Name-Place-Animal-Thing: High Spirits and India's Own Harvey Weinsteins

This week: a discussion on liberal acquiescence to sexual harassment in India, Harvey Weinstein’s power and a Twitter take-down of a popular bar.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

India’s Harvey Weinsteins

As women in Hollywood continue to step forward with allegations against film producer and former studio executive Harvey Weinstein, last week’s shocking revelations are turning into a seismic event. It is not possible to be on Twitter or Facebook or consume any US media without encountering questions about the relationship between sexual assault and power. This week’s pieces all grapple with the issue from different angles, contributing to a bigger picture about the culture surrounding assault and harassment.

Although Weinstein’s career is collapsing before our eyes, others are already concerned that such scrutiny should be extended to other powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere as well. Barkha Dutt turned a critical eye on Indian liberals in her column for the Washington Post, ‘What India’s liberals can learn from Harvey Weinstein’s fall’.

Tarun Tejpal. Credit: PTI

Dutt talked extensively about Tarun Tejpal, the former Tehelka editor, who was recently charged with raping a younger, female colleague. Tejpal, who headed a fiery media outlet that was at the forefront of liberal issues, like reforming India’s rape laws, and “the toast of every well-heeled Delhi drawing room” was also an abuser of his power. When a star like Tejpal falls, most people willingly look for excuses and alternate explanations, seeking comfort by attempting to hang onto their presumptions. Dutt recounted feeling the same urge before forcing herself to examine the facts and realising Tejpal was indefensible.

Dutt also cites the case of filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui, Rhodes scholar, an alum of Dutt’s own college (another bastion of liberal education in India). Farooqui recently was acquitted of rape because the courts ruled in his favour, upending the definition of consent in the process by arguing that a “feeble ‘no’ may mean a ‘yes’.” Dutt’s anger at this seems to radiate from the screen.

Her own words on India’s “native Weinsteins” are best served directly:

“When it comes to our native Weinsteins, self-proclaimed progressives across the world appear to stumble. Like American progressives, we have had to learn – the hard way – that the mere public championing of modern, forward-thinking slogans doesn’t make you any less likely to be scummy when it comes to women. We know that within our social circles there are powerful men with gargantuan egos who will abuse their influence and stature. Yet we muddle our wider ideological positions – on women, on minorities, on gay rights, on equality of religions, on corruption, on sexual liberty – with our need to overcompensate for individual perpetrators of harassment (or those accused of it) because they have been public advocates for the same rights we believe in. Or we privilege our broader political choices – left wing/right wing – over the transgressions of men who have betrayed every principle they espouse. We think we are protecting liberalism from an assault by the extreme right wing; in fact, our hesitation is undermining it and leaving it open to spoof, contempt and derision. And when we do take positions, we weaken them with “whataboutery” – feeble proclamations of “he was wrong, but what about you?”


Power makes for fickle armour

How did Weinstein get away with it for decades? Power, the liberal consensus choruses back. But Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, culture writers at the New York Times and hosts of the podcast, ‘Still Processing‘ took this analysis one step deeper.

Powerful, successful women like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie have shared their stories about Weinstein with the media this past week, indicating that nobody was safe from his advances. Morris, who used to be a Cannes film festival regular, described how Weinstein’s entry into the tiny hotel lobby would change the energy of the room instantly. Hundreds of people responded to this one individual’s power in profound ways and Wesley said he couldn’t imagine being alone in a room with Weinstein, the way many of these women were.

But that was at the height of Weinstein’s career, when he seemed to own everything in Hollywood and the movies he touched reaped box office gold. Now, Morris argued, things aren’t how they used to be. Disney owns Miramax, Weinstein and his brother have another company called the Weinstein Company, and he is no longer the sole proprietor of the Midas touch in Hollywood. In short, Weinstein is not as powerful as he once was.

Harvey Weinstein, Co-Chairman of The Weinstein Company, speaks at the UBS 40th Annual Global Media and Communications Conference in New York, December 5, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Morris proposed, and Wortham agreed, that this downturn in power has precipitated the massive reaction against Weinstein. He can no longer penalise women for speaking out against him because he can’t cut them out of the industry altogether. This has opened up a space to speak about things done many years ago, when Weinstein was beyond reproach. The scary question before us is, who is today’s Weinstein?

Both Wortham and Morris, especially Morris, are under no illusions about the culture of misogyny and sexism that permeates Hollywood. And because they know it’s not just a problem limited to an individual or the culture he created around himself, the two are not optimistic about one man’s downfall bringing sweeping change across the ecosystem.

However, there is a sliver of hope to be found. Morris pointed out that not so long ago, women who wanted to share such stories could at most, have addressed a room full of people, but now they have the magnifying power of social media. Wortham compared social media’s mass audiences to megaphones, explaining that stories (and warnings) can now spread effortlessly and almost in real-time, reaching millions of people. Weinstein, an expert at media coverage, could control his own narrative much better a decade ago than he can now, because ordinary women have now gained access to the same type of exposure and coverage. I’m often critical of news organisations’ tendency to cover what happens on Twitter as news, but Wortham and Morris’ discussion reminded me that such coverage can be positive as well. The fact that Twitter agreed to change its policies in response to women boycotting the platform for a day also speaks to the power women command on social media platforms (but not always in real world scenarios).

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A Twitter tale

The most immediate example of Twitter protests snowballing into larger news sparked off this weekend when writer Sheena Dabholkar started calling out multiple instances of harassment and assault at a popular bar in Pune called High Spirits. The issue led the owner of the bar, Khodu Irani, to issue a blanket denial of all such claims, even as several other women started to share stories of their own experiences at the same bar.

Left: Khodu Irani; Right: High Spirits bar, Pune

In what can almost be called a routine now, there were two kinds of reactions to Dabholkar’s revelations – women sharing their own stories, making Irani’s denials even more suspicious under the light of their collective experiences, but also men and women who denied such things, blamed the women for their attire at the time, took such stories as attempts to malign the bar and its owner.

In an age of screenshots, it’s nearly impossible to get away with saying and doing problematic things. But what’s the use of proof when people can’t agree on what constitutes problematic behaviour in the first place? Since she first tweeted, Dabholkar’s timeline has turned into a venue of discussing the culture around sexual harassment and assault, casual misogyny, and what men and women who are friends with perpetrators can do in the wake of upsetting revelations. It’s an education to simply go through her timeline, and a testament to the labour and time Dabholkar and others like her put into such platforms, maximising their ability to reach mass audiences. Whether and how these revelations will translate into real-world consequences remains to be seen.

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