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Has the Weinstein scandal changed the game on sexual harassment - finally?

Actors. US Politicians. A Melbourne mayor. Morning show hosts. Gardening show hosts. Media heavy weights. Across the globe they all have one common denominator: accusations or allegations of sexual harassment post-Harvey Weinstein. Since The New York Times published its exposé alleging Hollywood king maker Weinstein had been sexually harassing women in the entertainment industry for decades, the scandal has spread across the film and other industries like wildfire.

The initial questions were whether the allegations against Weinstein would grow among the film industry. After all, no less than the now president of the US had survived the scandal of being caught on tape boasting about grabbing women’s genitals. Now the debate is whether the Weinstein scandal will lead to lasting change in the ability of women to speak up against sexual harassment, be heard and have action taken.

Deakin University Professor of Communication and Cultural Studies David Marshall says the Weinstein story broke at a moment where society was looking to do the right thing in a time when ethics in politics and across society was under debate and scrutiny. So Weinstein, Prof. Marshall argues, gained traction because of that moment and because, through movements like #metoo, people have felt the story has moved the range of what constitutes harassment and the need to speak out.

‘We’re in a moment of almost trying to work out a new politics because of the challenge to politics that has happened over the past year, particularly by Donald Trump,’ he says.

‘A lot of what is going on is trying to produce an ethical purity in politics, which is almost impossible but nonetheless is being aspired to.’

Weinstein: the sequel

Prof. Marshall is unsurprised that the Weinstein scandal and its fallout have become a major moral flash point. And that’s because of the intensity of people trying to establish right and wrong right now.

‘I’m not surprised that something that was clearly identified as wrong has become much more prominent,’ he says.

The movement from the entertainment industry, to news, media and politics is a sign that the ‘Weinstein scenario’ couldn’t be contained to the casting couch. The entertainment industry had always been perverse but Prof. Marshall argues that became like one of the norms of other industries.

'Sometimes policy doesn’t move into full change but this does feel much closer to full change, a new direction in gender equality.'

Professor David Marshall,
Deakin University

The public world has been so turbulent and disruptive, Prof. Marshall argues, we are unsure of the public models of identity – our politics and culture, in the broad western sense, is unclear.

‘What is deserving of being visible and prominent is what the contemporary moment is all about. It’s what we’re trying to work out,’ Prof. Marshall says.

This moment produces instability in all sorts of ways. ‘And the Weinstein moment,’ he says, ‘has almost followed it like a very large wave, trying to work out these sentiments.’

Why has the Weinstein moment gone global?

Post-Weinstein moments of sexual abuse and harassment allegations have emerged in swathes in Western countries. The main response, think Spacey, Matt Lauer, US Senator Al Franken, with a few exceptions, has been to remove oneself from office or a role. The reason for the dramatic global spread, Prof. Marshall argues, is how our sophisticated global communication system works. #metoo, with its sharing of personal stories of alleged sexual abuse and harassment has intersected with transnational issues.

And that’s all without the limitations on stories that existed just a few decades ago. ‘So we’ve got something that is allowing politically charged, culturally challenging stories to actually move through what would have in the past been barriers of cultural and national systems,’ he says.

What comes next in the Weinstein epic?

Any industry with structural power imbalances, that deals with levels of intimacy and connections is in line to be swept up by the Weinstein scenario. By that measure, Prof. Marshall says the academic world, the public sector, sport (and particularly women’s sport) and well as the Bactine or carnivalesque world of conferences and conventions are on notice.

The reason Prof. Marshall calls out sport is the relationships of power and the major age gaps between coaches, support staff and young women. ‘It’s probably going to play itself out in all sorts of unpleasant ways and in women’s sport more than anything,’ he says.

Take the recent example of US gymnastics. Throughout January, more than 100 women are giving testimony against the former doctor to the US Olympic gymnastics team and Michigan State University coach Larry Nassar, who stands accused of criminal sexual misconduct. Among the women accusing him of sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment are Olympians Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles.

How far the Weinstein scenario spreads into the business sector depends on whistleblowers and the state of journalism, Prof. Marshall argues. In a time of decline in the media industry, investigative reporting remains as expensive as it is necessary.

‘Because of our public personality system, it is not that different between the entertainment world and how the technology and other industries operate in terms of CEOs as stars and pseudo-celebrities,’ he says.

Game changer. Will the Weinstein change permanently disrupt societal attitudes?

When the Weinstein story broke, one of the main questions was whether the story would spread beyond the entertainment industry. Now the main question is whether the widespread outrage will stick and lead to lasting change. Prof. Marshall says there has been a ‘threshold shift’ in where the line is drawn on what is acceptable and unacceptable. And that’s a step towards change.

‘Sometimes policy doesn’t move into full change but this does feel much closer to full change, a new direction in gender equality … new lines of what defines equality are being formed,’ he says.

Interested in studying society and media? Consider studying sociology at Deakin University.

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Professor David Marshall
Professor David Marshall

Chair In New Media, Communication And Cultural Studies, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University.

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