After Weinstein, the so-called casting couch’s number is up

Harvey Weinstein's Hollywood was all about the casting couch. SAG-AFTRA is pushing for a safer, better industry.

A gold sculpture of Harvey Weinstein on his infamous casting couch holding an Oscar statue is on display in Hollywood, California on March 1, 2018, where artists Plastic Jesus and Joshua Monroe displayed their creation days before the 90th Oscars Awards on Sunday, March 4. CREDIT: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
A gold sculpture of Harvey Weinstein on his infamous casting couch holding an Oscar statue is on display in Hollywood, California on March 1, 2018, where artists Plastic Jesus and Joshua Monroe displayed their creation days before the 90th Oscars Awards on Sunday, March 4. CREDIT: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Say you’re Harvey Weinstein’s attorney. Eight months after two seismic investigations into your client’s alleged decades-long history of sexual violence come out, he is arrested, charged with raping and sexually assaulting two women, and released on $1 million cash bail. This is something that seems to have happened both suddenly and finally: Not even a year after his name became synonymous with sexual predation in Hollywood, but over 40 years since the earliest known rape by this man allegedly occurred.

Still, your client’s door wasn’t rammed in by the police. He turned himself into the authorities. He had time to choose a periwinkle blue sweater, to select two books as props. You had some time to prepare a statement, to begin the formidable task of insisting upon the innocence of a man whose name is now frequently found sandwiched between “post” and “era.”

But the day of Weinstein’s arrest, Benjamin Brafman, Weinstein’s lawyer, had this to say to the crowd of reporters assembled outside Manhattan Criminal Court: “Mr. Weinstein did not invent the casting couch in Hollywood. To the extent that there’s bad behavior in that industry, that is not what this is about. Bad behavior is not on trial in this case.”

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The casting couch, to paraphrase Nell Scovell, is just a cutesy way of saying “rape sofa.” It is a term of art deployed to normalize something that should never be normal: sexually harassing, manipulating, and assaulting someone in an audition. As ThinkProgress wrote last fall when the Weinstein story first broke, it is the rare woman, or girl, who wants to trade sex for professional success. It is the exceedingly common man who abuses women simply because he can.

And while it is true Weinstein did not “invent” this particular style of sexual violence, he reportedly delighted in it, fine-tuned it, amassed an operation of intentionally vicious and/or willfully-oblivious participants to ensure his assaults went forward unencumbered by unfavorable logistics and such pesky obstacles as a witness to a woman saying “no.” So it is reasonable to intuit that any other like-minded would-be scumbag could do the same, so long as the system never changes, which is surely what would-be scumbags everywhere are hoping for.

Earlier this week, SAG-AFTRA, the largest actors’ union in the United States (it represents approximately 160,000 actors) reached “a tentative agreement” with ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox to put an end to the “casting couch.” The three-year contract these parties have negotiated essentially enshrines a set of “best practices” for auditions, such as restricting the number of private meetings taking place in “off-site” locations, like hotel rooms and homes.

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It’s the natural first step in the organization’s code of conduct on sexual harassment, issued earlier this year, specifically Guideline No. 1, which calls for an “end to high-risk locations for professional meetings” and, “in the unlikely event” a professional meeting must occur at a private hotel room or residence, encourages union members to bring a “support peer” to the meeting. “The Support Peer should be allowed to maintain physical access to the member at all times during the meeting (e.g., no closed doors blocking the member and Support Peer),” reads this guideline.

As Reuters reported, when the guidelines were issued back in April, SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said the aim was to erase the opportunities for “predators to exploit performers behind closed doors under the guise of a professional meeting.”

To keep the practical impact of such a change in perspective: Only the four major TV networks have agreed to these parameters, and no clear consequences for failing to abide by the rules. (It will be interesting to see what the streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, who position themselves as forward-thinking game-changers, bring to this #MeToo table.) It could be months, probably years, before film studios enact similar policies, assuming they ever do.

But perhaps the real influence of the policy will be able to be felt sooner by the people these rules are intended to protect: the actress who can, maybe, worry a little bit less about getting the career-smothering label of “difficult” when she insists on bringing a third party into a private audition, or requests that the meeting take place in an office and not a hotel.