To call the downfall of Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein precipitous feels like an understatement. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the Miramax chief had quietly settled at least eight sexual harassment complaints over the years. They involved serious allegations that ranged from groping to demanding nude massages. On Sunday, after the mogul’s attempt at rehabilitation and damage control was undercut by new claims of abusive behavior, the Weinstein company fired its co-founder.
It’s a striking morality tale. But what is the moral?
In a climate in which both partisan politics and gender politics are already at fever pitches, responses to the Weinstein revelations have focused mainly on two themes: liberal hypocrisy on women’s issues and male abuse of women.
Given that reports of sexual misconduct by Donald Trump and by the late Fox News chairman Roger Ailes have fed the narrative of a Republican “war against women,” the allegations against Weinstein are a sobering reminder that neither party has a monopoly on sexual predators. While Weinstein has not been convicted of any offense or found liable at trial, the claims seem extremely credible, given the number of women who came forward over the years and corroborating details.
Weinstein has been a major Democratic Party donor and a supporter of liberal and feminist causes. Right-wing pundits were quick to gloat over photos showing Weinstein with Hillary Clinton and a 2013 video in which Michelle Obama lauded him as “a wonderful human being.”
Given that Weinstein’s behavior is said to have been an open secret in Hollywood, one might certainly wonder to what extent top Democrats, including women, were willing to look the other way. Unfortunately, for many Republicans, the condemnation of Weinstein seems to be mainly a way to deflect from the Trump problem.
Meanwhile, a central theme in the discussion is that the problem is not Republicans, it’s men. Slate, the liberal online publication, ran an article titled “It Was a Bad Week for Men,” which opened with the Weinstein scandal and followed with other news of men behaving badly. More absurdly, some Twitter users took offense, thinking the headline treated men as victims.
On social media, women have been encouraged to share stories of mistreatment by male bosses and co-workers. Weinstein’s past ability to get away with his apparent abuses has been cited as devastating proof that we live in a misogynistic culture in which male mistreatment of women is condoned and female victims are silenced.
But the “male war against women” is a skewed narrative. Weinstein is not everyman. He was an exceptionally powerful man who could easily make or break careers and squash damaging press stories. It is also worth noting that several reports from people who witnessed appalling behavior by Weinstein include shocking claims of bullying and even assault toward lower-status males — such as pushing a man down a flight of stairs and putting him in a headlock.
The behavior to which Weinstein allegedly subjected actresses and female employees was never regarded as acceptable; but it was often swept under the rug. The feminist revival has made it easier to expose powerful sexual abusers, and that’s good. But we should beware of a moral panic on sexual harassment in which accusation equals guilt and every clumsy come-on is treated as the equivalent of sexual assault.
Some say Weinstein’s swift fall is a tipping point in our treatment of sexual predation. We should not allow the reaction to become an anti-male sexual McCarthyism.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.