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The quiet horror of #MeToo

Harvey Weinstein. Picture: PA - Credit: SIPA USA/PA Images

There has been a culture change in the arts when it comes to attitudes to women, says Samira Ahmed. But we must not assume things will keep improving.

After Ronan Farrow, son of Woody Allen, finally revealed the sheer scale of allegations of sexual assault, bullying and cover-ups against Harvey Weinstein, in October 2017, everything changed for arts journalism. For a start, interviews were transformed.

Apparently innocuous comments have to be re-contextualised in the light of stories of survivors. At the Paddington 2 junket Hugh Grant laughed, remembering the sexually-mocking jokes older actors and directors threw at him when he was starting out in rep. He had drawn on those memories for his portrayal of the vain, villainous actor Phoenix Buchanan. But we both realised how different it sounded now in the light of the accounts of actors such as Anthony Rapp, who said he had been assaulted as a teenager by Kevin Spacey.

As Grant made clear in the same interview: ‘Sexual harassment should have zero tolerance in whatever form, anywhere. In whatever country, in whatever business. My hat goes off to those women who are brave enough to speak out.’

Since October I have been piecing together, in quiet horror, the missing links of screen history; working out why favourite intelligent actresses’ careers had died. It has produced a feeling similar to the sickness that many of us experienced re-running our memories of watching Jimmy Savile on television as children.

I recalled how Mira Sorvino’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1995 came for the strategically-taken part of a sweet but dumb prostitute in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. Even at the time, the film’s sexual politics were widely regarded as pretty dodgy. But I had set that aside, thrilled to watch her launch on a magnificent trajectory: the cult comedy Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, then action films such as Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic.

Then, suddenly, from 1998, silence. Peter Jackson, then casting The Lord of the Rings confirmed in December 2017 that Sorvino and Ashley Judd were effectively blacklisted thanks to Weinstein’s Miramax spreading the word that they were ‘difficult’. ‘At the time, we had no reason to question what these guys were telling us,’ he told ‘..and as a direct result their names were removed from our casting list. In hindsight, I realise that this was very likely the Miramax smear campaign in full swing.’

Katherine Heigl dared to say in a Vanity Fair interview that Knocked Up was ‘a little sexist’. You know, that 2007 film in which a smart career woman, finding herself pregnant by a man she’d never have slept with sober, considers everything except a legal abortion. This is what she said: ‘It paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you’re portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie.’

After the interview was published, star Seth Rogen and writer/director Josh Apatow, in a buddy-style interview on the Howard Stern show, mocked Heigl’s latest film role and mused aloud on when she was going to apologise to them. These two lovable, fun-loving guys. Other news media ran stories about the ‘feud’ and so the story grew.

Her career dried up just as it should have been taking off. And then, in August 2016 – eight years after the interview – Rogen finally admitted responsibility, without actually admitting responsibility: ‘I respect the fact that maybe she realises it has hurt her career. And I don’t want that to have happened to her at all. Because I’ve said a thousand stupid things, and I really like her… For other people to not work with her because she didn’t like her experience with us I think is crazy.’

There it is in the open – the casualness of the destruction by male power-brokers and the way it is always deployed against women. It has shocked me how often young and female producers have told me before an interview that an actress they’ve never met has a reputation for being ‘difficult’. Not once has that ever been the case in my experience. I now demand the source of the claim.

In the world of opera, where the label ‘diva’ is hurled as part insult/part honorific, soprano Angela Gheorghiu told me she’s a ‘black sheep’ for daring to speak her mind about an art form she has devoted her life to – though opera is one of the few art forms where strong opinions are considered part of your rights as a star.

But in most fields, fear of being labelled difficult keeps women scared, grateful for work, and, crucially, it keeps them cheap. #MeToo and the battle for equal pay are, I believe, deeply entwined.

