A Cautionary Tale of Sexual Harassment In The Australian Film Industry
By Kel Butler
It’s a moment I will never forget. Sitting in the back of a taxi with a work colleague, late at night after yet another function, lubricated with way too much liquor and thick with suggestive lewdity. A normal midweeker for someone working in the film and television industry in Australia in the 2000’s. I had been particularly chuffed about my invite to this event because some major players were involved and I thought it was a reflection of my talent and ability, that I had been given a seat at the table.
The gender balance at this event, as at most, was fairly imbalanced. I was one of a handful of ambitious (yes I was ambitious!) women in lower level positions mixing with men more powerful than me. Men who could literally make or break my career overnight. The night was pretty run of the mill really, littered with arse grabs and sexual innuendo that just got more overt as the alcohol flowed. It was always worse at the end of the night when everyone usually ended up at a dingy karaoke bar or some club in the city.
In the dark, silenced by pumping music and vulnerable from alcohol, the boundaries didn’t seem to exist anymore. It was like being caught in a thick fog of hands and sexual suggestion, the boys falling in line behind the men, taking their spot in the queue, hierarchy forming based on the perceived sexual attractiveness of the women in the room. The most attractive women being the target and prize for the most powerful men and so on.
Not that any of us knew this of course. It didn’t matter what the women wanted or whether we were even interested or available most of the time. This is the insidious language of misogyny and entitlement that the entertainment industry was built upon. This is the way it has always been. Where else did the concept of the “casting couch” come from? And who can forget the grand studios of the golden age of hollywood, plying their female stars with drugs to keep them thin and controlled.
Ashamedly for me, it was just easier to roll along with it and appease, than confront it head on. Having an undiagnosed anxiety disorder didn’t help either. So that’s exactly what I did and what many of us are still doing today. It’s just easier to put up with it, don’t say too much, act like “one of the guys”, take “the joke”, be “chill” about it because it’s all “in good fun”…even when it really isn’t.
This is not new. All of my feminist heroes have addressed it in their own books. Clementine Ford, Tracey Spicer, Caitlin Moran, Gloria Steinem and so on but it is STILL happening and it is STILL how most of us react when faced with sexual harassment in the workplace. Serving to perpetuate the problem because when it happens on such a consistent basis, when it is the rule rather than the exception, then we normalise it because it IS normal. It feels more normal than NOT being harassed but it shouldn’t and herein lies the crux of the problem. In the entertainment industry being sexual harassesed is about as common as rain and we women have all learnt to carry umbrellas to protect ourselves from it instead of the industry itself, stopping the rain from falling in the first place.
So back to the taxi…one had been hailed after the wind had finally fallen from my bosses’ sails at about 3am. One of the big wigs hopped in a cab with me even though their house was nowhere near mine. I only learnt that…in the cab. Not the first flag I had chosen to ignore that night. He was a person I respected and admired. One of the most powerful influencers in the film and television industry at the time and someone I desperately wanted to impress. With my brain.
He had been making advances all night. I had been either pretending to ignore them or flirting in that way that implies you may or may not be interested. I’m not proud of it but for the first 10 years of my career I played that game. The game of ambiguous availability. You know what I’m talking about. The game where you aren’t really into someone but you give just enough extra attention to make it ambiguous. The point being the men always think they have a chance with the girl and in return the girl might be considered for a seat at the table or a voice in the room. We play for the crumb of acceptance because that crumb is the only way forward sometimes. We fool ourselves into thinking it’s really about our skills, when we know damn well it’s only because the guy thinks he might get into our pants. We’re playing the long game, looking forward to a time when we won’t have to play anymore because we will have earnt the right to be respected…even if we no longer respect ourselves as a result.
It is fucked up and it is wrong and it is borne out of years of conditioning that tells women that unless we are sexually desirable to a man we are pretty much worthless. Well that’s how it was for me anyway and honestly, most of the time, I didn’t even know I was doing it. That is not a line. It is a humiliating truth. One that this Harvey Weinstein scandal has ripped from the recesses of my subconscious and shoved right in my face.
I look back on myself now and want to gag at my fear, my compliance and my weakness. I want to shake myself by the shoulders and scream at me to wake up. To speak up. That my worth went beyond a triangle between my legs and some mounds protruding from my chest. The woman I understood myself to be was such a stark contrast to the person I actually was in that cab that night, sitting uncomfortably but smiling congenially at the old guy ogling me like a delicious meal, his eyes wet with the expectation of an agreement I had no part in making.
The cab pulls into the curb. I put my hand on the door handle, pause, turn, smile…always gotta smile “Well, this is me.” throw in a drunken giggle, a flick of the hair “Have a good night. I’ll see you in…” then the inevitable happens. His pissy face looms large, his lips marinated in expensive grog, land sloppily on mine and smash about my face. “What are you doing! Get your greasy paws away from me you slimy fuck!” is what my mind screams until it is silenced by the much louder voice of “Remember who he is. Just get out without offending him.” A hand snakes it’s way creepily around my thigh. I hear my mental fury come out as a flirtatious giggle and want to punch myself in the face as much as I want to skewer his testicles to the seat.
I don’t even remember what I did to disentangle myself from the situation but I remember standing on the footpath, waving and smiling like a moron at the man who had just treated me like a blow up doll. Every meeting, interaction, anything I was to have with that man since – and there were many due to work – was laced with an undertone of some unspoken relationship that was supposedly happening between us. I did the cowardly thing and walked the fine line, careful not to lean too far in either direction. Colleagues or “friends”. Ambiguously available even though I had 0 interest in anything outside of the professional.
