by Guest Blogger: Anonymous
"Everything is about sex, except sex-- sex is about power."
The Harvey Weinstein scandal and resulting media explosion these past few weeks has given me pause. So much of what I was reading and hearing about his predatory behaviour with young, hopeful women was chillingly similar to my own experiences with men in the business. Lupita Nyong’o resonated in her New York Times piece about how our job opens us up to public intimacy and how within that intimacy, lines can get blurred.
One of my stories starts with an acting coach from Los Angeles who teaches workshops in Europe. A complete nobody in Hollywood, he has been able to make a good living for decades pretending to be connected to Hollywood stars, name-dropping and posing with celebrities he follows around at parties. His European students, often with no previous industry experience, in turn follow him around, spending fortunes to be in his presence. I took his class when I was 21. Very quickly he singled me out, complimenting me and asking me to meet with him privately to discuss my career. In the living room of his penthouse hotel suite, he told me that everyone else in the class was hopeless and that I was the only one with real potential. It was, of course, exactly what I wanted to hear-- though it made me a little sick to think he was selling his own cheap version of the Law of Attraction to people he didn’t believe in at all. After some semi-emotional talk about our deceased parents, he asked me to recite a monologue-- any I knew by heart-- with the physical intention of getting him to come over and kiss me. He posed it as a challenge, as if to test how bold I was as an actor. During class that day, he had had most of the girls dance naked in front of the class as part of an ‘exercise’ and praised their fearlessness. It was the first time I had ever looked up another woman’s butthole. I did my monologue, knowing that he expected me to undress, but I only took my cardigan off, keeping on the T-shirt underneath and ending my monologue that way. He asked me if I thought that was enough to get me to kiss him. Here, I did answer boldly, and said that considering our age difference and how attractive I was, outside of a teacher/actor scenario, he would of course want to kiss me. He was taken slightly aback by my frankness but also impressed it seemed. I thought I had played the “game” right. Wasn’t the rule to always make them believe you might fuck them but never do it? How pathetic I seem to myself now.
A few months later I went to LA and started taking regular classes with him (and to my saving grace, also with real Hollywood legends like Ivana Chubbuck and Larry Moss, experiences that eventually gave me perspective). I took his intensive workshop at a cheap location in the valley, to which he had invited a few industry people, pretending they were his friends. I eventually found out he either paid them or used the prospect of meeting young, European girls as bait to get them to come. He only ever gave the same feedback to the girls: be more sexy. After class, he pushed me to go and “charm” (code for flirt) this director, who had made many films I had seen. I thought I was playing the “game”, I chatted to the director, who was very polite and told me he had really liked the scene I had performed that day and to call his office the next day to set up a meeting. It felt like everything was falling into place. That little girl in me thought it was true: the right person just had to take a look at me and my career would be in motion - finally I was going to be discovered and play amazing roles in big movies. I was so naive.
The next day I called and when I got to the office, he was alone, surrounded by pictures of him on set with numerous superstars he had worked with. We started chatting about life. It was the afternoon, he offered me a glass of a really expensive wine, which he said he had received as a gift. We drank, it was all good, nothing inappropriate, just open talking - it felt like two artists getting to know each other. I met with this director regularly, and it felt like a budding mentorship that had proven the worth of the acting class to me. Before, the teacher had tried to force me, like all his other students, into regular private lessons (meaning talks where he tried to break us-- “a good actor would spring naked into the pool if I told him” kind of bullshit) by threatening to throw us out of the class if we didn’t attend these private sessions, for which he charged US$80. But now the teacher constantly wanted to know how it was going and asked me to ask the director to come back to class. It was a strange shift in dynamic-- after all, the teacher had introduced the director as “one of his best friends”. I later found out how little that director friend thought of him, calling him someone on the outskirts of the industry trying to crawl his way in without any real talent-- which is why he targeted Europeans as they are more easily blinded by the fake LA talk. Again I was taken aback and confused by the bad-mouthing and frankness of his judgement, but this shared truth not only created intimacy, he was also simply right and this helped me down the road.
