Learning the business: education and the Weinstein complex

Sexual misconduct in Toronto theatre schools highlights the need to address institutional flaws that are characteristic of the entertainment industry

Learning the business: education and the Weinstein complex

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, it has become clear that Hollywood is not the only institution in the spotlight when it comes to sexual misconduct. In Toronto, theatre programs at postsecondary institutions like Randolph College for the Performing Arts and George Brown College have also been rocked by sexual assault accusations.

While it is productive that these allegations are being heard and taken seriously, it is problematic that many conversations revolve around accused individuals as outliers. This rhetoric allows institutions to target perpetrators without addressing the deeper issues of policy and culture that create and enable them in the first place.

Here’s what has happened at the two colleges so far. At George Brown, several students accused former Acting Teacher Todd Hammond of inappropriate sexual comments. Though the first accusations from a former student appeared in February 2017, Hammond was still associated with the school as a director as late as April 2017. His name has now disappeared from George Brown’s Theatre Faculty Directory, but the college has yet to make a formal announcement regarding his absence.

At Randolph College, founder and former President George Randolph announced his intended retirement for spring of 2018. Then, in January 2018, the college issued a formal statement saying that Randolph had been accused of making “unwelcomed comments and physical gestures” by former students and staff. The administration did not explicitly state that his preemtive retirement last December was due to these accusations, but I would say that the timing deserves scrutiny due to the quick succession of events.

In the end, we have two colleges specializing in acting and performance, and two high-ranking individuals accused of sexual misconduct, both of whom have now vacated their positions. While this is a good start, there is still much institutional action required. If we are now acknowledging that the entertainment industry is a breeding ground for sexual harassment — whether it be in Hollywood or within educational facilities in Toronto — institutions have to dig deeper and ask why this is the case and what they can do to prevent harassment in the future.

Professional entertainment settings are characterized by intense competition over employment, a theme that underlies the Weinstein allegations. A startling amount of Weinstein’s victims stated that fear of losing current or potential job opportunities was a reason they initially chose to stay silent about their experiences.

Similar factors appear to be at play at the Toronto theatre schools currently under scrutiny due to sexual misconduct allegations. Students at George Brown have cited the school’s system of regularly eliminating students for not meeting the program’s standards as creating an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.

In an interview with The Varsity, two graduates from Randolph College who wished to remain anonymous recalled how they were made to believe that expressing any “concern, objection or dislike” of teachers or faculty would potentially ruin their career. This took place through instructions on professionalism and a lack of willingness to address concerns in conversations with various staff members. Furthermore, graduates of Randolph College stated that Student Services, the proscribed avenue for sexual misconduct complaints at the college, is widely perceived by students to be not confidential.

If these schools are creating atmospheres where objections are perceived as tantamount to throwing away one’s career, and where they may not even be heard confidentially, it is hardly a surprise that sexual harassment allegations fester.

To move past individual perpetrators into institutional changes, the first step should be breaking the culture of silence and fear. Weinstein had a reputation in Hollywood of being predatory before the accusations, but silence prevailed over fear that anyone who hurt his career would face consequences to their own employment. Randolph College and George Brown could combat this tendency toward silence by clearly stating the conditions under which Hammond and Randolph stepped down.

While both colleges claim to be revising policy, nothing has yet become public. Bringing the conversation out into the open is imperative to digging into policy and culture in a productive way. If the institutions remain hushed about the proceedings, it seems akin to the previous environments that cultivated fear around hurting the reputations of industry names.

It must also be acknowledged that theatre programs are a unique academic setting. One graduate from Randolph College noted that “theatre training does sometimes require physical contact between student and instructor,” a requirement that probably does not occur in many other fields. A specific setting requires specific policy: if physicality is the norm, there must be a clear way for students to express when they are comfortable and when they are not, without fear of their education or career being jeopardized.

Institutions like George Brown and Randolph College exist for the purpose of preparing students for the professional industry — if sexual harassment goes overlooked or unaddressed, it is tacitly accepted, and undoubtedly bleeds into the professional industry. But if schools take the initiative in ensuring students’ ability to express discomfort without repercussion, they can begin to change the industry from the ground up.

Maighdlin Mahoney is a second-year student at University College studying English and History.

Putting trauma in print

As sexual assault allegations continue to surface in the media, journalists must critically examine their responsibilities as storytellers and public informants

Putting trauma in print

Significant media attention has been focused on the explosive accusations of sexual assault and misconduct recently leveled against some of the most powerful men in entertainment and politics. As story after story has been broken — from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Louis CK — the voices of those victimized by sexual violence have reached the ears of international audiences.

