It’s been called the Great Purge of 2017. Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in early October, skeletons from Hollywood’s cupboard of shame keep tumbling out. Among the leading men who have been accused are Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, Dustin Hoffman, Ed Westwick and Steven Seagal. The ever-growing list also includes filmmakers Oliver Stone, James Toback, Brett Ratner.
The ‘Weinstein Ripple Effect’ has extended beyond Hollywood. New allegations have been made against powerful men in the US from all walks of life, across politics (former president George HW Bush and politician Roy Moore), television (Roy Price, head of Amazon Studio), hospitality (celebrity chef John Besh), fashion (photographer Terry Richardson) and media (NPR news chief Michael Oreskes, Lockhart Steele, the editorial director of Vox Media). The latest to join this dishonorable list is comedian Louis CK.
The allegations against these men range from rape to long-term campaigns of harassment, assault and sleaziness. The fallout has prompted employers, both big and small, to sever ties with those accused and reassess their sexual harassment policies. In some cases, law enforcement agencies have opened up investigations into the allegations. The tide of #MeToo stories has sparked the biggest conversation on sexual harassment in the US since the Anita-Hill-Clarence Thomas case in the early 90s.
Even as Hollywood was dealing with the avalanche of scandals, closer home in Bollywood, the conversation about workplace sexual impropriety is gathering steam. Actors like Vidya Balan, Farhan Akhtar and Priyanka Chopra have urged women to speak up and call out sexism. Interestingly, no one has addressed the powers-that-be in Bollywood, who are mostly men, to not sexually harass the women (and, in some cases, also men) in their orbits.
In all the conversations, I have had on the subject; the one question that comes up is ‘why are the victims talking NOW’? There are multiple reasons.
This avalanche in the US has been many years in the making. In just the last three years, rich and hugely powerful men (actor and comedian Bill Cosby, Fox News CEO the late Roger Ailes, journalist and author Bill O’Reilly) in the US have been brought down, in one way or another, by very public accusations. Weinstein, Spacey, Richardson, Besh and CK have all faced immediate professional consequences for their actions.
It could be possible that there’s a kind of domino effect – the more victims speak out, the more others are encouraged to tell their stories. Courage can be contagious. When one brave victim decided that ‘enough was enough’ and told her stories despite the risk of retaliation, she spurred others to come forward.
There also is great awareness of what is and isn’t appropriate workplace behaviour. Asking a young girl if she’s a virgin at an interview for a newspaper job is not okay. Neither is joking about the size of a singer’s breasts being the reason why ‘she can hit the high notes’. Most women have had to deal with lewd comments and unwanted hugs or shoulder massages at their workplace. And, it was always brushed off as ‘boys being boys’. That’s just not acceptable anymore.
Obviously, coming forward is not easy. There will always be those who don’t believe. Those who think it’s the victim’s fault; that it’s no big deal; or, even worse, that she/he is accusing the perpetrator for publicity. In a lot of cases, the men accused receive no punishment. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski continue to make movies; Arnold Schwarzenegger still gets acting gigs; and, Donald Trump was elected Present of the United States despite multiple allegations, including the infamous ‘grab them by the pussy’ tape.
Bollywood is yet to experience its watershed moment but here’s hoping it’s just around the corner. Someone has to call out the director who, while shooting a rape sequence, refused to call ‘cut’ and encouraged the men to do more than the actress had consented for. Or, the filmmaker who tried to sack his leading lady because she refused to reciprocate his ‘love’.
The nature of sexual harassment is, of course, that it’s often covert and without witnesses. It takes a lot for a woman to come forward and publicly acknowledge that she was sexually mistreated. The stigma, alone, is enough to keep women silent. And, there is the part where the accuser is expected to describe what was done to her. Women in India, specially, celebrities are still uncomfortable talking about body parts and sexual acts.
There is a very real possibility that the victims in Bollywood might never name and shame their predators. But, if they do, now is the time. And it is our responsibility to not dismiss or diminish their stories.