It’s been called the “Weinstein Effect,” a kind of reckoning or reordering of a culture that has long invested itself in the protection of men and their reputations at an incredibly high cost, paid overwhelmingly by women. But if the allegations of sexual harassment and assault seem like a watershed moment, then backlash to this moment is inevitable.
“Witch hunt” is the favorite terminology to describe the now daily—and historically new—cycle of predators being held publicly accountable for their actions. Woody Allen warned of a “witch hunt atmosphere” in October, an attitude that has been echoed by politicians and journalists. And it continues again in the inevitable piece you knew was coming—casting doubt on truthfulness of the claims, however subtly, because there are so many.
“Is a Hollywood Witch Hunt Brewing?” the headline of a recent Hollywood Reporter editorial asked. The piece, written by Stephen Galloway, clearly laid out both the objections and the warnings that have accumulated since long-simmering frustrations and anger spilled over post-Weinstein story. Me Too and the Shitty Media Men list were emblematic of that anger turned text turned action, but their methods made them inherently suspicious to some.
“I’m terrified that, in our righteous quest to do good, we’re sweeping up the innocent as well as the guilty,” Galloway wrote. “We’re accepting allegations in the place of solid proof. We’re conflating those guilty of more minor crimes with perpetrators of egregious and even criminal behavior.” Galloway seems convinced that the media—including, ostensibly, his own colleagues—have been swept up in the moment, so eager to report the newest allegation they are “stretching the limits of what’s acceptable to report, breaching the thick wall between gossip and fact.” Galloway worries about the innocent being swept up and worries too that journalists are too eager to over-inflate minor infractions (ostensibly anything that’s not criminal is not newsworthy) and pay too much attention to past behavior. In short, Galloway’s objection to the current state of reporting on allegations is simply that it isn’t held to the standards of old journalism and, without those standards, smug critics might see their delusions of “fake news” made real.
But that assumption makes the faulty jump that the current systems we have to report violence and harassment are perfect—that they listen to us when we are so bold as to come forward against a powerful predator. Our broader cultural approach to the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment is largely dismissive. Handwringing over journalism ethics doesn’t pause to consider that the current approach is not just deeply flawed, but inherently and heavily tilted toward the protection of powerful men. Meanwhile, the statistics loom large: one in six women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. One in 10 rape victims is male. And 75 percent of all sexual harassment incidents go unreported.
And with a news cycle like this, it’s easy to see why. It was the fundamental failure of those exact systems that reduced routine assault to “open secrets”—a move that has long protected abusers like Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey, and Toback. (Weinstein quite literally hired former Mossad operatives to intimidate his victims and journalists reporting the allegations against him.)
But dismissing allegations as witch hunts works in other insidious ways. It’s telling that powerful producers, influential publishers—men who have an enormous amount of cultural and professional capital—are so easily able to position themselves as victims simply because the power structures that protected them for so long have slightly shifted. To invoke the witch hunt narrative is to reaffirm that power rather than to grapple with the widespread abuses that have been dismissed or simply treated as the price of doing business.
It is also an insidious reminder that “allegations” is a term that immediately conjures up suspicion. It has been made to signify petty gossip that has little basis in truth; historically coded as the accusations of untrustworthy women. The witch hunt narrative winks at this old stereotype, braiding it with the linguistic signification of the witch hunt itself. Here, a witch hunt isn’t the centuries-long project that targeted midwives or women with knowledge of early birth control, but a singular moment that gave too much power to gossipy girls, allowing their hysteria to render irrational chaos.
But this moment isn’t one of hysteria; it isn’t one of gossipy women overreacting in order to seek petty retribution. Rather it’s about reorienting cultures and institutions to reflect lived realities. The fact that so many men are being named is precisely what makes the accusations resonate. Watching the statistical actuality of harassment and sexual violence take shape in new allegations every day is consistent with the nameless, often faceless data. And if it seems like a lot—perhaps even too many predators to be truthful—then that underscores the dissonance between the numbers we read and the predators we protect.
This moment is no witch hunt. Instead, perhaps for the first time, the news cycle is simply reflecting the lived reality of sexual assault and harassment. And unlike the evasion of culpability that dotted the accolades of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, predators are being professionally penalized. This is new—and implies that our willingness to preserve artistic “genius” at the price of bodily violation is perhaps changing. The alleged we now know about are just the beginning; there are still plenty of pockets of protection that demand detailed examination.
The Weinstein effect will, hopefully, continue, affecting likely every industry. And in this transitional moment, there will undoubtedly be those cultural holdovers who view these men as the witches being hunted rather than the villagers holding the pitchforks.