More disturbing still is that many of these highly publicized outcries are paralleled by the experiences of the people around us. The social media campaign #MeToo has emboldened hundreds of our peers to share that they have been victims of sexual violence and harassment. Tamsyn Riddle’s human rights complaint against Trinity College and the University of Toronto for allegedly mishandling her sexual assault case is still ongoing. Around the same time the CK story came out, one of The Varsity’s masthead members received a wholly unsolicited pornographic photo from another student.

Sexual violence is not limited to what is portrayed by international headlines: it is a nefarious reality that will affect most people in some way during their lives. It is also something that has proven very difficult to talk about for many people. These cases involve vulnerable persons and deeply intrusive information, not to mention facts that can be muddled by stereotypes and by the competing interests of the implicated parties.

It is the media who are given the incredibly important task of consolidating the facts into a narrative, of informing the public in the way that is both ethical and true. In light of the sensitive nature of sexual violence cases, journalists must critically examine the means by which they carry out their duties in this respect.

On November 15, in partnership with Silence is Violence, The Varsity hosted a panel entitled “Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence.” Led by Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Life writer Lauren McKeon, and  activist and co-founder of grassroots organization femifesto Shannon Giannitsopoulo, the discussion centred on how media professionals can adopt appropriate reporting practices and reconcile any legal or ethical conflicts they encounter.

In the Unfounded series Doolittle spearheaded at the Globe, it was revealed that one in five claims of sexual assault in Canada are dismissed by police as baseless. While some complaints may indeed have been unfounded, in other cases, blatant negligence or misogyny on the part of police forces — such as in the famous case of Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto Commissioners of Police — have left complainants out in the cold, aggravating feelings of fear or mistrust when dealing with police in general.

When complainants do not feel comfortable dealing with police, or they feel as if their cases are not being taken seriously, the media can play a role in helping them achieve justice. In this sense, journalists are often known both for blowing the whistle on powerful people and for battling against efforts being made to bury the hatchet.

The Harvey Weinstein case is particularly galling given the complicity and wilful blindness demonstrated by Weinstein’s many enablers, and the lengths to which the producer went to cover up his actions. In a follow-up to his original exposé in The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow revealed that Weinstein had enlisted ex-Mossad agents to get close to some of his victims and mine them for information, sometimes under the guise of being women’s rights advocates. Journalists who were in dogged pursuit of Weinstein, including Jodi Kantor of The New York Times and Farrow himself, were also targeted by Weinstein for investigation.

Given the influence of the media in shaping people’s perceptions of events, journalists must ensure that their work does not further contribute to the conditions that can make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult. At the same time, many people are genuinely concerned about the influence media coverage might have on the public’s perception of accused persons. What is often alluded to in this regard is the presumption of innocence under section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which requires the accused to be presumed innocent until the  Crown can prove the charges against them beyond a reasonable doubt and before an independent and impartial tribunal.

The presumption of innocence is an important and often misconstrued idea that, in the context of sexual assault cases, squarely applies to representatives in the criminal justice system. Given that the media is neither a criminal law institution nor a representative of the government, it does not owe the accused the same right; rather, it finds its obligations within defamation law, an entirely different set of standards.

Nevertheless, media professionals are also required to be watchful of baseless allegations — in acknowledgment that a false or misleading story can potentially ruin the life of the person about whom it is written. As Doolittle pointed out, journalists tend to be extremely cautious when writing about sexual assault, including through the use of words like ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ when discussing claims yet to be confirmed by the courts.

Reporting on these stories can therefore involve a delicate balancing act, one often sorted out case by case. The discussion that took place at the panel last week provided insight into the steps journalists can take to ensure they are engaging in appropriate practices.

For one, journalists should be keenly aware of the impact stories might have on the people represented in them. Before publishing the Unfounded series, Doolittle gave each of her interviewees the option to be quoted anonymously or to withdraw from the story altogether. She was careful to emphasize the importance of explaining to complainants how their lives would be affected by going public with their stories.

Another point of caution pertains to language usage. In a guide entitled “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,”  femifesto advises journalists to omit details about the accused that might serve to imply that they are not ‘the type’ to commit such acts. This is to avoid the pitfalls of media attention centred on people like Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who was convicted of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman. Turner was often referred to in headlines as a “Stanford swimmer” rather than, for example, ‘the convicted felon.’

Finally, accusations made against certain people cannot be differentially treated on the basis of the institutions in which they work, or ‘the type’ of people we think they are. As allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Mark Halperin, and others have shown, the media itself is hardly immune to outbreaks of sexual misconduct. An anonymous spreadsheet entitled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” — the virtual embodiment of a whisper network — circulated online last month, allowing women to document their disturbing experiences with men in the media. This means that journalists should not only take great care when reporting on the experiences of others, but they must also watch for any violence happening around them.

