The assumption is that movie stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie operate from a rarified stratosphere, far removed from the depredations of villains like Harvey Weinstein. Surprise surprise. It’s been an absolute shocker that in 21st century Hollywood, somebody could get away with predatory behaviour for decades on end. That proverbial casting couch is unfairly attributed more to the film industry and careers in the arts, perhaps because there’s less structure and they’re more liberal. Actually, Weinstein types continue to thrive in every industry in every country, even as they watch his epic fall from grace.
For too many women, harassment is a part of life. Right or wrong, it’s something we learn to internalise and move on. It would be terribly inconvenient if we have to keep calling people out for sexism, there wouldn’t be time left to do anything else. It reminds me of my own experience, fresh out of college as a copywriter in an advertising agency in Delhi. On my third day, the boss, who fancied himself to be an Adonis of sorts, invited me out to dinner with some clients. I politely responded that I already had plans that evening hoping he’d get the hint and let it go.
But he persisted, asking me to cancel them, forcing me to point out that my job was writing, not client servicing. It’s unclear what annoyed him more, that I had the temerity to refuse his seemingly innocent work request, or that he was forced to acknowledge that lo and behold, this powerless 21-year-old may be insinuating he’s a slime. Needless to say, my promising career in advertising was cut ruthlessly short, indeed, there was to be no Don Draper style greatness for me. The Adonis had an injured air about him after this incident like he’d been horribly wronged. I was ignored in every meeting, talked over, and about, and given nothing to do.
On the scale of horror stories of dodgy male bosses, maybe this doesn’t even qualify as harassment. Luckily for me, I was spectacularly unsuited to come up with catchy jingles for orange juices or contact lenses and thrilled to flee the agency. The issue is when you like the work but hate the dodgy boss, a frustratingly common contradiction, especially for women. I wish I could say the Adonis came to a sorry end but he has gone from strength to strength.
I see pictures of him with cricketers and film stars (while I languish in relative obscurity). Slimes do aggravatingly well, and success reinforces their smug delusions. In their heads, they’re invincible. It boils down to the laws of the jungle. Simple, the deer can’t say no to the tiger. And when a society’s commitment to money is more than to fair practices it emboldens the lecherous to get reckless. Occasionally, rather rarely, it causes their downfall. Mostly, they get away with it.
Consider the explanation given by the now reviled CEO, Arunabh Kumar of The Viral Fever, after being accused by tons of women of coming onto them: “When I find a woman sexy I tell her she is sexy. I compliment women. Is that wrong?” said Kumar, on record. He appears baffled that his leery compliments offended them. This may have something to do with how relationships between men and women have played out on screen, wrongly influencing entire generations of Indian men, on what is and isn’t appropriate.
In 2015 in Australia, an Indian security guard accused of stalking two women was let off because his counsel argued this is “normal behaviour” in India. The lawyer claimed the guard was unduly influenced by Bollywood, where heroes aggressively pursue women until they acquiesce to a relationship. It’s true that in the ’60s and ’70s the male star would jump out from behind a tree and serenade the startled heroine who spent three-fourths of the film rejecting him. The rules of courtship have changed considerably since then. It’s really time to recognise — women no longer want to be stalked into submission.