Ophelia Bears Down On Harvey
Her death, one of the most celebrated in literature, happens off-stage.
Ophelia, driven mad by the betrayals and subterfuge of the men who encircle her, lies down in waters surrounded by garlands. There, in the purity of nature and bedecked in flowers, amongst them one known to women as ‘dead men’s fingers’, she allows her skirts to pull her body under, and drowns. Shakespeare’s ‘poor wretch’ is thus dragged to a muddy death, alone and, we discover later, un-mourned by her lover Hamlet.
As Hurricane Opehlia barrels towards Ireland and Scotland, in a unique weather event starring the largest hurricane ever recorded in the East Atlantic, I find myself brooding in the calm that precedes it. Meetings have been cancelled. Colleagues have sent messages to ‘be safe’. My brother is headed to our Mum’s house to batten the hatches. Here in my kitchen, looking out on a gentle drizzle, it is as if nothing is happening. And yet, we know that it is.
Aside from tracking Ophelia’s cone of uncertainty, the biggest news event of the weekend past has been the revelations of sexual predatory by Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood mogul (the producer behind Miramax, and latterly The Weinstein Company), famed as a purveyor of tightly-laced stories of beauty, has been accused by over 30 women of marauding sexual aggression, sexual assault and rape.
As the story unfurls, I am struck by the fine detail in three individual women’s stories. Detail which weaves the tragedy and banality of his deeds, and of what it means for our wider culture.
In a breathtaking, stress-inducing interview for the New York Times, Katherine Kendall recounts her interactions with Weinstein as a 23 year-old aspiring actress. Through bullying and manipulation, he pressured her for sex while shimmying fully naked in front of her, chasing her around his hotel room, pleading with her to lift her shirt at a minimum. She escaped, but Weinstein continued to monitor and control her over the subsequent weeks. As Kendall recounts this tale of exploitation from the 1990s, she mentions the thing that had drawn her close to Weinstein in the first place. The thing that made her feel safe. He had achieved his first success as a producer by bringing Cinema Paradisio to a wide audience (and to Oscar success). Cinema Paradisio was such a tender film. To her, it required a tender soul to recognise its merits. How could a man of such sensitivity act in such a betraying manner? How could a purveyor of beauty be such an ogre?
Kate Beckinsale, a British actress, recounted her close encounter at the hands of Weinstein in 1990, in the Savoy Hotel. The modus operandi is familiar. He appeared in a bathrobe and offered her alcohol, making her uneasy. She protested that she needed to go home as she had school the next day. Some time later, meeting him by chance at a separate event, Weinstein asked her a telling question: had he ‘tried anything on’ with her that night in the Savoy? So unhinged was he from the reality of his actions, Harvey Weinstein could not remember if he had assaulted the 17-year-old Beckinsale, or not.
The inciting incident of Viola De Lesseps’ love story, the subject of Shakespeare in Love, begins with a scene of despair. Colin Firth’s Lord Wessex, aggressive, unfeeling and entirely mercenary, announces that she will be wed to him, and that he has already obtained the approval of her father and the Queen for the union. Played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Viola is stunned into silence by the prospect of a forced marriage to such an ogre. Wessex seizes the opportunity of her passivity to forcibly grab her, planting an unwelcome, aggressive kiss. In humiliation, Viola accepts her fate. ‘I will do my duty, my lord’, she says, through tears.
News of Gwyneth Paltrow’s accusation of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein added rocket-fuel to the producer’s pyre. The story, led by The New York Times and abetted by The New Yorker, took on complexity and depth. Paltrow, long considered the first lady of Miramax and a protegée of ‘Uncle Harvey’ was no longer willing to keep the secret and to do her duty. She revealed that Weinstein had made sexual advances towards her as a young actress of 22 years old, that she had rebuffed him, and that he in turn had berated and threatened her for telling her then-boyfriend what happened.
Paltrow would go on from that dreadful incident to find great success with Miramax, illustrating how complex the choices are for women placed in such a position. On the stage of the Oscars, accepting Best Actress for her role in Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love, she felt forced to thank Weinstein by name. The man who had tried to sexually assault her was now perpetrating a kind of Stockholm control over her.
While the world feted Paltrow for her achievement, the price she had paid was, in some manner, to become Viola De Lesseps.
At its most visceral level, L’affaire Weinstein is a clarion call to all women who have been harassed for sex, or who will be harassed for sex, to take strength and to believe it is possible to fight back. As Katherine Kendall so eloquently puts it, in telling her story she feels she is silently joining hands with all of Weinstein’s other victims.
There is a further message in the story on which I find myself brooding.
Behind Weinstein’s actions is bullying – the use of power by those in authority to intimidate those who are weak. Such bullying does not always lead to sexual misconduct, but is often its gateway, as a longitudinal study in 2014 from the University of Illinois can attest. Bullying happens to women and to men, in our professional lives and in our personal lives. It has the power to destroy all in its pathway.
And yet, predatory bullying behaviour is often venerated in our popular culture. Consider how many of us defend the bully-in-chief of the skies, Ryanair’s Micheal O’Leary; consider how many Americans voted for the current bully-in-chief of the world, Donald Trump; consider a 2012 study of TV programming, which found that 92% of the top 50 programmes for children aged 2-11 depict social bullying.
Weinstein defends himself by asserting that he is a dinosaur from another era, having come of age when behaviour such as his was considered un-noteworthy. I don’t buy it for a moment. His behaviour, never sanctioned officially, is part of the fabric of our western culture and seeks expression just as readily today as before. But nowadays is different in one important respect. Nowadays, those who are subjected to such abuse may find their kinfolk, and find a voice.
A mighty wind is blowing. Emboldened by a sorority of suffering no longer willing to remain silent, women are finding their own tribe and are minded to lead. Enough of the ‘dead men’s fingers’. To hell with a quiet drowning, dragged to the bottom by the weight of one’s own skirts.
Ophelia is starting to roar.