Hollywood’s Badly Kept Secret: Starlets, Sirens and Sexual Exploitation

Saffy Mirghani

Widely anointed America’s television father, Bill Cosby’s dismal fall from star-spangled grace as the country’s beloved sitcom personality-turned-alleged sexual predator prone to drugging and raping his often underage female victims, emerged as one of the most damning sexual abuse scandals to have gripped Hollywood in recent times. Currently awaiting a re-trial for sexual assault, not only did Cosby rock the entertainment industry but he aroused a cultural trauma of sorts among huge swathes of the population who held him as a paradigm of the clean-cut, all-American family man.

Not long after, Hollywood found itself in the grip of yet another disturbing sexual exploitation revelation, this time in the form of film executive Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long sexual abuses of women in the industry. The Weinstein scandal seemed close to far exceeding all recent revelations this kind due to the sheer number of household names revealed to be victims of his predatory behaviour. Since then, the disgraced executive has become the poster-boy for the sordid underbelly of sexual exploitation in Hollywood, his name permeating virtually the entirety of the press on what has essentially been depicted as the industry’s sexual assault epidemic.

It has become clear that the mythologised figure of the manipulative, omnipotent, infallible industry big-wig intent on abusing his authority by preying on the sexually vulnerable – in Weinstein’s case, the female sex – is all too alive and well. Yet in the aforementioned case, as in that of Cosby, it seems that these Hollywood titans may have not been so infallible after all. The long overdue fallout from Weinstein’s sexual transgressions, heralded by claims from over 80 accusers stretching from sexual misconduct to rape, has earned him more worldwide infamy as a sexual predator than he ever could have achieved in his capacity as  a notable film executive.

Although it is quite necessary to visibly brand an individual who allegedly exhibits such intolerable behaviour as the sexual predator that he is revealed to be, more significant than him are the countless women who must inevitably live with the trauma inflicted upon them. It is well known that sexual exploitation in Hollywood is a beast whose claws reach far back to the industry’s embryonic years. Periodically, a series of influential and revered screen icons have voiced their dismal experiences in the industry’s dark underbelly, whether it be screen icon Judy Garland’s ordeal being groped on the set of Over the Rainbow or wunderkind Shirley Temple’s harassment at the hands of industry figures.

The list of actresses and women in the industry who claim to have been subjected to Weinstein’s sexual misconduct in one form or another reads like a who’s-who of Hollywood A-listers, from Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow to Salma Hayek and Lupita Nyong’o, not excluding actress Rose McGowan’s allegation of rape by the producer at the age of 23. Yet it is necessary to highlight the especially predatory nature of Weinstein’s behaviour in his pursuit of lesser-known actresses or more famous women when they were in the nascent stages of their career, deliberately availing himself of vulnerable women in the industry whose voices are far less valued or deemed less legitimate than his own.

In short, it is clear that Weinstein was banking on the fact that nobody would believe these women if they spoke out against him.

Yet quite the opposite has happened. Not only were almost the entirety of his abuses made known to both Hollywood and the general public, but the scandal has had a domino effect by instigating the revelation of countless other high-profile sexual misconduct cases throughout Hollywood. In recent months, a torrent of testimonials have surged forward concerning a number of prominent industry figures, including Kevin Spacey who has been the subject of three sexual assault allegations, Hollywood manager Vincent Cirrincione who has been accused of sexual misconduct by nine women and the recent revival in discourse concerning the decades-old allegations against Woody Allen.

At this point, with the sheer volume of testimonials from those unwillingly subjected to the not-so-apocryphal “casting couch” it has become impossible to deny that sexual exploitation exists as a systematic corruption in the industry. Although the majority of sexual harassment victims in Hollywood who have publically spoken out thus far are women, one would be mistaken in disregarding the fact that men are also subjected to this abuse. Actor Terry Crews is one of the lone voices who has raised awareness for the sexual exploitation experienced by men in the industry, a matter whose existence has been largely ignored in the current of powerful social activism and empowerment sweeping the industry at this time.

While it is hard to deny that one can develop a perverse fascination in witnessing the social upheaval currently gripping one of the most widely-publicised, privileged and glamourized cultural ecosystems of our time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, as social deviancies that plague our modern societies, sexual assault and rape exist as systematic afflictions that span far wider than just Hollywood. The institutionalised misogyny, bigotry and sexual exploitation woven into the very fabric of the entertainment industry certainly lurk in society at large. According to the World Health Organisation, the majority of the world’s female population – an astounding two billion women – have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while 930 million women worldwide have been the victims of sexual and/or physical violence.

The revelation of Hollywood’s timeworn practises can cause us to regard what is taking place in the socio-cultural enclave to be quite exemplary of the sexual misconduct that takes place in our communities at large.

At the same time, the enormous outcry and extensive public debate arising from Hollywood’s recent scandal has led to the emergence of organized calls for the empowerment of victims of sexual assault – epitomised by the massively globally-popular #MeToo movement named Time Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year and the #TimesUp campaign honoured at this year’s Golden Globes – reflects changing attitudes towards the problem in modern society.

The fact that the sparks of a campaign conceived of in Hollywood was able to spread like wildfire all around the globe and resonate with millions of women reflects the increasing sense of intolerance towards sexual misconduct and the social power that women now yield. It is exactly this collective shift in cultural attitudes that makes a genuine contribution towards the defeat of sexual exploitation in society. While it is impossible to eradicate  exploitative natures possessed by certain individuals who attain positions of significant authority only to abuse them, it is feasible to diminish the systematic corruption that breeds a climate in which sexual predators feel they have the leeway to commit such acts and their victims feel they have no other choice but to submit and keep silent.

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