When my daughter was 16, she said that some of her friends thought she’d be dumb to pursue an acting career, because the chance of success is iffy in such a cutthroat field.
She’d wanted to perform since she was a kid, and the dream had only gotten stronger as she got older. But she wondered if the naysayers were right. Maybe she should go for a job with a more predictable career track and just dabble in acting on the side.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Should I be a lawyer?”
I thought of all the unhappy attorneys I knew – including one who wanted to ditch the law for acting – and took a breath.
“You’re too young to hedge your bets,” I said. “Go full tilt into your dream. And if one day your gut says it’s time to leave acting, you’ll hear it as clearly as you now hear it say to go for the stage.”
What I didn’t share back then was my biggest worry: that one day her gut would tell her to flee the industry because its powerful perverts had made it too hard to stay.
What other business actually has its own term – the casting couch – to describe the institutionalized acceptance of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault of hopeful young people who yearn for professional success in it?
The crude descriptor has been so well-known for so long (it first appeared in Variety in 1937, for God’s sake) that it has been appropriated, in spirit if not words, by powerful couch-surfers like Bill Cosby and his defenders who use its ubiquity against victims.
If you’re an aspiring star or starlet, you’re expected to know that simply being alone with a power player is proof of consent to anything that happens once the door closes. And if you claim you never consented to anything? You’re labeled a liar. Or a woman scorned.
I thought about that moment with my daughter a lot on Thursday, when the news broke that a jury found Cosby guilty of drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand.
Constand was a Temple athletic manager when she sought Cosby’s advice because of their mutual affiliation with the university. But the jury decided that he used his casting-couch skills, honed in the entertainment industry that had made him rich and famous, to assault Constand. The five other women whose courtroom testimony showed a pattern of Cosby’s predation made a lie of his defense that all solicitous young things are in on the deal to trade their bodies for his connections. The jury got it right, and I hope the verdict has as-yet-unconvicted Hollywood comrades curled in the fetal position, trembling.
We might be suckers to think that Cosby’s 14-year saga will change the entertainment world he sprang from in any way that matters. But look at what has happened to it already.
In December, Anita Hill – who in 1991 became the face of sexually harassed employees when she disclosed the creepy behavior of now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – was named head of the brand-new Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace. It was formed by Hollywood powerhouses to “tackle the broad culture of abuse and power disparity” in their industry.
On the other hand, the grotesque news this week is that deviant Charlie Rose is in talks to host a show where he interviews famous men whose careers, like his, imploded in the wake of sexual-harassment scandals.
Please, God, let them keep their pants on.
Still, it would be naïve to underestimate the importance of this moment, no matter the industry in which victims have been abused. Look what the last six months alone have wrought across a spectrum of the institutionally powerful.
The 125-year sentencing of physician Larry Nassar, the former national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics, for his monstrous abuse of young Olympic hopefuls. Last month, his former boss, William Strampel, dean of Michigan State University’s school of osteopathy, was arrested in the wake of sexual-assault allegations from multiple female students.
The resignation of casino mogul Steve Wynn from his own company after allegations of sexual misconduct that spanned decades.
The removal from the House Ethics Committee of our own U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan – who on Friday announced his resignation — after a former aide reported his unwanted advances toward her.
The condemnation of celebrity chef Mario Batali after reports of decades’ worth of sexual misconduct against female employees.
Massive incidents of sexual misconduct alleged by students at Choate Rosemary Hall, the elite New England boarding school.
Skyrocketing reports of sexual misconduct across all branches of the U.S. armed forces.
We’re in the midst of a shake-up that has been needed since the beginning of time, when those with power realized how easily they could leverage it for their own sexual gratification.
Only the entertainment industry – creator of fantasy, perpetrator of illusion – has had the trashy honesty to actually give the practice a name.
Thanks to the Cosby verdict, trash day is here. It’s time to carry those many couches of abuse to the curb.