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How the Harvey Weinsteins of the World Have Distorted What—and Who—We See On Screen

Our vision of glamour, beauty, and stardom has been driven by lecherous men for decades. What has that meant for the movies and TV we’ve been consuming all this time? And can it finally change?

Harvey Weinstein surrounded by the shadows of women Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I couldn’t initially put a face to that name. Annabella Sciorra.

Over the weekend, the Emmy-nominated actress (best known, I later realized, for playing Gloria Trillo on The Sopranos) became one of the latest women to courageously go public with a story of sexual assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein. Sciorra told The New Yorker in a story published Friday that shortly after a breakthrough performance in the 1992 thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Weinstein forced himself into her New York apartment and violently raped her. The first time she’d talked to reporter Ronan Farrow, she’d denied that anything had happened. “I really wanted to tell you,” she said to him later. “I was like, ‘This is the moment you’ve been waiting for your whole life… I really, really panicked.” Sciorra ultimately felt emboldened by the sheer number of other actresses speaking out against the disgraced producer.

It was another piece in the nightmarish puzzle gradually coming together to illustrate the full panorama of abuse alleged against Weinstein. But there was something wistful about this particular story, suffused as it was with an air of what-if, of thwarted potential. That night Washington Post writer Dan Zak tweeted about Sciorra, “I remember seeing ‘What Dreams May Come’ in theaters in 1998 & thinking ‘Why isn’t this actress in more movies?’”

Day after day after emotionally exhausting day this month, we are coming to terms en masse with these horrific whys. As of this writing, 93 women have now accused the producer of sexual harassment or assault, according to a list compiled by one alleged victim, Asia Argento. The cumulative weight of their stories is crushing, and it exposes a broader dynamic that feels uncomfortably personal to anyone who consumes news and culture in our society—which is to say anyone reading this now. “In hearing these individual tales,” Rebecca Traister wrote in a New York column last week, “we’re not only learning about individual trespasses but for the first time getting a view of the matrix in which we’ve all been living: We see that the men who have had the power to abuse women’s bodies and psyches throughout their careers are in many cases also the ones in charge of our political and cultural stories.”

They have also controlled our narratives of female glamour and eroticism for as long as visual media has existed. For too long, men like Weinstein have been the ones who have dictated—in the most conservative, market-minded terms—who got to be thought of as “beautiful,” “desirable,” or “sexy.” To be sure, Traister was writing not just about Weinstein but about a handful of other recently fallen men like Leon Wieseltier (the former New Republic literary editor who has been accused of sexually harassing young women) and Roger Ailes (whose preference for a certain blonde ideal will be obvious to anyone who’s watched a single minute of Fox News). But particularly in media as primally visual as film and television, representation matters a great deal. Which is why so many people have been disturbed to realize—or at least, those people with the luxury and privilege of not having to realize until now—that there has all along been a history of sexual abuse and coercion at the core of the cultural products we so eagerly and sometimes mindlessly consume. It is troubling, but necessary, to finally acknowledge that the dynamic that created Harvey Weinstein has all along been inextricable from the experience of watching movies—even movies as self-consciously “countercultural” as Pulp Fiction or as “empowering” as the Kill Bill franchise. It can be nauseating to think about, because we are all implicated. It is as though, long after we’d drunk the milk—and in many cases even said it tasted good—someone came along to tell us it was well past its expiration date.

One disconcerting detail to emerge in the first wave of Weinstein stories was his obsession with the actress Mila Kunis, whom Weinstein seems to have held up as some kind of revealingly personal ideal of feminine beauty. Weinstein reportedly “lashed out” at the actress Jessica Barth, telling her in 2011 that she needed to lose weight if she wanted “to compete with Mila Kunis.” To Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, the woman who wore a wire to a meeting with Weinstein in 2015, after he’d groped her the day before, Weinstein “remark[ed] repeatedly that she looked like the actress Mila Kunis,” she told The New Yorker, which was his way of saying he thought she could be a star. The average person on the street has, in the past month, come to know far more intimate details about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse than she’d ever wanted to, and will have little luck scrubbing some of the more disturbing images from her mind: the hotel robes, the clichéd penchant for massages, that unfortunate potted plant. And yet, we’ve already known more than we wanted to about the desires of Weinstein and powerful media predators like him. For so many years—over a century, really, since the earliest days of film—they have dictated the types of women we see on screen, and the types of women pushed to the invisibility of the margins.

