To what extent does the ideological state apparatus legitimise sexual harassment in Hollywood?
To what extent does the ideological state apparatus legitimise sexual harassment in Hollywood?
The New York Times revealed sexual assault accusations on Academy Award winner Harvey Weinstein in a sensational article. However, it has shed light on the much deeper issue of ‘the casting couch’ in Hollywood . This document analyses the origins of this culture and the role of the ideological state apparatus in normalising this behaviour.
More than 50 women have made allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the number continues to grow each day. Among the Hollywood mogul’s accusers are household names who were still looking to establish themselves when the alleged offences took place. Subsequently, he was fired from his company Weinstein Co, however; this doesn’t counter the tradition of abuse that has become a norm within Hollywood .
The first incident of sexual assault by powerful producer dates back to 1921 when Roscoe’ fatty’ Arbuckle raped Virginia Rappe at a party. The injuries were so severe that she died a few days later. Hollywood , however, performed its first cover-up and blamed her injuries on backstreet abortions. Shirley Temple recalled that Arthur Freed, a producer at MGM, exposed himself to her when she was 12 years old. Marilyn Monroe compared Hollywood to an “overcrowded brothel”. The vastly disproportionate power dynamics between men and women weren’t a coincidence though; they were the result of years of weeding out strong women and normalising sexism.
As the film business settled in a Californian orange grove, thousands of young American women made their way to Hollywood hoping to become stars. Cinema had become a vastly lucrative business, but it was star names, not studio brands that sold tickets. In the 1920s, as actress Louise Brooks describes it, when the producers realised that female stars were a threat to their dominance, they waged “a concerted war on the star system”, and abusing the power they had to make or break an actor’s career. Female writers and producers such as Frances Marion and June Mathis, who had held senior positions in the silent-era industry, were squeezed out by the ’30s, and soon the business was being run by a group of male executives, many of whom obsessively controlled the films they produced and the women who starred in them. Once a woman became a star her identity was in the hands of these producers, they created and destroyed actresses as they liked. The star was a creation of the executive’s imagination, and his corporate asset, to be discarded as soon as she was tagged “box-office poison”.
The degree of control granted to producers led way to the casting couch culture. The casting couch is used in reference to the supposed practice whereby actresses are awarded parts in films or plays in return for granting sexual favours to the casting director. Foster Hirsch, author of The Boys From Syracuse: The Shuberts’ Theatrical Empire, details how Lee Shubert, the eldest of three brothers who helped establish Broadway’s theatre district in the first two decades of the 20th century, kept “an elegantly furnished boudoir, reserved for leading ladies and promising ingénues, and a shabby, spartanly furnished room with a single couch where he met chorus girls and soubrettes”. one of those dancers, Agnes de Mille, recalled about the Shubert brothers, “If you didn’t sleep with them you didn’t get the part. The Shuberts ran a brothel: Let them sue me.” The practice goes back to the early 1960s when Joan Collins claimed that she lost the lead in Joseph L Mickiewicz’s epic Cleopatra after the studio’s top dog explained that the price for such an illustrious part was sex. The extent of the problem is clearly highlighted when even the biggest female stars like Angelina Jolie are not exempted. It proves that this issue has its roots in a much deeper sociological idea. Icelandic singer Bjork recalls that when she worked with a “Danish director” her “humiliation and role as a lesser sexually harassed being was the norm … it is a universal thing that a director can touch and harass his actresses at will and the institution of film allows it”. Why is it considered normal for powerful men to harass women in the industry? The answer lies in Althusser’s theory of the ideological state apparatus.
In Althusser’s view, these ideological apparatuses can properly be described as belonging to the state, even if they appear formally separate from it. He argues that the state actually has two components: a repressive state apparatus, which includes the army, the police, and the courts, and enforces class domination directly, and the ideological state apparatuses (ISA), which maintains complicity and identification with class society. There are two ways to reproduce class structure: controlling the means of production and ideological control. The means of production isolates the proletariat from economic freedom and the ISA legitimises this isolation. The ISA is established through media control. The ownership of media majorly belongs to the elite class that can influence the media content to enforce class structures and submission to the bourgeoisie. They manipulate the media content to reinstate the class hierarchy in the minds of the masses. The ISA puts certain values in focus to instill them in the minds of the masses, so that it is easier to control them. ISA stresses obedience and acceptance of the ruling class as superior. It propagates the idea the isolation from the means of production is justified. Instead they way to success are through obedience of the capitalists and an acceptance of the system. Thereby, delaying class consciousness because the masses start accepts their exploitation as a norm.
