The rumor is, she slept with him to get the part. The reality is uglier.
This is one of the narratives emerging from the heaps of allegations piling up against Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein, who is the subject of two bombshell investigations, one by the New York Times and one by the New Yorker, which collectively reveal a pattern of Weinstein’s sexual harassment, abuse, and assault dating back decades. Tuesday afternoon, harrowing allegations came down from two of the entertainment industry’s most successful, established female stars: Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie.
Paltrow was 22 years old when Weinstein “summoned her to his suite at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel for a work meeting” that culminated in Weinstein touching her, “suggesting they head to the bedroom for massages,” the Times reports. Paltrow was “petrified,” she says, and alerted her then-boyfriend, Brad Pitt, who in turn confronted Weinstein, who then came back to Paltrow to threaten her to tell no one else. Weinstein allegedly “made unwanted advances” on Jolie, also in a hotel room, in the late 1990s. As she told the Times in an email, “I had a bad experience with Harvey Weinstein in my youth, and as a result, chose never to work with him again and warn others when they did.”
Weinstein’s behavior was reportedly an open secret in the industry. While some have come forward to say they did, in fact, know about this all along — or that they, too, had an “audition” with Weinstein that left them feeling “violated” — some have taken a different approach: They knew something, but certainly nothing as bad as this.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, George Clooney commented, at length, about the allegations against Weinstein. (Weinstein, as the story notes, gave Clooney his “first major big-screen role.”) Calling the alleged sexual misconduct “indefensible,” Clooney went on to contextualize his reaction to the news.
“I’ve heard rumors, and the rumors in general started back in the ’90s, and they were that certain actresses had slept with Harvey to get a role,” Clooney said. “It seemed like a way to smear the actresses and demean them by saying that they didn’t get the jobs based on their talent, so I took those rumors with a grain of salt.”
He went on, “But the other part of this, the part we’re hearing now about eight women being paid off, I didn’t hear anything about that and I don’t know anyone that did. That’s a whole other level and there’s no way you can reconcile that. There’s nothing to say except that it’s indefensible.”
Though the history of rampant sexual misconduct in Hollywood is a well-documented one, and though women who’ve had self-described “casting couch” experiences frame those incidents as vile, even terrifying, there lingers in our culture the persistent belief that what’s really occurring is an even exchange: Sex for a role. (This, even though Weinstein’s behavior was reportedly an open secret in the industry.)
When it’s an open secret that the boss is a sexual harasser, people assume wrong things about the accomplishments of women who work for them
— Katie Notopoulos (@katienotopoulos) October 10, 2017
If anything, the equation seems weighted in the favor of the aspiring actress who lands there: One tryst to have a red carpet rolled out before you, a path to the A-list littered with riches, acclaim, and Oscars. What’s it to her? Or, as Weinstein put it in a chilling conversation with Ambra Battilana Gutierre — who he admitted to groping, then immediately propositioned again — that Gutierre secretly recorded and was just released by the New Yorker: “Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes.”
The power imbalance ought to be impossible to miss, and yet the phrasing alone — “casting couch” — carries with it the sense that it’s a throwback to old Hollywood, to a simpler, more salacious time. It seems scandalous, sure, but it’s the sort of scandal that plays on socially acceptable, if tired, stereotypes. The sleaze and the starlet. Gross, yes. But criminal? How can it be if, when all’s said and done, she’s holding the golden statuette she always wanted? What woman chasing a film career wouldn’t want to have sex with a powerful producer, and reap all the benefits of the romp?
This narrative conveniently assumes all young, beautiful women are also indiscriminate (or, alternatively, ruthless and calculating) in their selection of sexual partners; that the woman, for all her supposed naïveté, is more powerful than the man with whom she’s negotiating.
As a term of art, “casting couch” turns something coercive and non-consensual into a fling-as-Hollywood-origin-story. People do not generally invoke the cutesy term as a euphemism for the idea that women are raped before they get to be in the movies. It means, rather, that women leverage sex for roles: that really, the powerful person in the scenario is a young actress with all her sexual wiles, not the older man who actually gets to determine whether or not her career gets off the ground.
It should be obvious, but apparently it bears repeating: 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.