, ‘Don’t underestimate a woman’ … well, really, don’t.”

By women breaking the silence and speaking out, men are learning a lesson. The old saying, ‘Don’t underestimate a woman’ … well, really, don’t.

— Gloria Allred

The now infamous Trump tape, in which the presidential candidate can be heard bragging to an “Access Hollywood” host about his penchant for groping women, was outrageous in its own right. But it also is one in a series, dropping weeks after the head of Fox News stepped down amid charges of sexual harassment and, perhaps more important, as a beloved comedian faces criminal charges for sexual assault.

The multiple sexual assault allegations that began to accumulate in 2015 against Cosby was “a dam breaking in terms of how we really understand sexual assault as an institutional crime of power,” says Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, a nonprofit feminist media organization based in Portland, Ore.

Several women had accused Cosby of assault and rape for years, but it wasn’t until a bit in which comedian Hannibal Buress called Cosby a rapist went viral that the stories got wide play in the press, and quickly multiplied. .


Soon the sheer number of women reporting incidents of assault made them impossible to ignore.(The criminal trial, which is scheduled to begin next month, involves a single count of felony sexual assault allegedly committed in 2004.)

“Five years ago you would not have seen a term like ‘rape culture’ showing up on CNN,” says Zeisler. “You would not have seen the kind of push-back on pundits who [say] ‘Why didn’t these women come forward when it happened?’ ”

McGowan had an answer to that question: “A [female] criminal attorney said because I’d done a sex scene in a film I would never win against the studio head.#WhyWomenDontReport,” she said on Twitter.

McGowan is just the latest high-profile entertainer to come forward. Last year on CNN, “Westworld’s” Thandie Newton spoke about a casting director who took advantage of her when she was a teen. “He asked me to sit with my legs apart, and the camera was positioned where it could see up my skirt,” she said, adding that the director asked her to touch herself, and later showed the footage at Hollywood parties.

Singer Kesha started tweeting in 2014 about alleged sexual abuse and rape by her producer and label head, Dr. Luke, with whom she had signed when she was at teen. Although a judge rejected Kesha’s subsequent civil suit against against him, her testimony started a conversation about an institutionalized sexism that’s practically celebrated in the music industry.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Lady Gaga, Megyn Kelly and Ashley Judd have also spoken about being sexually violated, abused and raped by industry power brokers who held sway over their careers.

Most recently, Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a suit against Fox News founder Ailes when she alleged he passed her over for a promotion after she rebuffed his sexual advances. After more women began making similar accusations, Ailes was forced to step down.

The sexist culture backstage is often amplified on screen. Male figures from James Bond to Justin Bieber have romanticized or hinted at the thrill of nonconsensual sex, partly because the men with the power to green-light projects often “have the power to disseminate similar storylines across all genres – television, film, music,” says sociologist Laura L. Finley, author of “Sexual Assault in Popular Culture.”

“No wonder [some men] think they have license to harass, demean, assault and grope women. Everything that surrounds them is telling them — Yes, of course that’s what you do!”

Indeed, even as Trump faces a cultural meltdown over his words and alleged behavior, his replacement on “The Celebrity Apprentice” is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was himself accused by half a dozen women of making unwanted sexual advances that included groping.

But there are also overwhelming signs that this moment has permanently shifted the media, and perhaps even Hollywood’s perspective.

In the second presidential debate, the way in which Anderson Cooper phrased a question toward Trump spoke volumes: “You described kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault,” Cooper said. “Do you understand that?”

It seemed as if Trump didn’t, but many more now do.

“There’s no going back,” says Melissa Silverstein of the blog Women and Hollywood. “Once the election is over, there’s going to be some serious reckoning, and it’s not going to be easy.

This is raw, this is everywhere, but this is us, and we’re finally dealing with it.”


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