The situation in Hollywood works on the same Marxist principles. The bourgeoisie are the producers who exploit the proletariat i.e. actors. In a male dominated industry, the power was held by a few production houses where women had two choices: accept their advances or sacrifice their career. It is an unfair choice to present but then again the balance of power within the industry is unfair. Over time power shifted from production houses to directors, which, not so surprisingly, were also male. This embedded the idea of the ‘casting couch’ within the members of Hollywood; it became something whose existence cannot be denied. The idea of a casting couch was institutionalised by the ideological state apparatus because it championed values such as obedience and acceptance of the social structure. It advocates submission to those who control the means of production and that they have a right to exploit their workers. In this sense, directors where seen as landowners or factory owners were seen in the past, granting them ample access to exploit these actresses. Since most new actresses are mostly from the middle class looking to have a chance at stardom, they mirror a proletariat hungry for a job. This establishes hierarchy let him abuse women without consequences. The ISA then legitimises these actions by imbedding into people’s minds that this behaviour is simply something to be expected of the elite. That it normal, almost like a rite of passage, for young women to submit to the casting couch, because they must listen to the producers.
Additionally, Marxist feminist theory of double jeopardy applies here as well. Women suffer because of both sexism and capitalism. They are first exploited for labour by the capitalist society, as most of these aspiring actresses belong to the middle class. On top of that, they are exploited by men in the industry because of their gender. The historical context proves that this is something that has been going on since the inception of Hollywood but just wasn’t questioned till now. The most plausible reason for this is the ideological state apparatus theory. If Althrusser’s thesis is correct, it is indeed the ideological control perpetuated by the media itself that legitimises sexual advances by powerful men. Women are conditioned into believing this behaviour is okay by two sources: men and the bourgeoisie. In Hollywood , the rich and powerful are inherently men. Ninety six per cent of the directors of last year’s top grossing films were men. For example, Weinstein was allowed to operate like this, and for so long, because the industry has been all-too-comfortable with the very notion of the casting couch. Several prominent actors and directors like Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey , Robert de Niro, Bill Cosby , Ben Affleck, Matt Damon of all have been accused of sexual harassment . Infect, Bill Cosby’s defence on the matter was: “Even if proven (and it could not be), the age-old ‘casting couch’ is not unique to Mr Cosby, and thus not a ‘signature’ nor a basis for the admissibility of these witnesses’ stories, let alone a conviction.”
This exploitation is especially prominent in Hollywood because of its unique atmosphere. In the media, there is no tangible good produced by actors, rather it’s the actors persona that is to be up for sale. Controversial as it may be, this makes it very easy for men to blur the lines between work and sexual exploitation. Hollywood was once described as “a town where everyone is selling body and soul for fame and fortune and all – especially women – are considered commodities” by Peter Keough in 1995. In many instances, directors and producers have demanded women to perform sexual acts in an audition. Helen Mire said she was forced to show off her body for director Michael Winner while seeking a role in one of his projects in 1964. Cara Delavigne came forward, alleging Weinstein had sexually harassed her when she first started work as an actress. He had urged her to kiss another woman, she claimed, before trying to kiss her himself. However, the ISA does not exist in vacuum. The ISA was enhanced by the averment present in Hollywood . Rampant elitist culture also legitimised inappropriate behaviour; new girls were simply expected to put up with whatever well established directors did.
On top of that, proper mechanisms exist to dismiss complaints. Harvey Weinstein reached more than six settlements with the victims. The silencing mechanism is very robust; if you speak out we’ll ruin your career. In part, the victims feel trapped. They feel powerless against the abuser who could end their career or smear their name – and makes open threats to do so. The ‘you’ll never work in this town again’. Actress Ashley Judd says that at the time of the incident she thought, “How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein ?”
This predatory behaviour is propagated by two forces: acceptance and fear. Acceptance of the fact that this is how the world – and the industry- works. That producers and directors can exploit their power over you and you just have to roll with it. Fear works to silence you, because you don’t want your career to end or become the next Patricia Douglas. The ISA is to blame for both of these sentiments. First, it has made us accept exploitation of workers as a norm and second, it has made protest illegitimate. Obedience requires us to remain silent if our rights are inflicted, thus speaking out no longer remains an option. This is proven by the fact that it took three decades and over 50 women to finally speak out against Harvey Weinstein . We need to recognise the stimulus of our behavior if we are to rectify it. We have been secretly enrolled in the working class mentality by our media. The ISA has conditioned us to accept exploitation of ourselves and our peers as a norm, and Hollywood is no exception. The very idea of the ‘casting couch’ is a testament to that.