Reporting on sexual violence is an immensely important responsibility, and the integrity and critical self-reflection that must underlie journalistic practices in this regard cannot be understated. The sheer number of accused abusers and misogynists seemingly crawling out of the woodwork might make us enraged or pessimistic, particularly since so many stories festered for years before being brought to the surface. But as McKeon put it, the current momentum of these stories also provides journalists with an opportunity to shed light on those not being told.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

How will we judge creators accused of sexual misconduct?

Reflecting on the legacies of Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, and more

How will we judge creators accused of sexual misconduct?

Calculated. Callous. Corrupt. It is difficult to think of positive adjectives to describe Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian anti-hero of the Netflix Originals drama House of Cards. Had the events of the past few months not unfolded as they did, it might have been equally difficult to think of negative adjectives to describe Underwood’s actor, Kevin Spacey, and the other formerly esteemed men now accused of sexual misconduct.

Our society’s reliance on social media is growing. We now know so much about famous artists that it is becoming more challenging to separate the artist from their art. Many millennials, including myself, will choose to boycott certain works, brands, or people because of their reputation, but taking this stance only leads to frustration when problematic creators produce content that is actually good.

Is it only the bodies of work of obvious villains that we are quick to dismiss? In 2014, it was revealed to the British public that the BBC and other institutions had protected, hidden, and therefore condoned the abusive behaviour of Jimmy Savile from the 1960s to his death in 2011. Savile was an English television and radio personality who had also founded and worked with many children’s charities.

After his death, there were hundreds of allegations made that Savile had molested and raped hundreds of children over the course of his career. Despite there having been numerous opportunities to halt his abuse, he was permitted to continue because of his status.

My mum never liked Savile, so I had never been subjected to any of his shows. I’m not sure I even knew who he was until his sexual abuse scandal surfaced. Celebrities and newspapers were quick to come forward with support for the victims and to condemn the hidden actions of yet another privileged white man. This made it incredibly easy for me to categorize Savile: ‘bad man, bad content, do not endorse.’

These cases become even more morally repugnant when the actions of alleged sexual abusers are essentially condoned by allowing them to continue with their art. In Savile’s case, the accounts of his abusive crimes were buried until his death. Today, despite Hollywood’s current attempts to irrevocably remove predators from the community, Woody Allen’s new film Wonder Wheel will still be released this December.

Despite being married to his former wife’s adopted daughter and being investigated for the sexual abuse of his own daughter Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen is still as successful as he was when he made Annie Hall in 1977. Similarly, Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl in 1977, but he won an Academy Award for The Pianist in 2003, premiered Based on a True Story at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and was honoured at the Cinémathèque Française in October.

Bill Cosby was first charged with sexual misconduct years ago, but he still has an abundance of supporters. Previously a hero to a marginalized community, some argue that continued support for Cosby is a result of discourse on racism in the United States. The Cosby case highlighted the belief of people of minority groups that their cultural icons were being unfairly targeted by the media — but perhaps these people were trying to justify his actions because they had invested themselves in Cosby’s legacy.

Coupling admission of his unacceptable behaviour making sexual advances on a teenager with his coming out, Spacey was trying to encourage an emotional dilemma. How could we not rationalize his behaviour upon learning he’s gay?

Cutting off our emotional attachment to the content produced by these individuals proves difficult, especially when popular media outlets are quick to praise them and the academy celebrates their work.

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and now House of Cards were fictional stories that I adored. I savoured the whimsical yet poignant romantic moments that Owen Wilson shared with some of my favourite artists in a spellbinding city. I was haunted by Adrian Brody’s gripping portrayal of a talented Polish-Jewish pianist in Nazi Germany. I was delighted by Robin Wright’s unapologetic hunger for power in a world dominated by men. While my fondness for the performances of these actors remains intact, I am not sure that I can show any allegiance to the show and films they appear in due to the conduct of their creators.

Over the past month, I have been satisfied to read about Harvey Weinstein’s career crumbling around him. In a recent interview with BBC Two’s Newsnight, actress Emma Thompson stated that Weinstein was just one predator among many in an exploitative industry. As it turns out, she was right.

Hollywood’s own house of cards is falling, and we’re simply waiting to see who’s left with the highest hand. The formerly renowned reputations of these men — Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Johnny Depp, Casey Affleck, Louis CK, Jeffrey Tambor, James Toback, and more — demonstrates how those accused of sexual intimidation and harassment have been protected by powerful institutions and the influential.

