It has been more than six months since the New York Times and the New Yorker first published exposés about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, sparking larger conversation about sexual assault and adding renewed momentum to the #MeToo movement. But the scope of the story is still evolving, most recently with the Weinstein Company cancelling all nondisclosure agreements between Weinstein and women accusing the producer of sexual assault—opening a door for survivors to speak out. With developments like these, it feels like we’re still piecing together the extent of the Weinstein saga… And yet, film and television producers are already jumping at the chance to bring this story to screens.
It’s no surprise that Law and Order: SVU is already planning a Weinstein-inspired episode, but they aren’t the only ones giving headlines a Hollywood treatment. In late April, it was announced that Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, will be co-producing a film about the New York Times investigative journalists Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Rebecca Corbett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Weinstein. Only a few weeks later, Glee’s Ryan Murphy spoke to The New Yorker about doing a TV series about #MeToo called Consent. “It would follow a Black Mirror model: every episode would explore a different story, starting with an insidery account of the Weinstein Company,” the New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum reported. “There would be an episode about Kevin Spacey, one about an ambiguous he-said-she-said encounter. Each episode could have a different creator.”
Given that discussions around consent and sexual violence are finally getting the attention they deserve, could TV shows and movies about Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement help further the conversation? Or is this all just a little too soon? FLARE reached out to some frontline workers for answers and tbh, you may be surprised by what they had to say.
Is it a problem that men are at the helm of these projects?
In a pointed response to the news about Consent, Into reporter Jill Gutowitz wrote that Harvey Weinstein is not Murphy’s story to tell. “So often, women’s painful experiences are exploited, sensationalized and recounted by male storytellers for their own benefit,” writes Gutowitz, citing women’s stories like Battle of the Sexes and I, Tonya, which were written and directed by men. “Obviously, I’m not suggesting a moratorium on male-penned female narratives, but the gendered imbalance as far as who gets to tell these stories is blinding—and institutionalized. Women should be given more chances to helm their own goddamn narratives, and with something as fraught, current, and distressing as systemic male sexual aggression, harassment, and abuse toward women—doesn’t it seem blatantly obvious that a white man of power shouldn’t recount this epoch?”
Farrah Khan, manager of Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education, echoes these sentiments, saying the simple fact that Pitt and Murphy feel comfortable helming these projects speaks to a power imbalance. Khan, who has been a frontline worker for 17 years, says it’s important to remember that the issues being raised by #MeToo and Weinstein are not new, it’s just that people are finally listening.
“Yet, we don’t even get to tell the story that we broke, and I don’t just mean as journalist, but the stories that survivors broke, that the women’s movement broke—the communities that pushed and pushed and pushed to be heard,” says Khan. “So, I think for me, it’s not saying [Pitt and Murphy] can’t make these things, but why do they think they are the [people] to do it?” She notes that she wouldn’t be surprised if women had pitched similar projects in the past and been turned down.
For Khan, the central question to consider is: Are these men being opportunistic or are they using this power to push the conversation forward?
How to do these films and shows right
In December, Khan attended the Globe and Mail‘s #AfterMeToo town hall and found herself at a table discussion with media producers. She says that a lot of the hour-long conversation revolved around how to respond to on-set sexual harassment allegations, which is of course important, but she also raised the point that it isn’t the only thing producers need keep in mind. “You also have to think about the movies you’re making,” she recalls saying. One example: TV shows and movies often frame men pursuing women who say, “no” as romantic, not coercive. And when rape is depicted, it’s often used as a narrative device, to push plot points or make a character seem stronger.
Khan points to Game of Thrones as an example of a hit TV show that approaches rape and sexual assault in this way, and says that programming that has careful and responsible narratives about gender-based violence could be a good thing. Andrea Pino, the co-founder of U.S. organization End Rape on Campus, who was also featured in The Hunting Ground documentary, agrees.
“When done well, stories and episodes about sexual violence can convince viewers of the severity and prevalence of incidents and help survivors feel validated,” Pino told FLARE in an email. “But, because survivors and experts are usually not in the writing room, these scenes and plots end up doing a huge disservice to our efforts. Often, rape is a single season, single episode plot device that is usually sensationalized, hyper-sexualized and violent. Usually, victims are portrayed as helpless and innocent (and white) and their perpetrators are ‘strangers in the bushes.’” And yet, in reality, more than 80 percent of survivors know the people that assaulted them. We rarely see TV plot lines of the otherwise ‘charming’ young man who ends up abusing his classmate, or the ensuing complex trauma that survivors go through.
The importance of involving survivors
While Pitt’s film and Murphy’s TV series are still early in development, Twitter users raised serious questions about who will be involved and who will be profiting off these projects.
I love Ryan Murphy. Also, no one should be writing this without the consent of every single victim. Otherwise, you’re profiting off their suffering and potentially continuing their trauma. If you’re gonna call a show CONSENT, please get it. https://t.co/N0CPbu6EaK
— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) May 7, 2018
More than 100 women have accused Weinstein of sexual assault, and thousands have shared their stories through the #MeToo movement. In order to responsibly bring these stories to screens, these women must be involved in the process.
“If showrunners want to tell stories that are accurate and actually make a difference in how our society understands sexual assault, they must hire survivors: in the writing room, in the editing room, behind the camera and in front of the camera,” says Pino. “We belong in the rooms where the shows that aim to tell our stories are being written.”
She adds that this is particularly important if men are going to be at the helm of these projects.
“It’s not about just hiring women,” explains Pino. “It’s about hiring women of colour, queer people and trans people—the communities most impacted by sexual violence. I don’t know if they are even thinking about these things, or if they’re just jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon to sell a show. I’d like to think that they want to change how our society views sexual assault. If so, they definitely need the right people at the table, and those people are survivors.”
“For me, as a survivor, it’s not too soon”
But even though the scope of the Weinstein effect is still being realized, Shannon Giannitsopoulou, an activist who co-founded Femifesto, a Canadian organization working to shift rape culture, says it’s actually a great time to adapt these stories for film and television. Giannitsopoulou points to shows like Jessica Jones as an example of programming that can help audiences understand that healing from sexual violence isn’t linear. Sometimes Jones is fine. Sometime’s she’s not.
“For me, as a survivor, it’s not too soon,” says Giannitsopoulou. “This is not something new. Sexual violence has been happening for a long time and survivors have been talking about it for a long time, so I think it would be a great time to have media come out that actually addresses the issue in a responsible way and dispels some rape culture myths.”