“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”So said 19th century British historian Lord Acton in a letter to a bishop.
The first half of this excerpt is a familiar aphorism in political matters. The second half is much less familiar and must have seemed cynical until recently. With the sexual-harassment bombshells that have been rocking Hollywood and beyond it would seem that Lord Acton was speaking matter-of-factly. It would seem that absolute power of any kind corrupts absolutely, whether it is the power of a tyrant, a Pope or a Hollywood honcho.
Even in an industry known for subverting cultural boundaries, the current spate of disclosures of sexual harassment and assaults still astounds. And production company executive and movie producer Harvey Weinstein is the leading bad man. It took a recent lawsuit against him to set off the avalanche of allegations. Dozens of actresses have since gone public with allegations of sexual harassment, ranging from exhibitionist masturbation to rape. The allegations date from as far back as the 1990s to the present. And among the complainants are superstar Angelina Jolie and the Kenyan-born actress Lupita Nyong’o.
Weinstein was able to impose himself on so many women because he had the power over them. Every actor dreams of becoming a star. With a string of successful movies to his credit and a production company in his name, Weinstein had the power to make that dream a reality. He — and others in his position — are enamoured by that power. And they wield it, in some cases unconscionably. For female actors, that often means being cajoled into sexual favours.
When a powerful producer asks them to meet him in a hotel room to discuss a script, they have to go. If producers say, see me at my house, so it is. When asked to strip so the producer could ostensibly assess their on-camera potential, most do. From there, it is a short hop to variants of sexual impositions.
Though Nyong’o didn’t get the worst case of it, her experience with Weinstein illustrates his lechery. As she narrated in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Weinstein once invited her to his home and offered to massage her. To maintain control without flatly rebuffing him, she offered instead to do him that favour. While she was massaging his mid-section, he wanted to take off his trousers. That did it for Nyong’o, who promptly left the room. On another occasion, Weinstein invited her to meet him in a hotel room, and she declined.
If you’re wondering why Nyong’o counter-offered to massage Weinstein and why several actresses similarly put themselves in compromising situations, you should revisit the point about the power equation.
It is much like the power relations between despots and their subjects. One has absolute power and the other have none at all. Absolute power enables impunity, everything from graft to administrative fiat. The despot has the power to transform anyone from meagre existence to affluence or reduce anyone from privilege to poverty. And so the easiest way to attain or maintain privilege is to fawn and submit.
In Zimbabwe, for example, President Robert Mugabe has used the power of cronyism to maintain loyalty and subvert the democratic process. After 37 years of holding the office, he wants his wife, Grace Mugabe, to succeed him. To that end, he has had other potential successors removed from office and banished from the governing party. The plan most likely would have succeeded had the military not apparently intervened on Wednesday. (I may return to this development after it has fully unfolded.)
Back to Hollywood and beyond, just as despots are indulgent and insatiable in their greed, other powerbrokers become gluttons for gratifications. Since Weinstein’s sexual harassment scandal broke, dozens of other powerbrokers have been accused. Most are movie producers and directors, but the list also includes some news executives and lots of politicians. CNN reported that more than 50 women have reported being sexually harassed by Congressmen.
The avalanche of revelations and outcry may be shifting the power balance in favour of the hitherto powerless. With so many of the accused admitting guilt and profusely apologising, there is the air of the taming of tigers by lambs.
Problem though is the evident element of political vendetta. Indiscretions that are several decades old are being unearthed and lumped together with criminal behaviours today. And instances of plain naughtiness and explorations of romance are now narrated with same grave tone as with sexual assaults.
A common complaint, for example, is of “unwelcome sexual advances.” But it is only by making an advance that one knows whether it is welcome or not. A high percentage of romances, including marriages, begin at the workplace. In each case, someone must have taken the chance and made a sexual advance without knowing whether it would be welcome.
Certainly, such advances can be unnerving when they come from people who can make or break a person’s career. But barring actual threat or victimisation, that has to be accepted as one of the inevitabilities of life that has to be shrugged off. As Cathy Young put it in an article in the Los Angeles Times, “flirting will happen unless the workplace is regulated to a dehumanising degree.”
Striking a balance between the power of the powerful and the emergent power of the accusers is complicated by the affinity of sex and power. There is the reality that women are attracted to power, and power creates the false sense of entitlement to women. The challenge is how to rein in the latter tendency without making gender relations staid.
And that leads back to Weinstein. It is said that he used his power to fulfil his sex addiction. If that’s the case, it is good for him — and society — that he has been practically banished from Hollywood. A place that teems with sexy and beautiful women is no place to treat sex addiction.