We are finally beginning to recognize that these moral transgressions are the result of an abuse of power at the expense of the vulnerable. Having been axed from House of Cards, disassociated from the London theatre The Old Vic, and being roundly criticized for using the allegations as a platform to come out, Spacey and his future in Hollywood look just about as fruitful as — spoilers — Frank Underwood’s career at the end of season five.

We need to start paying attention to the details, listening to the unheard, and supporting those who have been hurt. So, when the lights are turned on and the monsters are exposed from the shadows, we won’t be left wondering why we didn’t see them coming out from under our own beds.

Time is running out for Harvey Weinstein and his ilk

The producer's recent scandal is representative of an endemic problem in Hollywood

Time is running out for Harvey Weinstein and his ilk

The story sounds like one out of the kind of award-winning film that Harvey Weinstein has been known to put out: a powerful Hollywood executive is brought down by a bombshell article claiming he sexually assaulted and harassed legions of women who had worked with and for him.

Unfortunately for Weinstein, this is not one of his prestigious projects with A-list stars signing on. It is a disturbing, real-life scandal that has turned him, as one of the industry’s most respected moguls, into a media pariah. Ever since a New York Times investigation published on October 5 revealed over three decades of previously undisclosed incidents of Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuses of power over women, Hollywood has been roiling with fury and disgust. Five days later, The New Yorker published a similar investigation that contained a damning audio recording, captured during a New York Police Department sting operation, of Weinstein admitting to groping model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez.

The 65-year-old producer, known for his fiery temper, has since been fired from his self-named company, which he founded in 2005 with his brother Bob following their departure from formerly Disney-owned Miramax.

The elites of Hollywood, from George Clooney to Angelina Jolie, have been turning their backs against Weinstein, and others have come out with stories of similar encounters. Among his accusers are actresses Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Kate Beckinsale, and Rose McGowan.

McGowan in particular has been blunt about the mogul’s illicit activities. Through her Twitter account, the former Charmed star refused to mince words, claiming that Weinstein raped her at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. Other allegations made by the dozens of women who have come forward include similar elements: Weinstein demanding the women massage him, watch him shower, or undress him.

The allegations against Weinstein have already triggered accusations against other stars. After Ben Affleck released a statement condemning Weinstein, other women came forward accusing Affleck himself of sexual harassment. Actress Hilarie Burton brought up an incident in which Affleck groped her on a 2003 appearance on MTV’s Total Request Live, while makeup artist Annamarie Tendler accused Affleck of groping her at a 2014 Golden Globes party.

As disturbing as these allegations are in our progressive era, this is only the tip of the iceberg with regard to a trend that has sadly been far too prevalent in the film industry and society in general: the abuse of power that executives, mostly male, can impose on their employees, whether those are movie stars or interns.

Despite these incidents occurring over a period of 30 years, they are only now being revealed to the public. This is not only because Weinstein’s accusers were unable to disclose the incidents at the time, but also because so many enabled him and turned a blind eye to his behaviour, whether it was his former partners at Disney or the numerous stars and filmmakers with whom he developed strong working relationships, such as Affleck and director Quentin Tarantino.

Sadly, this has only enabled Weinstein and others of his ilk to use their authority to control women. They feel invincible thanks to their success, and they feel that nothing can bring them down. Prolific comedy director Judd Apatow agreed in an interview with the  Los Angeles Times that abuse is common in the industry and that many don’t realize this mistreatment immediately. “Young actresses are mistreated in all sorts of ways by powerful men who can dangle jobs or access to exciting parts of show business,” said Apatow. Putting their livelihoods at risk, he explained, is the reason Weinstein has been able to “operate like this for so many decades.”

One of the worst aspects of this scandal is that it has been par for the course in Hollywood since the Golden Age of the studio system in the 1930s and ’40s, when studio moguls such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Louis B Mayer and 20th Century Fox’s Daryl F Zanuck were notorious for giving promising female stars coveted roles in exchange for sex. Marilyn Monroe was once quoted as saying, “I’ve slept with producers… If you didn’t go along, there were 25 girls who would.”

It is disheartening that an industry known for its progressiveness in technology and filmmaking, and one that brings us joy and entertainment, has not changed in terms of its treatment of vulnerable women. Beckinsale is right to call Weinstein “an emblem of a system that is sick.”

In order for there to be a real shift in how women in Hollywood are treated, the circle of silence and denial will need to end. It is not just the victims who will need to be brave and speak out — it is also crucial for those who have stood on the sidelines and enabled this behaviour to come forward and end these abuses of power. To those executives who have committed sins akin to Weinstein’s, I hope you are ready for what’s to come, because your time is running out.