What do we learn from the Weinstein affair?

DO we learn from Harvey Weinstein or is it just a thing – a media thing that burns from its own energy and then dies?

I was wondering about this when talking to students this week about the disgraced film producer who is accused of sexually harassing and assaulting more than 50 women.

The matter was an aside rather than the topic of the day but many of the students were well informed about the accusations against Weinstein, as well as angry and indignant.

They knew as much as I did about what the vile man is said to have been up to for years in Hollywood. They believed that good would come from the exposure of his behaviour, and they also felt that the #MeToo hashtag was a positive way for women to register that they too had been sexually abused or harassed.

I paraded some front pages of the newspapers and pointed to the Daily Star. The right-hand half of the page was given over to a ‘sex pest’ headline in a follow-up to the Weinstein story. And the left-hand half of the page contained a photograph of woman who was just about naked.

That grubby juxtaposition said a lot about newspapers sometimes wanting to have their outrage while also celebrating the very thing they are outraged about. OK, the Daily Star is hardly a template for our times. But still. Do these people see what they are doing? Serious face for that “pervert story” – and “Fwoar! Look at her” for the daily scanty next door.

Of course, much serious discussion, reporting and commentary has been stirred by the allegations against Weinstein. And if all the talk and all the anguish changes attitudes in Hollywood and the wider world, then this will have been more than a media thing.

That is not, I recognise, a very exact phrase. But “a media thing” seems to sum up what can happen when a story becomes all-consuming, a fire that rages day after day. Until one day that media bushfire burns itself out. The smoke lifts, the view clears. Then someone sets fire to something else and everyone forgets about the first fire.

There has been so much heat, so much acrid smoke, over Weinstein that it seems fair to suppose that some good will come of so many famous women claiming to have been abused. If attitudes change in society, if women feel embolden to speak up, then that is to the general benefit.

Because it must add up to more than a grisly parade of what one deeply unpleasant man is said to be have been up to for years.

This morning, the director Quentin Tarantino is quoted as admitting that he was aware about instances of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein for decades but did not act to protect women, saying: “I knew enough to do more than I did.”

Isn’t it often the case that people know enough to do more than they do? Yet if Tarantino now regrets his lack of action, it is still an uncomfortable truth that Weinstein did much to create his career. And that’s where the moral strands become tangled.

As I said, my students believed in the power of the #MeToo campaign and perhaps they are right. My only concern is that this is, to continue with the imprecision, a “social media thing” – something that gets everyone excited, then disappears.

It also worries me as a man that somehow all men are tainted by this hashtag. But then I know that this isn’t about me: it belongs to women who have been harassed or abused.

The many women lining up to accuse Weinstein of sexual misdemeanours or worse include the British actress Kate Beckinsale, who was 17 when she encountered Weinstein at the Savoy Hotel. She said: “He opened the door in his bathrobe. I was incredibly naive and young and it did not cross my mind that this older, unattractive man would expect me to have any sexual interest in him.”

And that’s a lesson for older men in this tawdry affair. You might be young in your head, you might see yourself as vital and desirable. But you’re not. You’re just another old guy. The sexual interest is all one-sided. And you need to grow up, even if that isn’t easy.


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