In her landmark 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, film critic Molly Haskell calls Hollywood—caustically, and so correctly—“the propaganda arm of the American Dream machine.” At the movies, these aspirational celluloid giants quite literally tower over us, taunting us to imagine and aspire to cooler, wittier, and better-dressed versions of ourselves. But, especially in the early days of the studio system (and even now, because he who holds the purse strings holds the power) the producer was the primary gatekeeper determining what, and who, made it onto the canvas of that communal dreamscape. Because the people who held these jobs were almost always men, they tended to favor the universal, reductive, and wholly unrealistic stereotypes of male fantasy (“virgin” or “vamp”) and were happy to mold starlets into those roles if they didn’t fit naturally. “For the most part,” writes Haskell in her chapter on Hollywood in the 1920s, “even when a name director or big star had some kind of aesthetic control, the producer was the authority figure and, in the early days of studio satrapies, he had considerable power—wielding a wand of stardust magic. … Naturally, it was beyond his understanding that any woman would resist his Svengalian efforts on her behalf.”

The rise of the Hollywood studio system also coincided with the birth of the “casting couch,” a winking euphemism for the all-too-normal practice of studio executives and producers expecting sexual favors in exchange for casting young actresses in pictures. The legendary Twentieth Century Fox exec Darryl Zanuck was one of the most notorious proponents of the casting couch; it is said that everyone on the Fox lot knew not to bother him between 4 and 4:30 each afternoon, a block of time he’d allotted to be “in conference” with up-and-coming actresses. The biographer of Columbia Pictures cofounder Harry Cohn has called the sofa that adorned his all-white office “the original ‘casting couch.’” And so our ideas of feminine cinematic glamour—which has, for the last century, set the tone for mass-cultural norms about female beauty—have always been filtered through these predatory, power-drunk men before it was then projected back onto the eyes of women. So many of us who have been watching movies since before we could even speak have been learning to conform to or (with more difficulty) reject the ideas about femininity they’ve implanted in us.

So many of the women in my life have taken these Weinstein stories so personally, and they have every reason to. The connections we have to movies, and other mass media, can be quite intimate. They are bound up with the (limited) ways we have been conditioned to see ourselves in an ageist, racist, patriarchal culture, even in times when they have offered us the false freedom of more “independent” alternatives. (Like roughly nine out of every 10 students who take an intro to film studies class in college, I spent a good chunk of my sophomore year trying to dress like Anna Karina; it wasn’t until a few years later that I started considering the sometimes troubling control Jean-Luc Godard had exerted over his young wife in crafting that blithely stylish image for her.)

Weinstein infamously told women that he’d make them famous if they submitted to his sexual advances, citing A-list actresses he’d bedded as some kind of proof of his power. If they resisted, though, he could do the opposite. Annabella Sciorra was, in the mid-’90s, perhaps on the cusp of becoming a household name; after Weinstein allegedly raped her, she says she wasn’t cast for about three years; she’d somehow acquired a reputation for being “difficult” to work with. As Sciorra’s friend Rosie Perez so poignantly observed in Farrow’s latest piece, “She was riding high, and then she started acting weird and getting reclusive. It made no sense. Why did this woman, who was so talented, and riding so high, doing hit after hit, then all of a sudden fall off the map? It hurts me as a fellow-actress to see her career not flourish the way it should have.”

