Holbrook: Women, Hollywood and power (column)
Unless you’ve been living under a stone during the last three weeks it would be difficult to avoid the revelations of sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Like a true horror story, it is both revoltingly creepy and almost impossible to look away from.
Though Weinstein’s luring of women into hotel rooms is extreme in its sleazy abuse of power, I would be surprised if there is one professional woman alive who has not experienced some version of sexual heckling. From subtle come-ons, to aggressive intimidation or sidelining, to ridiculous wrestling matches and dashes for the door — we’ve almost all been there. It is about time creeps like Weinstein got called out.
Still, I hesitate to jump on the #Metoo bandwagon. Instead, I’ve wondered: Are men and women really so different that this kind of behavior could ever seem acceptable or understandable on any level? Or is this about the difference between those who have power and those who do not? Could a woman in a similar position of power become a female Harvey Weinstein?
I spoke with someone in the midst of the fray, a young woman who is a screenwriter, actor and producer. I met Naomi McDougall Jones in 2015 when her first feature length film “Imagine I’m Beautiful” had just been released, to considerable acclaim. The success of this film allowed Naomi to attract bigger names from Hollywood for her latest work, “Bite Me.” We spoke this weekend as she was wrapping up production in New York City on this modern vampire-human romance.
“When I first heard this news I shrugged it off,” she said, “like, non-story. This behavior is just so ubiquitous; it’s an open secret. So, I’ve actually been incredibly excited about how much attention the story is getting — like, it’s finally releasing this rage which can be harnessed into action.”
I asked Naomi, who had her own list of inappropriate overtures by male colleagues and associates, did she think things were changing for women? For example both of her films had women writers and directors. “Yes and no. It’s true, I am making films and I am putting together teams I want to work with. But at a certain level you can only get so far without engaging the system as it exists. Until now, who has controlled the levers of power? Men like Harvey Weinstein.
“But now this fire has been unleashed. If he’s out, if the head of Amazon content is out, it’s going to create a power vacuum. It’s going to force the system to restructure itself.” And perhaps open more opportunities for women.
But how different would a powerful woman be in Hollywood? Though it would be hard to find a misuse of position as egregious as Weinstein’s, the few women in power have often made it tough for their talented sisters. Naomi admitted, “Female studio heads have historically had worse track records hiring female directors than men.”
My professional experience, and that of many of my contemporaries in business and finance, was also that women at the top were very often less supportive toward women subordinates and occasionally actively hostile. But as Naomi pointed out, “women have been so on guard against being called a feminist that they’ve actively worked to look like they were not favoring women.” In addition “they’ve felt like the token woman, like there was only one seat — and if you got it, then I didn’t.”
So do women view power in the same way as men — or not?
“For women,” Naomi gave me her perspective, “the default is to sit in a circle and listen to everyone’s stories and make the decision that is strongest for the group. The format is almost exactly the same. That is the feminine impulse.
“With men, the default is for someone to take charge and create a hierarchy of power. It is inherently brittle because obviously it is best to be the top dog; then, there is a struggle, because someone below is always trying to get on top. “
We spoke of our own personal experiences of being in the driver’s seat. As the CEO of a small media company many years ago, I struggled with my own negative images around the notion of “power and authority.” I did not want to be anything like the bosses I had observed as I was moving up the ranks. As women, I think we have just as hard a time imagining ourselves in positions of power, as we have imagining what a positive, healthy expression of power might look like.
Naomi’s reaction was similar to mine: “It is inherently repulsive for me to control others, and I was trained, as we all are, not to take up too much space, to defer. I realized that I suddenly had power, and felt terrible about (it). For a brief period it sent me into crippling anxiety about being around people.
“There is a healthy way to manage people — and that is leadership. And I came to understand that. But it took me a year of some dark psychological work to get there.”
What the Weinstein scandal has made me think is that there have not been many models of powerful men (or women) that don’t in some way look like “taking advantage”: of the position in order to fulfill personal desires, of the perks, of other people. “‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and women are not immune to that,” Naomi reflected.
Which means we have an interesting challenge before us, which is to imagine a different expression of power from those at the top, one that emphasizes leadership, generosity and responsibility for the welfare, development and success of others. As some of the biggest abusers of power are called to account, it is an opportunity for all of us — men and women — to summon up our own creativity to envision what we believe power, and those who hold it, should really look like.
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge.
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