Hollywood and ‘Disaster Feminism’

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 04: A view of the Hollywood Sign on December 04, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by PG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

According to a recent piece in The New Yorker by Dana Goodyear, Hollywood’s most powerful women are joining forces in a bit of “disaster feminism,” a riff on Naomi Klein’s notion of “disaster capitalism” — when governments seize a moment of vulnerability after a natural disaster or political or economic crisis to pass sweeping changes that the polity otherwise wouldn’t agree to.

Goodyear’s sprawling “Letter From California” asks as early as its headline the critical question: Can Hollywood change its ways?

She delves into the past, through an incredible, expansive interview with an unnamed nonagenarian, a former child actress who left the business at 16 horrified by the things men expected her to do.

And she talks to myriad current Hollywood-based sources, some named and others not, who recount anecdotes ranging from office conversations to overheard “come to Jesus” moments among men at a birthday party. The snapshots come together to form a picture of the reckoning ravaging that industry over the last few months.

One of the most striking anecdotes involves an unnamed man who, like many men and women right now, sees a difference between, in his words, “those who have done something really terrible” and, in Goodyear’s words, “the murky, in-between behavior — remarks or innuendos that at the time seemed fine, to the one initiating them.”

“I’ve never done anything like those guys,” he says, reminiscent of the way Weinstein said he was no Bill Cosby, and of the commenter on a story about Warner Bros. exec Andrew Kreisberg, who in Kreisberg’s name, wrote:

Nobody has accused me of rape like Weinstein.
Nobody has accused me of drugging them like Guillod.
Nobody has accused me of groping like Landesman.
Nobody has accused me of abusing minors like Spacey.
Nobody has accused me of exposing myself like Louis CK.
Nobody has accused me of asking for favors in exchange for work like Ratner.

“Men are living as Jews in Germany,” the unnamed man tells Goodyear. Listening to the audio version of this story, I blurted out an expletive at this line, accompanied by a sound like a dog laughing through torture. I had to pause it to give myself a chance to recover.

But then a few minutes later, Goodyear interviews “a Hollywood sexual-harassment investigator” who says that the new “zero tolerance” approach to harassment, in which names of abusive men are taken down off of buildings and other sites that once exalted them, is resulting in a “Soviet Union-style erasure.” Goodyear then writes: “Siberia, in this case, might be defined by what one fired agent told a former client: he was ‘pivoting away from representation’ and planning to reinvent himself in tech.”

Sure, tech might still, for a little while at least, be a good refuge for those who would prefer to continue protecting and even exalting abusive men.

There has been significant attention paid to the fear that we might be swinging the pendulum too far in one direction, that we might be catching innocents in our angry, raging nets of comeuppance. But less attention has been paid to a consequence of focusing so heavily on obvious monsters: What about the abusers we are letting off the hook because they’re just not vile enough? Or because their abuse wasn’t sexual?

Suki Kim’s exposé of public radio’s John Hockenberry was an exception to this: she gave equal weight to his racism and bullying as she did to his sexual overtures. But it’s much more common lately to hear people make excuses for workplace bullies whose behavior isn’t sexual, especially in “creative” industries like Hollywood and the media, which often glorify people with “passion” and “tempers” and “big personalities.” A friend told me about an effort to address harassment in radio and podcasting, and how when one person suggested the harassment include all workplace bullying, not only of a sexual nature, another person said that was impossible. “The whole industry will die,” we keep hearing, as if it is somehow physically impossible to do these jobs without abusing the people around you.

Even focusing on bullying excludes other behaviors that engender toxic work environments. An editor friend of mine, when this reckoning began, speculated that the fixation with monsters would allow some of his peers to not have to scrutinize their own behavior — actions that seem benign but are damaging, such as only mentoring young male reporters.

Much of Goodyear’s piece, especially the latter half, is devoted to questions like this. How can real change happen? She interviews Katherine Pope, a television executive who interviews women and people of color as a rule when hiring directors, who points out that even in companies that have women in senior positions, “there are layers of white men with veto power above them.”

Pope highlights the problem of “unconscious biases” as one element that prevents companies from taking chances on women the same way they do with charismatic men:

“The women have to be the most qualified, brilliant, perfect people in the world, and men get to grow into the job,” Pope said. “You hear code—‘You have to mature. You’re still learning.’ Or ‘I know she’s a great development executive, but does she know the business?’”

Goodyear notes that studios and networks haven’t done much beyond “applying reactive zero-tolerance policies and adding a few hotlines,” and quotes a former studio head who says he’s urged old colleagues “to implement some quick fixes —s ay, no more meetings in hotel rooms, on pain of firing — but they have ignored him.”

This is a rare bit of good news. Quick fixes are not the answer. Quick fixes allow problems to be swept under the rug; they allow people to move on and pretend that everything is okay when it very much is not. That’s what’s so heartening about some of the measures being pursued and proposed by powerful women in Hollywood, like the “inclusion clause” Women in Film is pitching studios and agencies to change the skewed ratio of women and men in writing, directing and producing positions “with an accompanying stamp to signify “gender parity in decision-making.'”

Goodyear also reveals how some of Hollywood’s most powerful women have been meeting for months “in secret,” resulting in an “action plan” detailed in a Jan. 1 New York Times story. The action plan includes the push for gender parity, but also reaches beyond Hollywood to “fight systemic sexual harassment… in blue-collar workplaces nationwide.” These scions of culture are promising “a legal defense fund, backed by $13 million in donations, to help less privileged women — like janitors, nurses and workers at farms, factories, restaurants and hotels — protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the fallout from reporting it.” This is especially poignant in light of the letter written in November, signed by approximately 700,000 women farmworkers, in support of the women of Hollywood coming forward to name and shame their abusers.

An unnamed attendee at those secret meetings told Goodyear that the Hollywood women were inspired by Naomi Klein’s concept of “disaster capitalism.” “We’re doing disaster feminism,” the attendee told Goodyear. “In the chaos that is ensuing, how can we create institutional, structural change, so if the moment passes those things will be in place?”