It makes my blood boil to think that the reason I didn’t know Annabella Sciorra’s name until this week probably wasn’t because she’s not a talented actress; it is more likely that she was the subject of an effective smear campaign orchestrated by the famous man who she alleged raped her. What is so depressing about Sciorra’s story is that it gestures toward an entire alternate universe of films that could have been made, actresses that could have been stars, if not for the calculated suppression of what she calls “the Harvey machine” and other forces like it. For every still-thriving, A-list star who’s spoken out about Weinstein (like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie), there are more women we haven’t heard of, names who ring a bell we can’t quite place, actresses about whom we’ve idly wondered, at some point in the past few years, “Whatever happened to her?” Mira Sorvino won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress shortly after Weinstein began harassing her (and when she began telling people about it, including her boyfriend at the time, Quentin Tarantino), she alleges. Perhaps people who may have blamed her for not having as illustrious a career as she seemed destined for are finally seeing the bigger picture.

The Weinstein allegations demand that we reassess so many things about the cultural products we consume, things so many of us have taken for granted for too long. Perhaps one of the most important ideas it asks us to reexamine is that of “relevance”—the fickle, sexist fuel on which the Hollywood stardom machine runs—and of the idea that the worst thing that can be asked of an actress is, “Where is she now?” In the past, if a promising actress had not ascended to the A-list, if she didn’t make the most of the already small window in which she would be young enough to be given the “good” roles, it had generally been seen as a fault of her own, a squandered opportunity, or evidence that she just wasn’t star material. But what these recent sexual harassment and assault allegations have reminded us is that when a woman “just wasn’t star material” it was, too often, a synonym for “a woman that Harvey Weinstein didn’t want to fuck,” or “a woman that Harvey Weinstein tried to fuck and who resisted him enough to provoke retaliation.”

Only in recent years have some actresses begun to speak out—or at least make jokes about—this concept of so-called “fuckability,” perhaps most infamously in the star-studded Inside Amy Schumer sketch that imagined Julia Louis-Dreyfus giving herself a Viking funeral to commemorate her “last fuckable day.” As crass as the terminology might seem, Weinstein has allegedly taken this age-old Hollywood concept of “fuckability” to an extreme, viewing the ideal Hollywood actress as an empty vessel who was open to his sexual advances anywhere, anytime.

One of the most eloquent accounts of Weinstein’s apparent monstrosity was written, in The New York Times, by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. Her tale was sickening in its familiarity (the lunch, the private room, the massage) and heartbreaking for the specificity of detail (the fact that she could not afford a cab ride home). The incidents she describes allegedly took place in 2011, before she’d experienced much success as an actress. She and Weinstein met again in September 2013, at the Toronto premiere of 12 Years a Slave, the movie for which Nyong’o would win an Academy Award. “He said he couldn’t believe how fast I had gotten to where I was,” she writes. The following year, Nyong’o writes, they ran into each other at the Cannes Film Festival, and, over a lunch meeting she agreed to only if her agent was also present, she describes Weinstein begging—groveling, really—to cast her in one of his upcoming films. She cooly refused him. She upheld the pact she’d made with herself a few years before to never work with Harvey Weinstein again. Perhaps if only for the span of this lunch, the power dynamic was reversed. Nyong’o was the established artist who’d found success on her own terms. Weinstein was the one clamoring just to be associated with her.

Nyong’o was the first prominent nonwhite actress to go public with a story about Weinstein. “The propaganda arm of the American Dream” has also, of course, been built upon a suppression of black voices—and of black female humanity in particular. It should come as no surprise that nearly all of Weinstein’s alleged victims have apparently been white and have conformed to traditional standards of beauty, which makes his desperation to be associated with Nyong’o feel like the last gasps of a man ill-equipped to deal with the more diverse reality of Hollywood’s future.

Part of what made Nyong’o’s story so powerful was that it subtly cast Weinstein’s way of doing things as stuffy and old-fashioned, a relic of a bygone era more reliant on gatekeepers than our post-digital world. She didn’t need him. Perhaps I am naive to read optimism into Nyong’o’s story, but, if the only other option is the rancid despair I feel every time I read more allegations against a powerful executive—or every time I mourn for the more complex representations of female humanity they likely prevented from getting to the screen—I will have to err on the side of optimism. “I hope we are in a pivotal moment where a sisterhood—and a brotherhood of allies—is being formed in our industry,” Nyong’o wrote. I believe her.