One night the director took me out for dinner to one of the most expensive restaurants in Los Angeles. He had told me about many affairs he had had through the years with famous actresses, made me feel like we were friends, even as though he were a paternal, big brother figure. After all this man was twice my age, married, and so physically unattractive to me that I could not have imagined he’d ever consider me being attracted to him. I had obviously not been in Hollywood long enough. I felt so at ease that I ended up telling him about this beautiful boy I had started seeing. After dinner the director drove me home and called me twenty minutes later to tell me that he was never going to see me again, because he did not deserve to spend $600 to hear me talk about fucking some other guy, when he was clearly in love (!!!!!) with me. To say that I was shocked is an understatement. I immediately felt guilty, as if I had been leading him on and weak because I had failed at the “game”. A few days later I got an email from the teacher, telling me that his class was not the right place for me anymore and that he was sorry things did not work out with the director.
That was it. Thank God. My story with these men ends there. I know of numerous girls, who experienced the same and much worse than me. Some of them are rumours, some of them I know personally, but not one wants to go up against him publicly, because even one lost job would not be worth it. And yet, our silence keeps him going. I know.
In my humble experience, victimisation and victim blaming often go hand in hand, and I was scared of both. I didn’t want to be known as “that girl” and wanted to focus on my career because, as James van der Beek put it, there was a power dynamic that felt impossible to overcome. If Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow were only able to speak out once Weinstein had been accused on a grand scale, how can those with careers less stable and lucrative go up against men who seem to have influence?
For years I felt like I had missed out on some great opportunity, like if I had not told the director about this boy, he would have eventually helped me. I had already heard of the three A’s of Hollywood: Amiability, Availability and then Ability. In that order. Do not cause any waves, be likeable because there are so many incredibly talented people and in the end it is just personal preference. And mostly it is the personal preference of some old, white man. Especially if you are a woman and even more so a good looking woman, people will love to hate you, so be pleasant and pleasing. That is what we are being told constantly between the lines and oh, so often directly to our face. I told a male family member of mine all about it and he confirmed my fears, telling me I should have slept with the guy to benefit my career. Although I felt angry with him for saying this, I can’t say, years later, that I fully disagree with him. I have seen girls get ahead by sleeping with the right people and enduring unwanted sexual advances with more “game” than me. It is not just the untalented, sexy girls - the ones who succeeded that way have both: talent and the willingness to deal with the trauma.
So what is the solution?
For one, we need more diversity in positions of power. More women in positions with influence. There is this myth that women do not like women, or are reluctant to help each other. I have especially heard this being repeated by men for whome it conveniently helps their narrative. Yes, there have been women who treated me badly, but so, so many more have been wonderful. I have had female directors champion me for roles, female screenwriters write parts for me, female casting directors repeatedly invite me for auditions, female producers introduce me to people in the business, and so forth. I helped a young female director I once met in Cannes, by introducing her to a producer I knew and they made a movie together, creating even more possibilities for women. If there are more women in power, the ones who are less supportive of other women are less likely to be so, as they won’t be so afraid of being replaced by a younger version. Check out Naomi McDougall Jones' TedTalk and brilliant Four-Point Plan (17 mins) on how to change the industry and the world. I have also met an incredible amount of wonderful men, who have been supportive beyond their pay grade. As a byproduct of our nurture and possibly nature, women are not as sexually predatory as men, however power too often corrupts, and women in power will and have also found ways to misuse it.
Our narrative in society about masculinity and femininity has to change, and one by one, we can do this. No, it is not admirable to date a woman who could be your daughter. Frankly, in most cases, it’s a bit pathetic. Sexual attraction for women is also based on looks, and matter as much as inner qualities and the desire for security. In that way women are no different from men.
Don’t think that because there is harassment and bullying in the workplace, that there can’t also be genuine romance in the workplace. People often fall in love on the job, in all businesses (Bill Gates married an employee, and so forth). In an episode of the critically acclaimed show, “Jane, the Virgin”, one of the lead characters said “At this moment I would embrace you and kiss you, but I must ask first, because Donald Trump has ruined romance for all of us.” So yes, let’s pay attention to power dynamics, differentiate between the bullying and the genuine, and let’s not pretend men are the enemy.
Let’s practise saying “no”. Men, practise saying to your friends “no, not impressed” when they have banged some chick who had hoped for romance or support in some way when the dude just wanted to have sex. Women, say “no” more often. Don’t give in to fear of not getting work, create some for yourself, and support women around you to get jobs too. Since my story above, there have been more directors who rejected me professionally after I had rejected them physically, but I have also forged friendships and fruitful work relationships with men, who were sexually interested in me but dealt easily with a “no” and continued being supportive and straight up wonderful for many, many years. I have also dated a director I worked with, loved him deeply and we are still good friends. It is not black and white.