On October 5th, the New York Times broke the news that a Hollywood producer has been sexually harassing women for decades. Harvey Weinstein, who ran Miramax and now the Weinstein Company, is known for producing and heavily promoting awards season movies like The English Patient, Chicago, and The King’s Speech.
We now know that Harvey settled sexual harassment disputes with at least 8 women, thanks to the stellar reporting by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. And as someone who has worked in Hollywood, I wish I could say that this behavior shocked and appalled me. But unfortunately, it doesn’t shock, it only appalls. Because I’ve seen too much of this before.
Whenever cases like Harvey Weinstein come up, I think back to the Friends lawsuit.
In 1999, a woman named Amaani Lyle worked on the show Friends
as a writers assistant. As a writers assistant, you sit in the writers room with writers, taking notes, writing down jokes, and editing scripts. After she was fired from the show, Amaani sued the studio
for sexual harassment. She told the court that the writers would talk openly about sex, including sex with some of the actresses on the show. Having worked in TV comedy, I believe everything she said. Comedy rooms can get gross and vulgar, almost always right on the line between work and inappropriate. Amaani lost her lawsuit, because the court claimed that the show was about sex, so discussing sex wasn’t out of the scope of work.
Since that time, television shows have been trotting out the Friends case to remind lower-level employees that sexual harassment isn’t something they can worry about.
I worked as a writers assistant, along with my Brain Magic co-founder Amanda Steinhoff, for four years. And while I have worked with many awesome people, the culture of misogyny and sexual harassment was palpable. Writers looked down on me because I was a woman, and they frequently said inappropriate things. And often when they did, they would point to me and refer to the Friends case, as if to say, “Haha, you can’t sue us.”
Now, I wasn’t planning on suing anybody. Usually, weird sexual jokes or comments didn’t bother me, because that’s just my personality. Guess what, guys? Women can have a gross sense of humor, too! What bothered me more was the writers’ constant reminder that I was a woman, that I was an “other,” and that I better not get any ideas about changing the status quo.
The problem doesn’t stop with Harvey.
The story of Harvey isn’t just a story of one individual who used his power badly. It’s the story of a Hollywood culture of misogyny and sexism. For years, the old boys’ club of Hollywood has forced women to “stay in their place” in order to keep their jobs, get the good parts, and not be ostracized. Meanwhile, it rewards men for their lascivious behavior so long as their movies and/or shows make money. That’s why we need more women joining together to speak out and more of the worst kind of men held accountable. That way, we can educate the next generation of producers, directors, and other Hollywood bigwigs that “making it” involves working respectfully with women.