It is not just recent history either. In March the diaries of former Tate director John Rothenstein revealed that sculptor Henry Moore and fellow trustee and historian Kenneth ‘Civilisation’ Clark had rubbished the work of Barbara Hepworth. In 1945, Moore blocked the gallery buying one of her wooden sculptures. The same year, it bought seven of his.

It is a useful reminder that it wasn’t enough for some male artists to be valued in their own right, even when they dominated. They had to destroy the value of women artists struggling for recognition. As with Sorvino and Judd, we are relying on subsequent revelations to correct our mis-written histories of great talent.

Molly Ringwald, the 1980s film star and ‘muse’ of director John Hughes, recently rewatched their teen films, notably The Breakfast Club, with her daughter and was rightly troubled by the casual misogyny embedded in them: the angry taking-down of ‘snooty’ girls; the mockery of ‘slutty’ girls; the way they make light of voyeurism and sexual assault.

Ringwald traced the misogyny to the training ground of National Lampoon magazine, where Hughes began his career in the 1970s, and the spin-off, frat boy comedies like Animal House.

Ringwald emailed Ted Mann, the co-author (with Hughes) of one particularly nasty magazine article from those days, entitled Sexual Harassment and How to Do It!, asking what he now thought of it. Mann – now a writer and producer who has been nominated for seven Emmys, most recently for Homeland – claimed not to remember writing it, but told her: ‘It wouldn’t fly today and it never should have flown then,’ blaming ‘degenerate cocaine days’.

While some male stars and filmmakers claim not remember, many have apologised to women for past behaviour. There are also those who haven’t. Michael Parkinson, whose leering, jeering ‘interview’ with a young Helen Mirren in 1975 is horrifying young viewers on YouTube, is still complaining, when anyone lets him near the telly, that she was ‘difficult’. Mirren’s magnificent career and her gracious refusal to criticise him personally when I asked her about it are all the more striking in comparison.

Some powerful men in the screen industry young enough to know better seem genuinely baffled and try to explain to women why a hand on the knee isn’t the same as rape. Seriously, I’ve been in these conversations. My short answer: ‘It’s a continuum, fellas. It’s all about power.’

There is no inevitable arc towards progress. At the start of the 1990s Anita Hill bravely went public, testifying about the sexual harassment she said she had suffered from Clarence Thomas – the first black nominee to the Supreme Court. At the time, Weinstein’s abuses were just getting underway. Thomas made it to the Supreme Court and officiated at Trump’s inauguration.

Disney gave us a multiracial quintet of grown-up heroines – Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, Pocahontas and Meg in Hercules – who fought for justice and fought off predatory men. ‘Sometimes they think no means yes,’ says Meg in Hercules. Admit it, Frozen doesn’t seem quite so impressively feminist in comparison.

Disney is back on the right track with Moana. Anita Hill is presiding over an official film industry commission investigating Weinstein and sexual harassment. But beware the patriarchal fightback.

Some French women writers and actresses signed a joint letter criticizing #MeToo activists for being ‘puritans’ stopping les guys being guys. Hugh Hefner’s son is trying to relaunch the Playboy brand as ‘inclusive’, rather than misogynist, by featuring a transwoman pinup.

Pay is where I see some of the real impact of #MeToo: Claire Foy getting backdated equal pay for The Crown because it was too shameful and damaging for Netflix to ignore; Benedict Cumberbatch potentially disrupting the boys’ club economic model by saying he expects female co-stars to earn the same.

So even though I advise caution, I do see this as a potential breakthrough moment to reset the rules of acceptable behaviour across the arts industry. We have to first accept the horrific scale of abuse that happened, and will continue to be revealed. No, women didn’t make this up.

It doesn’t mean we can’t watch The Breakfast Club or Annie Hall or admire a Henry Moore sculpture. But it does mean re-watching, re-reading and re-viewing a lot of things we used to love might be a much more uncomfortable but honest experience.

Samira Ahmed presents Front Row on Radio 4 and Newswatch on BBC1 and the Newschannel. She is a visiting professor of journalism at Kingston University

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