The Harvey Weinstein scandal that started in Hollywood has blown open a much wider hole in the insidious and seemingly entrenched world of male supremacy and the harassment, abuse, and even rape that comes with it — with new revelations on Sunday about Bill O’Reilly and the well-known film director James Toback, and with thousands of women sharing their horror stories under the #MeToo hashtag. What’s more, the movie producer’s lechery has become the kind of story that takes on a life of its own, launching 1,000 takes on everything from politics to pop culture.
To be clear, there’s nothing about the Weinstein saga that’s worse than what he actually did to dozens of vulnerable women. But it’s also appalling that when the story broke wide open — after years and years of keeping it under wraps — the Hollywood icon blamed everyone but himself. And there was one thing he said that I found especially irksome, because it gave new life to arguably the most tired trope of my lifetime.
“I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” Weinstein told the New York Times when the story broke earlier this month. “That was the culture then.”
Weinstein’s evasions are transparently wrong, and dumb. But what bothers me more was that his comments gave ammunition to a backwards-looking movement among conservatives that sometimes unconsciously, but often consciously, want to take America back to a black-and-white, bad-laugh-track TV sitcom 1950s version of America where everything was just peachy keen — just as long as you weren’t a woman or black or brown or gay or, heaven forbid, somehow just a little different from “the norm.”
Some social critics — some more nuanced than others — tacitly endorsed Weinstein’s weird mea culpa, including the New York Times’ resident puritan Ross Douthat, who opined that “when it comes to Weinsteinian behavior and related evils, things probably haven’t ever been as bad in modern America as they were for a time in the 1970s.” Such arguments give life force to a movement in statehouses, Congress, and the White House that claim to target licentiousness but primarily would make it easier to discriminate against gays, roll back hard-won women’s rights, or make it harder for blacks to vote — all because it fits that hazy “Make America Great Again” philosophy.
The idea that Harvey Weinstein’s perversions have anything to do with the 1960s and ’70s is absurd. There were no “rules” to encourage people to do the actual things that Weinstein is accused of doing — bullying and harassing young women to have sex, groping, and flat-out lewd behavior. Changing social mores certainly led to an uptick in consensual activity by the late 1960s and ’70s, but men in a position of power forcing non-consensual sex on women — or young men — is a story older than the Bible.
In Hollywood, the phrase “the casting couch” — the sexual scam that Weinstein updated — originated in the 1910s, making that sick tradition essentially as old as the movie studios themselves. And if “Weinsteinism” is some kind of warped offshoot of 20th century liberalism, how to explain the abuses by conservative heroes such as O’Reilly or his boss, the late Roger Ailes?
The biggest difference in sexual abuse — by family members, “trusted” adults, bosses, or the otherwise powerful — before the arrival of the 1960s and ’70s was that victims were more likely to suffer in silence, increasing their trauma. As for those changing “rules” that Weinstein clings to as his excuse, the only real rule changes that mattered that came from the early 1970s were the ideas that women had a right to more freedom, more respect and greater opportunity in the workplace and in every other social arena that mattered.
In 1957, the writer Betty Friedan surveyed her Smith College classmates from the 1940s and discovered widespread dissatisfaction with their stultified lives as housewives in the Eisenhower era — what she famously called “the problem that has no name” in her 1963 classic work, The Feminine Mystique. That was part of a much bigger reality, that the time of Father Knows Best in America — which certainly did bring newfound prosperity to a largely white middle class — was indeed a golden age … as long as you were a father. A white, heterosexual father, to be more specific.
For millions of Americans on the social, cultural and economic margins, there was no laugh track for life as it was on Jan. 1, 1960. If you were black, you attended segregated schools, were routinely denied job or college opportunities, and — in wide swaths of this country — could not use the same restrooms, drinking fountains, or swimming pools as whites. If you were a member of what today we call the LGBTQ community, you lived life in the dark shadows of a confining closet, unable to openly love whom you loved or live the way you wanted to live. If you were one of the millions confined to poverty, you were invisible.
That was a center that could not hold, but it took 15 years of courageous activism and hard questioning to unravel some of society’s contradictions — and some haven’t been unraveled a half century later. And it can’t be denied that, as in any revolution, there were excesses — hard drugs weren’t a form of consciousness-raising but another grim variation on human addiction, “free love” was rarely free. Still, while it’s human nature to focus on the ongoing problems rather than the victories, it’s good sometimes to remember how oppressive things were before the much-maligned 1960s and ’70s to appreciate the rights and the opportunities that have been gained by so many in the years that followed.
It reminds me, ironically, of the tagline from Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 “Morning in America” political ad, that “Why would we ever want to return to where we were …?” And yet there are many powerful people who would like nothing better. This week, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer published a remarkable profile of the ultimate back-to-the-’50s politician, Vice President Mike Pence, who — now famously — won’t eat lunch with a woman who’s not his wife and won’t attend a co-ed cocktail party if not accompanied by the woman he called “Mother.” That weird stuff would be fine, I guess, if Pence didn’t want to governmentally cram his black-and-white morality down America’s throat, through so-called “religious freedom” laws that sanction anti-LGBTQ discrimination or through myopic policies toward Planned Parenthood and drug treatment that contributed to an HIV-infection crisis when he was governor of Indiana.
Even if Pence never replaces the increasingly bizarre President Trump, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country have made it clear that — while completely incapable of tackling legislation that might create jobs — they’re very successful at mounting a kind of holy war against women’s reproductive rights including, increasingly, birth control. It’s as if they’re determined to create a new culture of female servitude, to bring back “the problem that doesn’t have a name.” It all fosters a climate where the hard-won victories of the 1960s — most notably the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was gutted by a conservative Supreme Court and neglected by the GOP Congress — can be undone, all under the bogus guise of making America “great” again.
That’s why it’s good to sometimes take a deep breath, ignore the propaganda, and remember what was gained by questioning authority. Thanks to the Weinstein scandal flap, the ’70s were on my brain even before I drove to New York on Saturday for my 40th high school reunion. The women of the Class of ’77 were wildly successful in ways that just wouldn’t have been possible or even conceivable in Betty Friedan’s heyday — high-flying careers in retail and finance and whatnot. And then there was the successful art dealer now able in the 21st century to marry her female partner, as well as an African American who attended an elite university south of the Mason-Dixon line and became a physician. (And no “housewives,” but one “house husband” who wrote books and described his wife as the “breadwinner.”) None of this seems especially remarkable today — but it would if you were a time traveler from 1959, the year most of my classmates were born. I’ll ask one more time: Why would we ever want to return to where we were?