Ahead of the launch of the criminal trial against Harvey Weinstein, the infamous Hollywood producer released a statement that tells us much of what we need to know about his upcoming defense. Weinstein, who now faces five counts of rape and sexual assault, claimed that the “past two years” since the launch of the contemporary MeToo movement have been a “great opportunity for self-reflection.” Unsurprisingly, this self-reflection seems only to have inspired an angle for discrediting the more than 80 women who have brought accusations against him. “I realize now that I was consumed with my work, my company and my drive for success,” he wrote in an email to CNN. “This caused me to neglect my family, my relationships and to lash out at the people around me.” Weinstein added that he has been in rehab and joined a 12-step program.
Here we have a preview of what the next several weeks will hold during Weinstein’s New York trial—as well as, potentially, his team’s response to new criminal charges filed in Los Angeles. This seems a sneak peak of the narrative the defense will creatively spin: It is the bad husband defense. It is boys will be boys. It is the collision of age-old sexist notions of men’s uncontainable sexuality with fantasies of power, access, and excess.
When CNN spoke with Weinstein’s criminal defense attorney, Donna Rotunno, she echoed her client, saying that he would be “the first one to say he did bad things.” She continued, “He cheated on his wife, he was dishonest about that, he had multiple women he slept with at different points and he would say that those were bad choices,” said Rotunno. “He’s lost everything for those bad choices. Nobody is trying to claim that he is a saint and that he never did anything wrong.” However, she added, “I don’t believe Harvey is a rapist.”
In addition to attempting to brutally undermine Weinstein’s accusers, his legal team is poised to invoke the familiar image of the broken, regretful philanderer. Indeed, his wife of nearly a decade has divorced him. It’s so often women, even in absentia, who are trotted out to humanize accused men.
Of course, the trope of a man making “bad choices,” acting un-saintly, and losing everything is a familiar one. Unfaithful men—especially rich, powerful ones—are a prominent cultural fixture, and not just because of their ubiquity. These men get so much ink because they provide opportunities for better-than-thou moralizing, anecdotally confirming stereotypes of insuppressible “male sexuality,” blaming women for men’s missteps, and the vicarious thrill of contemplating unfettered sexual indulgence. These men are taken as failed and fated, victims and heroes.
It’s no wonder Weinstein wants to draw upon that cultural currency. Never mind that this is a criminal trial—his defense team has torn a page directly from the playbooks of Tiger Woods, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and other infamously unfaithful men. In his statement to CNN, Weinstein mentions rehab and a 12-step program. There have been reports of Weinstein attending in-patient “sex rehab.” If you recall anything from the year 2010, you will recognize the standard public relations defense of that era’s high-profile infidelities: “Sex addiction.”
Previously, the fact of Weinstein being married and having children was simply used to bolster his credibility. In 2015, he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman during a meeting and Page Six responded by publishing discrediting anonymous statements about his “stunning,” “catwalker,” “beauty queen” accuser (pictured in accompanying photos in her underwear and a bathing suit), while referring to Weinstein as a “married dad of five.” As we’ve already seen with Brett Kavanaugh, invoking a man’s status as a “family man” is a go-to tactic for establishing credibility (he’s “good man”) and engendering sympathy (look what this is doing to his family).
Now, 80-plus accusations later, Weinstein’s preferred narrative has shifted to the man who failed his wife and kids. Victimhood is transferred from those many women to his family. He is painted, absurdly, as the man who simply couldn’t resist the temptation of those “stunning,” “catwalker,” “beauty queens.” The potential for victim-blaming suddenly expands: Not only will the defense attempt to portray his accusers as willing participants and opportunists, but also implicit is the invocation of woman as temptress, as the biblical downfall of man.
Today, there is yet more evidence to suggest that this will be Weinstein’s chosen defense: Irin Carmon reports on a 57-page PowerPoint presentation shared by Weinstein’s publicist. The document shares opposition research on his accusers, including the anonymous woman in the criminal case against him: “The material seeking to refute her charges is most likely a preview of Weinstein’s defense team—that she allegedly kept in warm contact with him, or asked him for favors, and that emails will, in the words of the presentation, ‘show a long term, loving, consensual relationship,’” writes Carmon. Of course, the insinuation intended by Weinstein’s team is that it was an affair, a lesser evil, the act of a philanderer caught red-handed as opposed to a rapist. Portraying it as “loving” only serves to further romanticize it.
Here, the allegations of force and retribution are pleaded down to wandering eyes and bad decisions. It’s a savvy shift toward the relatable difficulties of monogamy, and it tells us what many already believe about men. It trades a shadowy and fearsome male figure of the cultural imagination for one that is seen as understandable and everyday. (Of course, this conception of the shadowy versus the everyday is both inaccurate and enabling.) It also provides a draw for the sizable minority of people in this country who believe MeToo has “gone too far,” some of whom seem to think that consensual relationships are being wrongfully miscast as nonconsensual.
It’s nice to think that the sneaky mechanics of the Bad Husband defense are far too manifest to succeed, either with a jury or in the court of public opinion. But I suppose one should never underestimate our cultural capacity for sympathizing with the idea of a man “thinking with the wrong head.”