Why? Because of who he was that’s why. The same reason sooooo many of us have walked this same line time and again. Because I was scared of what might happen if I rejected a man with that much power. Because I was ambitious and I wanted to succeed. Because in the blink of an eye this man could make years of hard work meaningless and we both knew it. BUT also because I had been taught from childhood that, as a girl, my intrinsic value to the people who ran this society, who made the decisions, was sexual. Not from my parents, I learnt quite the opposite from them but from a society that sexualised girls and therefore me and placed more value on what gratification I could provide men, than anything else I could offer.
The erosion of my self esteem started very young, as it does with most girls; with the trusted teachers who were sexually inappropriate to me in high school, through the 30 year old man in my drama group who put his hands down my 14 year old skirt, via the barrage of media and advertising messages that tell us our job is to please men and then instruct us on how to do it. It was that time the taxi driver started groaning and rubbing himself next to me when he was meant to be taking me home and every time my boyfriends made me feel less than because I didn’t want to quench their sexual desire at any given moment. It was the colours people assigned to me, the toys and then the vocations. It was the silent guiding of girls in one direction and boys in another. It was teaching boys the language of sexual violence and entitlement through objectification and then teaching me how to protect myself from them. It was watching generations of women still subservient to men and having those images reinforced in most of the television and movies I saw for the first 20 years of my life. It was all of these things and so much more, all the way up to my first significant, much older boyfriend who systematically abused me for 2 years. Successfully eroding what was left of any self respect and value I had left.
So when the time came for me to stand up to the powerful man in the taxi, slobbering on me or that colleague at the next desk making another inappropriate porn reference (when I was PREGNANT no less!) I had nothing. I had not a scrap of self worth left to fight back with. And I am ashamed to say that every single time I did the same thing. Swallowed my extreme discomfort, went along with it, laughed like everyone else and just squeezed my mental eye tight until it all went away. The problem is it doesn’t go away. The more we ignore it, the more we play along and the tighter we shut our mouths, the bigger and more putrid the beast becomes…and the further men think they can go.
The reason I remember that night in the taxi so vividly, the reason it still makes my anxiety peak to this day, was not because it was unique on any level. It wasn’t. It was because I found out, to my utter humiliation, months later, that my boss had offered me up as a prize to this executive and that was the whole reason I had been invited to the soire in the first place. Not because I had earnt my seat at the table but because a powerful colleague and buddy of my boss had found me fuckable! And my boss, being the great guy that he was, thought nothing of pimping me out to ingratiate himself and clock up another favour.
I have never quite recovered from that discovery. There is something so debasing about it, so lacking in any dignity or respect that the foul taste of reddening disgrace sticks in the back of your throat forever. And I don’t want another woman to ever have to taste it. Which is why I am writing this, driven by the silence that was so deafening, when the news of Harvey Weinstein’s 30 year run of sexually harassing women, broke last week. For days it was crickets. The biggest news story to hit the entertainment industry since Cosby and no one wanted to discuss it because of what it might mean for them. And perhaps because of how many are guilty of complicity through silence all of these years.
Silence is not the answer it is the disease. We know this. The only way things will change is if people start having the real conversations about what it is like to be a woman in the entertainment industry. It’s the only way to remove the crippling shame attached to the way women have been forced to survive, in an industry that treats them like cattle. Shame is the best friend to silence and it will eat you alive from the inside out. It would’ve devoured me whole if it weren’t for those feminists I mentioned earlier. Their words, their honesty, their openness, their courage, their truth and their wisdom saved me. They helped me understand that I was not alone and gave me the insight to forgive myself. And that is what I want to do for others. By providing a peek into my experience and the very flawed, human way I reacted, I hope to prevent other women from silently sucking it up and suffering the same.
From one woman of entertainment to another, if you read this and recognise yourself in my words please don’t add to the total destruction of your self esteem by hating on yourself and being ashamed. There is no need. You are not alone and YOU have done nothing wrong.
To the people who read this and this is happening to them right now. PLEASE SAY SOMETHING TO SOMEONE! Seriously the minute you finish reading this turn to the nearest person you trust and say “I’m getting sexually harassed at work and I need help”. If you are unsure then go to Reach Out or click here for further resources on sexual harassment. But take it from me, if you think you are getting harassed, if you have that horrible feeling in the pit of your gut, then you probably are. Don’t swallow it and don’t look the other way. Be the voice. Break the cycle of silence. For yourself and for every other woman out there.
And finally, for the young women going into the entertainment industry now or in the future. Be the force. Be bold. Don’t let this happen to you. Go in with your eyes wide open and learn from our mistakes. Read the women who have already paved the way through the patriarchal sesspool of entertainment (of life) and found their voice. Use them to buoy you while you find your own. Don’t be afraid to have personal boundaries and even more so, don’t be afraid to demand they be respected. Observe your thoughts, behaviours, attitudes, reactions and audit them to see how much is driven by unconscious bias and how much is conscious choice. Be selective about the language you use when it comes to women and be a champion of them, instead of falling victim to stereotypical tropes (they are sneaky and they are everywhere and they have been created by men). Most importantly know your self worth in any and every situation and do not be afraid to stand up for it.
Being a woman is not a disadvantage it is a wonderful priviledge and we have the right to not only be respected but to respect ourselves. It’s high time EVERYBODY understood that!