In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s well deserved fall from what can only be described as the embodiment of white male privilege, Hollywood’s elite are finally speaking out to condemn his actions. Almost daily, the internet is flooded with famed Hollywood actors, from Angelina Jolie to Gwyneth Paltrow, who are speaking out to detail the import of Weinstein’s unwelcomed advances on their lives and careers. Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o, spoke her truth earlier this week in a New York Times op-ed.
Some of Hollywood’s leading men are also jumping on the bandwagon. Most are expressing their “disappointment,” both in themselves and in Weinstein, with actor Ryan Gosling apologizing in a tweet for how oblivious he was to Weinstein’s predatory behavior. As I write this article, that tweet, which noted that men should stand with women until there is “real accountability and change,” has been retweeted over 32,000 times. Gosling proffers no insight as to how he will ensure that that “accountability and change” actually occur. Others, like renowned Director, Quentin Terantino, have admitted that they were aware of Weinstein’s long history of harassment and assault; yet continued to work with him year after year, as the millions rolled in and their careers skyrocketed.
Collectively, the goal of those speaking out is to break the “conspiracy of silence” that has perpetuated the long-standing behavior of Hollywood powerhouses like Weinstein and many others.
The truth is that Weinstein is a predator. He is a sexual predator who preys on the vulnerabilities of women and who wields his power to control and silence Hollywood actresses who are seeking to advance their careers. His modus operandi, over the decades, has been successfully simple. Quiet on the set. Take 1: Weinstein personally invites the women to his home, hotel room, private screening, etc. Action: once alone, he makes his move, which almost always involves an unsolicited request for a ‘massage’ of some part of his anatomy. Cut: whether successful or not, Weinstein relies on the silence of the actresses who are then forced to make a choice between their career and the integrity of their own voice. History and impunity have proven to him that they will likely choose their careers. Take 2: the cycle continues.
As a human rights lawyer and women’s activist who partners with women survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation in Nigeria to reclaim their lives, my day to day reality is far removed from Hollywood. I cannot claim to remotely understand the pressures or sacrifices that actresses must make to become an “overnight success.” I do know, from some friends who work in the industry, that it often takes years of devastating blows to one’s self esteem and self image to finally become “someone” in the space. For some, even after they attain that level of success and notoriety, circumstantial happiness is the most they are able to retrieve for their souls.
However, the reality is that being among Hollywood’s elite affords one a powerful opportunity, a privilege, to not only amplify your own voice, but to amplify the silenced voices of others who are not in a position to do so on their own. And with great privilege comes great responsibility. Many Hollywood actors have used their platform to generate tangible, measurable impact in a world where at least 1 in every 3 women, i.e., around 35% of women around the world, have been forced to have either physical or sexual assault written into their life stories; a world where according to UNODC (2016), women and girls make up over 70% of the 45 million victims consumed by human trafficking worldwide; a world where every 7 seconds, a child bride is forced into an unholy alliance; and a world where female genital mutilation has disfigured the bodies and sewn shut the souls of 200 million women and girls worldwide. And yes, in case you were wondering, over three and a half years later, 113 young women from Chibok, Nigeria still remain in the hands of one of the world’s deadliest terror groups. What was initially a thunderous cry championed by some in Hollywood to #BringBackOurGirls has now fallen on deaf ears. Our tweets and calls now go unanswered. For those of us that continue to sound the alarm in the #BringBackOurGirls movement, we do so because every single day represents another 24 hours where a mother’s dreams of a future with her daughter devastatingly fades.
The foregoing statistics evidence the fact that we live in a world where millions of women have been robbed of agency. The stark difference between 120 million female survivors of sexual violence worldwide and most of the women who are now exposing Weinstein in Hollywood is that the latter maintain their agency; they maintain their voice and power. Well into their successful careers, many are now in a position to choose when might be a convenient time to “take a stand,” to “speak out,” to break the “conspiracy of silence.” Perhaps, they should be applauded for that. However, the fact is that this “conspiracy of silence” cannot truly be broken when efforts occur retroactively. Retroactive feminism, in this context, taints and diminishes what may have been well intended motives. It allows society to question the passage of time, the upcoming movie release, the publicity stunt to resurrect what is bordering on an irrelevant acting career, to question the allure of that fleeting moment in the spotlight or a quick payday.
But worst of all, retroactive feminism has a global ripple effect. It emboldens predators like Weinstein and other powerful men worldwide to continue to rape, abuse, subjugate and mutilate the souls, bodies and spirits of women and girls who are powerless and whose blood mainstream media has chosen to ignore. Globally, it proliferates the sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, allows predators to continue to use rape as a weapon of war and to molest and buy innocent children for an average global cost of $90. Powerful “pussy grabbers” are free to rest on the probability that they will walk away with impunity because the world will remain silent, opting for the temporary pleasure derived from “clicktivism” or the use of a time sensitive hashtag which will be all but forgotten by #MeToo at this time next year. Globally, Hollywood’s retroactive feminism, hypocrisy and complicity powerfully reverberate as a convenient example for others to follow.
The truth is that it takes courage to speak out against sexual harassment at the time it is occurring. But, that courage has a cost (whether it is to a career, to a reputation or to social status), which many in Hollywood are unwilling to pay. What many in Hollywood fail to appreciate is the fact that their choice of whether or not to speak out against sexual assault and harassment as it occurs is, in and of itself, a privilege that millions of women ought to, but do not have. It is, in fact, a privilege to be able to chalk the experience onto your list of “unfortunate events” that have served to render you “stronger.” Whether they realize it or not, Hollywood actors are contributing to the so-called ‘conspiracy of silence.’ When they fail to speak out in real time, they intentionally silence, not only their own voices, but the voices of millions of others who are intentionally rendered vulnerable and whose lives are muted by pain and devastation. They contribute to the attrition of our shared humanity and become complicit in the fight against injustice that they themselves claim to abhor.
It is much easier to sit for nothing than to stand for something. When you do stand, in the moment and not retroactively, you courageously amplify your own voice, bear witness to the silent pain of others and create more space at the table for every woman and girl who is powerless to do so on her own. Standing in the moment, when you are able to, is the only real option that acknowledges our shared humanity and recognizes that what you do for yourself, you do for another. Because you see, retroactive feminism is, ultimately, impotent and not feminism at all.