Harvey Weinstein is ugly in every dimension of the word, physically and morally. He is also uniquely talented, a prolific enabler of other talents. Roger Ailes was just as ugly, and just as talented in a warped, malignant line of journalism. Dominique Strauss-Khan has a touch of Roman arrogance in his face but a pig-like body and pig-like lusts. He was also so smart that he might have been president of France.
We have a genus here, male animals with shared characteristics. Each of them was clever enough to acquire vocational seats of power that they then used to satisfy unbridled appetites for beautiful women. They are, in their hideous aspects and behavior, the contemporary form of an ancient beast of mythology, the satyr.
There are multiple definitions of what a satyr actually is, or was, dating from the original Greek man-beast with a tail and permanent erection. The common theme carried over into modern usage is of a body type that is brutish and knows no restraint. The point is that, according to this model, being ugly and impulsive in your habits need not deny you sex with nymphs as long as the nymphs surrender to your obvious power without complaint.
But this is not ancient Greece and it is now beginning to dawn on us that a number of modern institutions—the Miramax and Weinstein film production outfits, Fox News, and the International Monetary Fund, to name but three—were for a long while complicit in allowing this kind of beast to roam rampant. Lord knows, there must be many others, including the United States Congress, where they are busy closing ranks and losing files and hoping that their satyrs can escape exposure.
Of course, the reaction to this behavior varies greatly according to the mores of the country in which it occurs. For example, Strauss-Khan, the former managing director of the IMF, being French, expected and received a more tolerant response than would be granted here.
He never made any attempt to deny that he had a reputation for goat-like performances at privately arranged orgies. When French prosecutors charged him with procuring prostitutes for wild sex parties (prostitution is legal in France but procuring them is not) he claimed that he had been relatively restrained in how often he had staged the orgies—“only 12 in three years.”
You may recall that Strauss-Khan lost his job at the IMF (and all hope of being the socialist party candidate for the French presidency) after a hotel maid in New York accused him of sexual assault. A criminal case against him was dropped, and he made a private settlement with the maid. Other cases against him, including the procuring charges, also failed. His life as a satyr in France continues unabated, on the grounds that as a discharge of lusts among consenting adults in private it is perfectly permissible. It could be argued, though, that losing the chance of becoming head of state was punishment enough.
In 2015 Lenaig Bredoux, a French investigative journalist who was one of 40 women political journalists who wrote a letter about sexual predators to the newspaper Liberation, said that women reporters had learned never to be alone when they interviewed Strauss-Khan. She complained of “constant, relentless, and sometimes violent sexism” from men across the political spectrum, and of women working in the French National Assembly being frequently assaulted in elevators and corridors by politicians.
To other women, though, France seems to be a place that they value as a more relaxed, libertine society, albeit a society where the sexual norms are still set by men like Strauss-Khan. Recently, Catherine Deneuve was one of 100 women actors, writers, and academics who wrote a letter to Le Monde complaining that #MeToo and its French equivalent, #BalanceTonPorc (“call out your pig”) were part of a “puritanical” witch hunt. They said they were writing the letter to defend sexual freedom, for which “the liberty to seduce and importune was essential.”
Most women were, they said, “sufficiently aware that the sexual urge is by its nature wild and aggressive.”
This divided response—from two groups of women each invoking their own anecdotal experiences—reflects a cultural confusion that is not confined to France. Some of it is generational. Deneuve is 74 now. She made her name as a young woman of extraordinarily enigmatic beauty in the ’60s, working for directors who exploited that quality, including Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut, and Roman Polanski.
Along with others like Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, and Julie Christie, Deneuve served as the film world’s version of the New Woman, sexually self-assured and far more like real flesh than the old Hollywood vamps.
Today’s new tensions about how to manage sexual encounters are appearing in a different world, but they have their roots in that one, where an institution like the Playboy Mansion could be convincingly sold as a totem of a sexual revolution in which everybody, if they wished, could be a swinger. But that freedom applied far more to men than women, and “the liberty to seduce and importune” was always biased heavily toward men.
