Women will tell you they don’t know precisely when, or how, they become aware that a man is a sexual predator. Someone — almost always another woman — usually tells us, in ways explicit and implicit, to be careful around a man. To not show up to a meeting alone. To invite someone else to come to lunch. To never stay late or go to drinks or email in a manner that could be taken the wrong way. These “whisper networks,” as they’re often called, are what women use to keep each other safe when normal routes of protection — HR complaints, direct confrontation, the police — simply won’t work, either because of a man’s power or because the burden of proof, when it comes to sexual harassment, is so heavy, and the price of becoming an accuser is so steep.
Over the last 30 years, thousands of women have come in and out of the orbit of Harvey Weinstein, the iconic producer whose history as an alleged serial sexual harasser became public last week. Women in his orbit, whether as assistants, waitresses, script readers, or makeup artists, knew about Harvey, either by reputation or through firsthand experience. But thousands of other women, women with no connection to Hollywood or New York or Weinstein, also knew the rumors. We read the reports about his temper and volatility, but we had also heard stories that he was, to put it bluntly, gross: the kind of guy who promised to make someone a star in exchange for sex, and leveraged his power in the industry to make sure no one talked about it.
He was a bigger, more powerful version of the sort of guy so many of us had encountered in our own lives. But we knew about him because of a much-derided and feminized way that women gain knowledge: celebrity gossip.
At the apex of Weinstein’s power — and alleged abuse of it — in the late ‘90s, gossip about “a high-powered movie mogul” and exploitative relationships with less powerful women was percolating in newsgroups like alt.showbiz.gossip. Similar gossip had been the subject of dozens of “blind items” (descriptions of a scandal in which celebrities’ names are removed, or “blinded,” and replaced with clues of their identity) for years. The columnist wouldn’t name names, for fear of litigation, but commenters sure did. There were blinds and conversations, some more explicit than others, on The Defamer, Oh No They Didn’t, Celebitchy, Popbitch, Fametracker, and Lainey Gossip, including an infamous one titled “Casting Couch.”
Weinstein’s alleged abuses of power were a joke on 30 Rock and a thinly veiled storyline on Entourage. It was everywhere and nowhere. Nobody officially knew about these alleged abuses of power, at least not enough to do anything about it, and yet everyone did. It was so known — in the business, but among anyone who paid attention to celebrity gossip in the 2000s — that it felt like normal, or just normalized, one part of a larger misogynist industry, aided and abetted by those around him out of fear and hunger for some kind of reciprocity.
I first heard about Weinstein, as a character, through profiles in Entertainment Weekly, but my understanding of him wasn’t fully fleshed out until I read Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures — a chronicle of the rise of Miramax and independent film. It’s a book, it’s a history, but it’s also filled with gossip. There’s nothing explicit about Weinstein and sex and women. There’s plenty, though, if you read between the lines.
That’s how gossip has long worked: through pun, innuendo, and blind items, which speak the unspeakable. The gossip columnists of classic Hollywood embedded signals of which stars were gay and which ones were cheating, who was secretly dating whom and whose wedding was shotgun and who’d been on the original “casting couches.” Within the business, this information was often used to control stars, to keep them in line; outside, it offered titillation (scandal!) but it also offered solace: Hollywood stars, they’re gay like us.
Women didn’t take solace in the knowledge of Weinstein’s alleged harassment. But the gossip percolating around him became another form of knowledge, of currency in the economy of how women protect ourselves and others. And when the gossip is authenticated in the press, it just confirms the sad truth we’ve gradually come to understand, from years of gossip and personal experience: that all types of men, in all types of positions and political persuasions, develop and maintain power by exploiting women’s lack of it. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein or the myriad “devils in pussy hats,” the message remains: We trust men at our own peril.
This sounds dire, but it’s difficult, given the evidence, to argue otherwise. Of course not all men are harassers and abusers; there are, of course, good men. Many of us are related to or partnered with them. But there are enough men like Weinstein and Ailes, young and old, liberal and conservative, ones who make us feel like objects, or dirty and out of control in our workplace or classrooms, ones who can and will ruin our lives — that we’ve become dependent on unofficial modes of communication to protect ourselves. It’s no wonder, then, that so many men deride and degrade gossip: It’s our most effective armor against their abuses.
In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, many men — including extremely plugged-in, media machination–savvy journalists — expressed astonishment, especially at the suggestion that everyone knew. That response is best encapsulated by a headline from The Onion — “‘How Could Harvey Weinstein Get Away With This?’ Asks Man Currently Ignoring Sexual Misconduct of 17 Separate Coworkers, Friends, Acquaintances.”
It is men’s privilege, in other words, not to have to know. For women, that knowledge, obtained via gossip or whisper networks, isn’t frivolous or titillating. It is a means of survival. Until men make it their duty to not just know, but to act upon that knowledge — publicly decrying and dismantling the hierarchies of power that shelter this sort of conduct — it will remain women’s burden to bear. ●
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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