“Harvey’s Girls” and the Power of Casting Couch slut-shaming

As the Weinstein sexual harassment saga reverberates through Hollywood like an earthquake, taking down a series of notorious predators in its wake, people are eager to know which actresses refused Harvey Weinstein’s advances, and suffered the consequences, and which actresses didn’t.

But this sordid and misogynistic speculation, although now more amplified as the fate of Mirimax hangs in the balance, is hardly new. As several people have pointed out, Harvey Weinstein’s lecherous behavior was Hollywood’s worst kept secret.  But before all of this was out in the open, the women at the heart of the gossip were hardly thought of as victims.

Back then, they were thought of as fame-hungry ingenues, eager to trade sexual favors for career advancement. The chatter was never that Weinstein possibly used his power and position to prey on women.

Misogynistic gossip

“I’ve heard rumors, and the rumors in general started back in the ’90s, and they were that certain actresses had slept with Harvey to get a role,” A-list actor George Clooney said in an interview with The Daily Beast, when asked about the Weinstein scandal.

Apparently, these rumors were so prevalent that people had a name for these “certain actresses.”

They were called “Harvey’s Girls.”

It wasn’t only Hollywood’s inner circle that spread rumors about “Harvey’s Girls.” For close to a decade, gossip sites have made it seem like almost any young woman in Weinstein’s orbit was definitely sleeping with him to get ahead.

One gossip site that pushed this narrative, Pajiba, had this to say about “Harvey’s Girls” in 2010:
“These girls, each of them, has the look of desperation, of need. They WILL be famous. They WILL be stars.”

The rest of the article looks at how supposedly being one of “Harvey’s Girls” worked out for various actresses. Since then, the writer of that piece, Courtney Enlow, has had a change of heart. In a new article on Weinstein and “Harvey’s Girls,” she wrote: “In the years that followed, my understanding of consent evolved. That in this kind of power dynamic, there can be no real consent. That women in these situations are always victims.”

Enlow says that at the time that she wrote “Harvey’s Girls,” she was operating under the “very ‘90s misogyfeminist concept of owning and commodifying our sexuality.” The whole “using what we’ve got to get what we want,” cliché.

But this speculation did immeasurable harm to a lot of women. For ten years, actress Gretchen Mol was a target of such rumors. In an article for the Hollywood Reporter she finally addresses how sites that publish blind items served to shame women and not the predator.

Blind items, of course, are an easy way to smear someone without facing libel charges and they often do the bidding of powerful players who don’t want to get their hands dirty.  Mol doesn’t name names, but many people think she’s talking about a gossip site called Lainey Gossip (which, confession, I love and read almost daily). In 2009, Lainey Gossip published a blind item called “Casting Couch,” which is an infuriating read.

Here’s one particularly nauseating excerpt:

              “…he quickly tired of our poor girl and discarded her. But not before drying her out. One day late summer, they were joined in a hotel suite by a third gentleman (identity insignificant), both of them enjoying her as she allowed herself to be taken, and, um, decorated appropriately, all for a reward at the end of the session – the privilege of simply looking at a script, no promise, no confirmation…just an advance read.”

Mol flatly denies having a transactional relationship with Harvey Weinstein, but it’s heartbreaking that she feels she has to. Even now, as the details of Weinstein’s coerciveness and intimidation tactics are forcing people to take a brutally honest look at the extent of sexual harassment across all industries.

I didn’t start reading Lainey Gossip until around 2012, so I didn’t read the “Casting Couch” blind when it originally came out. Sure, Lainey Gossip can be rude and catty, but I don’t remember the site ever publishing anything this grossly misogynistic. In fact, one of the reasons I frequent the site, besides the fact that the gossip is dishy and the writing sharp, is because the articles have a feminist awareness. That’s what made reading the “Casting Couch” blind item, especially horrifying.

Perhaps the horror has to do with the fact that, in many ways, the “casting couch” slut-shaming Mol and other actresses endured, was its own form of abuse and sexual harassment that punished women for being vulnerable to predators like Weinstein. Mol described it as “another kind of misogyny, and blame-shifting.”

Boys will be boys

We now know that a common refrain for when Weinstein crossed the line was “that’s just Harvey!” It’s clear now that such people were complicit, but if they were, so were we for laughing at the jokes. We now know that when Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane joked,  “congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein,” back in 2013 while announcing the best supporting actress nominations for the Oscars, he was speaking out for a friend who says she was sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein. But chuckling at a joke (even if we didn’t quite understand the specifics), or the jokes Jane Krakowski’s 30 Rock character, Jenna Maroney, made about Weinstein’s sexual aggression, didn’t inspire anyone to want to change the system.

Chris Taylor at Mashable said the fact that casting couch jokes became a common comedic trope made it easier for Hollywood as a whole to laugh off “some serious allegations.”

But really the casting couch trope did so much more than that. Too often, the jokes made victims the punchline.

Sure, one part of these jokes made fun of the predator’s lacking sex appeal by implying that the act of flirting or sleeping with him was a calculated sacrifice, but these jokes also lampooned the victims by painting them as desperate fame hungry women, negotiating just how much they had to give up to make it.

The joking also made sexual harassment seem like the norm, even if that wasn’t really the intent. Ben Zimmer at the Atlantic called the popularity of the term casting-couch “emblematic of the way sexual aggression has been normalized in an industry dominated by men.”

So normalized, that it has entered the realm of fantasy and is its own genre of porn. With “casting couch teens” and “Milf casting couch” as subgenres.

 

It’s the ultimate power fantasy, where being a sexual predator is as much a part of the turn on as the sex. So how do we even begin to dismantle something so ingrained into our collective sexual psyche?

The end of “Casting Couch” culture?

One way to start is to stop using the term “casting couch.” Stop using language that shames the people (usually women) who have less power in the transaction. And while we’re on the topic of shaming, this brings us to the elephant in the room.

Right now, people across various industries are stepping forward to share horror stories about sexual harassment in the workplace. We laud the people who said no, but what about the people who didn’t? What about the people who went along with it because they felt like it was part of the job. Was this arrangement really consensual?

Let’s pretend for a moment that the graphic blind items were true. Does that make them any less horrific?

“You can do something and hate the fact that you had to do it,” one commenter on a message board about the Weinstein scandal said. That’s true. But do we still regard these women sympathetically?

There are those who say no because they believe these women are sellouts who offered up their dignity and self-respect to a nefarious system for material gain. But such holier than thou pearl-clutching does nothing to get at the root of the problem.

In such a lopsided power-dynamic, where you have a powerful gatekeeper on one side and a powerless person being evaluated on the other, the line between sexual exploitation and consent becomes blurred. But one thing is clear, shaming the person with less power in that transaction makes it easier for predators and emboldens casting couch culture.

Cover Image courtesy of Sholeh via Flickr
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