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From Trump to Weinstein: why Hollywood matters in real life

Consider these two examples of alleged sexual harassment:

Case One: On October 8th 2016, The Washington Post revealed the famous Access Hollywood tapes, in which then presidential candidate Donald Trump boasted ‘you can do anything’ to women when you’re famous – including grabbing their genitals. ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it.’

One month and two days later he was elected the 45th President of the United States.

Case Two: On October 5th 2017, The New York Times published an expose alleging Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had been sexually harassing women in the film and entertainment industry for decades.

Three days later Weinstein was fired from the company he founded – The Weinstein Company.

Both cases created outrage, generating shock waves that rippled through communities, workplaces and social media accounts across the globe. Both cases shine the Hollywood lights on what impact, if any, public figures and celebrity have on everyday life. And they tell a compelling story about power, allegiances and the nature of public debate.

Based on a true story

Deakin University’s Professor David Marshall, an expert on the intersection of celebrity and public life, says the Weinstein case is a textbook example of how society deals with complicated issues through celebrity culture.

‘Some of these issues you couldn’t possibly deal with if it was your next door neighbour.  But we deal with Hollywood in a para-social way; in other words, we know these people but we don’t know them directly.’

'There is always the possibility that when an issue comes forward [such as Weinstein], that it will gain traction because it comes from Hollywood, but will it get converted beyond a story which isn’t that different to a Hollywood biopic?'

Professor David Marshall,
Deakin University

The thing about film and television and celebrity, he argues, is that it’s voyeuristic. Hollywood is a place where we’re allowed to see both the public and private self in a fictional way.

‘Harvey Weinstein is an example where we are debating a public self that crossed over into the private – exactly what Hollywood does all the time.’

And there’s an inbuilt tension between Hollywood or celebrity and real life. Because Hollywood is fictional, according to Prof. Marshall, we don’t necessarily see it as viscerally political and cultural. We think Hollywood is one step removed.

‘There is always the possibility that when an issue comes forward [such as Weinstein], that it will gain traction because it comes from Hollywood, but will it get converted beyond a story which isn’t that different to a Hollywood biopic?’

The power of the hashtag

In the days following the Weinstein revelations, the hashtag #metoo went viral. Across Twitter and Facebook it was shared and amplified by celebrities. Women from India to Indiana told their stories of harassment. The Associated Press reported the #metoo hashtag was shared in more than 12 million Facebook posts and reactions in the first 24 hours.

Prof. Marshall sees the hashtag and the ongoing currency of the Weinstein story – which has triggered related revelations about others in the film and media industry – and a major translation from Hollywood to societal impact. And that ‘translation’ comes because the story is not just about a public versus private revelation, but it’s also about the very economy of Hollywood, sexual inequality and power.

‘Harvey Weinstein is powerful because it hasn’t been dealt with in Hollywood… and that allows for it to move into other parts of our society,’ Prof. Marshall says. The power of the Weinstein moment, he argues, is that the private life revealed provides a counterpoint to the current culture and Trump-endorsed politics so it can be played out online and across society.

Trump v. Weinstein

So why didn’t the Trump story stick? Prof. Marshall argues the reason is because the President has played the game of the ‘attention and inattention’ economy – provide something within hours of stories breaking that is equally shocking. The result? No-one knows what to look at first.

Weinstein, in contrast, had consistency over 30 years. Prof. Marshall says Trump knows that in our current attention sharing economy, if he puts something new into the system, we won’t have the energy to pursue the last thing. ‘It’s not the 24 hour news cycle, it’s the idea that something more outrageous or equally outrageous has occurred.’

And Prof. Marshall argues there is a second factor at play. Weinstein is generally on the liberal-left side of Hollywood that stands against the kind of behaviour he allegedly showed. But there’s no inconsistency in the Trump persona. With Weinstein, the contradiction is more major, he says.

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Professor David Marshall
Professor David Marshall

Chair in New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, Deakin University.

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