Unless you’ve been on an Arctic expedition over the last couple of months, you’ll have heard about Harvey Weinstein’s horrifying, decades-long reign of terror being exposed, opening the floodgates to accusations of sexual misconduct across Hollywood and other industries.
Danny Masterson (“That 70s Show”) is amongst dozens of public figures accused of such behaviour. Facing multiple allegations of sexual assault and rape, Masterson was recently fired from his Netflix show, “The Ranch”. Following Netflix’s decision to sever all ties with Kevin Spacey (also facing an alarming amount of terrifying accusations) and a stunningly dumb move by a Netflix exec whereby he (reportedly) unwittingly told one of the alleged victims that the company did not believe their allegations… pressure mounted against Netflix to drop Masterson from the show.
This move by Netflix has spawned two distinct camps: those in support of Masterson’s firing and those who say: “innocent until proven guilty”. As someone who has been the victim of sexual assault, I can see both sides. I knew my accusations to be true but of course nobody else, including the judge and jury, could ever be 100% sure without concrete evidence. In my case, the accused (a previously convicted rapist) was found guilty and sentenced to prison but it could easily have gone the other way.
The experience opened my eyes to the way victims are treated. I was ripped apart on the stand whilst the accused (in fact guilty) stood and watched. A casual observer would have assumed I was on trial, and that is indeed how it felt. There’s no wonder that people don’t report these crimes immediately (or at all).
I’m not naive enough to believe that every single accusation ever made is true. Unfortunately, we live in a world where a (very) small percentage of people lie and for those who are falsely accused, the “innocent until proven guilty” argument is a lifeline. This therefore begs the question: Is it fair to take away someone’s livelihood before they are proven guilty?
Personally, I am glad to see that victims (both male and female) are empowered to speak up and that our undeniably male-skewed societal structures are at least being questioned, if not demolished. The unrelenting support for these victims, regardless of whether their accusations have been proven one way or another is a heartwarming and necessary shift in the way in which rape and sexual assault victims are viewed by society. In the past, “innocent until proven guilty” indirectly meant that the victim had to prove their virtue in order to be taken seriously. Now, the responsibility is shifting towards the accused to prove their innocence.
There is no simple or easy solution, however. A gung-ho attitude of automatically believing all accusers will inevitably have some casualties in the form of the falsely accused losing everything (and in the long term could create a culture of false claims by money-grabbing scum looking for 15 minutes of fame). Likewise, a continuation of the current system whereby accusers and victims are treated as inferior (whether we intend to or not) is likely to produce even more casualties, leaving many scarred for life with no notion of justice in sight. Neither system is perfect and I’m not going to pretend to know what the right answer may be. Either way, there is work to be done.
What Danny Masterson’s situation has highlighted to me however is the way in which popular culture reinforces the behaviours that these accusations are screaming out against. Watching Part 4 of “The Ranch” (released in the wake of Masterson’s termination) it is painfully clear how sexual assault and harassment is brushed off by Hollywood as “boys being boys”. Masterson’s character, “Rooster” is routinely seen making inappropriate sexual comments towards women and the fact that he is a sex-pest is a running joke amongst the characters, including his parents. Despite the fact that his predatory behaviour is evidently well-known, he is never called out on it in anything more than a joke. Not only is there no reprimand but he actually ends up winning over these girls.
Of course, this is just one example of the horror-show that is Hollywood’s representation of men and women, highlighted by some unfortunate timing. Let’s think back to Entourage… a blatant glorification of misogyny dressed up as comedy. How I Met Your Mother… where one of the lead (and arguably most popular) characters is a womanising sociopath who routinely (and rather terrifyingly when you think about it) preys on vulnerable women for personal and sexual gain. The Hangover… the photo montage in the end credits alone tells the story of men leaving their wives and girlfriends for a weekend where they fornicate with whomever they wish (and snort drugs from god knows where on strippers) and return to their partners with no ramifications whatsoever. And these are all shows and movies that I actually enjoyed.
But what kind of message does this send viewers? That harassing women and treating them like shit is a socially acceptable part of life? That women are objects? That men can be forgiven (or, let’s face it, not confronted at all) for all sorts of behaviour? This kind of attitude lends itself perfectly to Weinstein’s pitiful, Mad-Men-esque defence “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then”. And it is the fostering of this attitude that allows someone who faces multiple accusations of sexual misconduct to be voted president.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am by no means suggesting that the portrayal of men treating women like sex-objects in film and television is an excuse for men doing so in life. What I’m saying however is that Hollywood has an alarmingly massive influence (whether we realise it or not) on what we deem acceptable in society. Now exposed as the boys club that it is, surely it needs to take responsibility moving forward in actively portraying acceptable standards?