Power Dynamics Below the Line in Hollywood (and everywhere else)

If you’re anywhere near Hollywood this week, you’ve got a hot take on Harvey Weinstein. I’ve only been here a few years, exclusively “below the line”, and I heard all the rumors too. I dreaded ever having even secondhand contact with the man and his company: a powerful star maker with the ability to squash any career he chose, a blatant chauvinist, and an indecent human being whose participation in the entertainment industry seemed immoveable.

So many of us, especially women, are or have been explicitly sexually abused, assaulted or harassed. Some of us have been raped – one in five women will be raped in their lifetimes. A lot of us have also never spoken of sexual violence. Some of us, myself included, have never publicly acknowledged being emotionally abused, gaslit and manipulated for years.

If you ask yourself why we don’t speak up immediately, look at the women who have come forward to talk about Weinstein, Bill Cosby, or — god help us — our president. Come forward when it happens and you’re lying and must show proof. Wait until you have strength in numbers to report and you’re a bandwagon attention seeker. Keep quiet forever and well I guess it wasn’t really what you said it was, drama queen. And often a lot of these accusations go nowhere. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits are waiting in a backlog right now.

And the men still win awards, accept paychecks, get elected to office. They continue to hold their power regardless of what they’ve done. 

A lot of the conversation has been among above-the-line people over the last week: directors, actors, writers, and similarly visible individuals in the entertainment industry. Abuses by these kinds of people on below-the-line individuals — art department, editors, camera department, technicians, make-up artists — aren’t at all uncommon. But for those of us below-the-line, most of the abuse we face each day isn’t necessarily manifested in a villain like Harvey Weinstein who we can now shame and run out of town. Not everyone has been cornered by a man who tries to expose himself to us or asks us to take a bath with him (although good god, too many of us have).

But all women in our below-the-line workplaces – especially technical roles like in post production where we are vastly outnumbered – are affected by these same power dynamics. It’s the same gender power dynamic that would convince a man to try to force himself on you which exists to some degree in the mind of a man in charge of hiring or promoting you (or not), by nature of how our society is constructed around bias and stereotypes.

And in many ways this is even more damaging and dangerous: the villain isn’t the vile man with the “open secret” of abuse, he’s the Self-Described Nice Guy who thinks he’s doing nothing wrong. 

The Self-Described Nice Guy* is different from the Abusive Monster. The Abusive Monster in these circumstances often knows explicitly what he’s doing is bad and just doesn’t care. He’s drunk on power, taking it out via sexual violence. He gropes, touches, rapes, suggests, intimidates. There’s no grey area to what he’s doing to everyday folk: it’s definitely bad and easily condemned once airing the dirty laundry is normal. Go away, Abusive Monster.

(Whether he actually goes away or gets another powerful job is a whole ‘nother thing.)

The Self-Described Nice Guy is more pervasive and harder to avoid. The Self-Described Nice Guy’s implicit gender bias prevents him from making good judgements about what women are capable of in tech jobs. Nice Guy thinks his assumptions about women are progressive and helpful – women just want to have babies (no they don’t), they’re not as mathy (yes they are), they need my protection (no they don’t) – when in reality they’re backwards and harmful. The Nice Guy sees himself in young men and naturally wishes to mentor and promote a younger version of himself. The Nice Guy seeks to make hiring decisions through a meritocracy, ignoring privilege and artificial barriers that exist.

White male privilege by Swedish artist Emanu

He too is drunk on power, but he doesn’t know it until it’s threatened: he hears the word “diversity” and writes a 100 page memo on why women are biologically unsuited for this work. Thanks Nice Guy, people say, maybe we should listen to your insight.

But these wrongful assumptions and scientifically incorrect facts are actively keeping women from being successful in below-the-line technical jobs.

Only about 18% of picture editors and 3% of directors of photography in television and film are women, and that number hasn’t improved in 20 years and continues to drop off in other technical classifications. Expanding beyond the entertainment industry into adjacent fields where data is more widely collected, we see women graduating at increasing rates in engineering and computer science and leaving their jobs by mid-career. In fact, over 40% of female engineers leave by age thirty, and only a quarter of those leave for family purposes. The other reasons? A lack of promotional opportunities and mentorship – far more barriers to climbing the ladder than men — yes, they also leave jobs because they’re frustrated, but at a much lower rate.

And it’s not just the big picture stuff, like mentorship. Women die a death of a thousand cuts from Nice Guys during their career, eventually exiting when they’ve had too much. Things like being overtalked in meetings, having credit for their ideas co-opted, being passed over for a gig because they probably can’t lift a camera, being called a bitch or a prude depending on the circumstances, or being corrected on tone happen every single day. Being accused of making everything “a gender thing” when suggesting more inclusive language is common. Being laughed at for suggesting an organization seek a woman for a panel of experts. Being complimented on appearance but never job performance. Being accused of tokenism for hiring another woman.

Reed Morano, ASC — Emmy winning director/woman able to lift a camera.

In a ten year pan-industry study, IZA Institute of of Labor Economics found that this gap didn’t exist because of skill or bargaining power or motivation. Men just valued women less than they valued men.

These acts are committed by Nice Guys who just want to keep things fair in the industry. They often consider themselves allies, but they don’t internalize the fact that the industry’s narrow path to success was built to sustain only people like them. And many women choose never to speak of it. When we come forward when it happens, we’re accused of embellishment and must show proof. If we wait until we have strength in numbers, we’re bandwagon feminists who get pushed in a room alone together, separated from the network of influence. And if we continue to keep quiet forever, we’re an example of how this problem obviously just doesn’t exist at all.

It’s all the same power dynamic as a physically, violently abusive person. It just happens in micro-interactions every single day instead.

While Abusive Monster usually knows his power, Self-Described Nice Guy often doesn’t because he’s just too nice to leverage something like gender dynamics, right? But when Self-Described Nice Guys refuse to listen to women, accept their male privilege, and ask how to help, their place in the power structure is solidified.

If Weinstein is to be a turning point for Hollywood, it needs to be a turning point from the bottom up too. I hope that being able to tell the world about the horrifying crimes against women that these powerful men commit becomes normal and drives these monsters out of the mainstream, and that accepting that women are generally telling the truth becomes normal. I want to believe that openly talking about gender power dynamics more and more will help level the playing field, so women who come forward can feel safe and find justice instead of being called sluts and accused of attention-seeking.

But the truth is that men still hold this power, and without true, committed allies willing to actively share it, this is just another week in Hollywood.

(*Women can be Nice Guys too.)