Deneuve and the other signatories to the letter were making a very ’60s assertion that sounds patronizing to many women today: that they learned to be “sophisticated” enough to handle being hit on and, in fact, were clever enough to adapt to the new rules of the game, which included a far more relaxed approach to promiscuity.
But the journalists who wrote to Liberation were much more in touch with reality. They spoke for professional women who have fought not only for emancipation in the work place but against persistently predatory bosses. Which brings us back to another of those satyrs and more journalists, this time at Fox News. One of the first to blow the whistle on Roger Ailes, Andrea Tantaros, described the newsroom as a “sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in indecency and misogyny.”
The porcine Ailes was himself prowling like a rampant stud in a stud farm and Bill O’Reilly, who, in contrast, cut a handsome figure for his age, was following his boss in assuming a right to have his way with any woman of his choice. And all this filth flowed into public view before the even more gruesome Weinstein regime was exposed by The New York Times, a regime that had lasted, according to accounts, for many years.
Even then, it wasn’t until a week ago, when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Weinstein companies, that the full depth and breadth of Weinstein’s predations were revealed, according to the truly chilling and detailed allegations.
Over and above the evidence of despicable sexual harassment and assault were the threats quoted by Schneiderman where Weinstein boasted of his political leverage, extending to the Secret Service who would “take care of problems” and women who were told that if they complained “I will kill you,” “I will kill your family,” and “You don’t know what I can do.”
This was a satyr who behaved like Tony Soprano and had organized his whole business around gratifying his appetites anywhere and at any time, including assistants who, according to the lawsuit, “were required to facilitate HW’s sex life as a condition of employment,” and drivers in Manhattan and Los Angeles who “were required to keep condoms and erectile dysfunction injections in the car at all times, in order to provide them to HW as needed.”
The most positive outcome of this squalid saga should be the end of the systemic suppression of complaints by women in the workplace who have been sexually harassed, or worse. All praise, then, to the women at Fox News who made the first really effective assault on such regimes, where women were either routinely disbelieved or seen off with hush money.
Gloria Allred, the lawyer and long-time scourge of male predators (now the subject of a Netflix documentary, Seeing Allred) told the Guardian, “This has become more than ever the year of empowerment for women. The fear has been abandoned and women don’t want to suffer in silence any more.”
The game is over now for the satyrs, although Weinstein may not be the last to be unmasked. Other businesses where beauty—male and female—is a traded commodity have been rattled. Conde Nast dropped the photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber after numerous complaints from male assistants and models. And in a business where young women models were often groomed and treated like 19th century odalisques, it wouldn’t be surprising if more abuse comes to light.
At the same time there has been a massive unsettling of sexual etiquette, certainly the greatest since the ’60s. While it is a lot clearer what kind of abuse can no longer be tolerated, it is a lot less clear how natural mating procedures between adults should adapt. When, for example, does flirting become harassment? To be sure, for a while to come men holding any kind of power will remain in an uneasy state of behavioral quarantine (the same probably goes for women with power, too).
And there is no doubt that in such a febrile atmosphere where people work closely together, there are opportunities for exploitation. Some people will over-react to perceived transgressions. Lawyers are ready to pounce. Long-held grievances can suddenly break into the open and have unintended and tragic consequences.
For example, some people I know who have worked at both Miramax and the Weinstein Company feel that the cruelest outcome of the story so far is the suicide of Jill Messick, a much admired producer.
Messick was caught in the crossfire between actress Rose McGowan and Weinstein over McGowan’s account of what happened between her and Weinstein in a hotel hot tub at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.
McGowan claims that she was raped by Weinstein, and implied that Messick, who was then her manager, was only interested in covering up the episode, not in supporting her. In fact, as Messick’s greatly distressed family made clear after her death, Messick had told the partners at the agency she worked for, Addis Wechsler, about McGowan’s experience and was later assured by them that they had reached a settlement with Weinstein that McGowan was happy with.
But secrets like this that remained secrets in the long darkness during which the satyr felt ever-increasing power and ever-increasing immunity to the law are suddenly breaking loose and are capable of suddenly devastating peoples’ lives. That is the ugliest legacy of these ugly men.