When the allegations against Harvey Weinstein began to emerge, it was sad, but not surprising, to hear there was a local connection. New Zealand former model Zoe Brock came forward about her experience of being sexually harassed by Weinstein two decades ago and drew attention to the lengthy period of these events.

However, it is not a situation limited to the celebrity world of Hollywood. The actors’ union Equity New Zealand pointed out that just last month Shortland Street actor Rene Naufahu admitted six charges of indecent assault that took place during private acting lessons. For women working in the entertainment industry, this is often seen as business as usual and those not personally affected usually know of someone else who has been subject to harassment and abuse.

Although condemnation of Weinstein has been fierce in many quarters, and rightly so, there has also been a touch of the schadenfreude as we see the downfall of one of Hollywood’s great moguls. The debate has expanded to other figures, such as actor Terry Crews’ acknowledgment that he was sexually abused by a Hollywood executive, but by and large media attention has focused on Weinstein, his dismissal from the Weinstein Company and separation from his wife. This concentration on one player among wide-ranging abuse in the entertainment industry fails to take into account the proliferation of harassment and the ongoing failure to address it.

The allegations Weinstein faces are, in many cases, extreme, but we have to acknowledge what is happening at all levels of the industry and how various gender issues collectively lead to the disempowerment of women and create the opportunities to exploit them.

The question for those of us connected to the entertainment industry is to think about the steps we can take on a daily basis to move toward a more positive environment rather than become outraged at the emergence of details after the fact.

What does it mean for a female creative to find out her male colleagues are taking home a bigger pay cheque when they do the same job? What does it mean when a woman in the industry arrives at an awards ceremony and is scrutinised for her dress choice and waistline rather than the reason for her nomination? What does it mean for an actress to walk into a casting call, read a script describing “a sexy blonde with long legs” and realise this is all her character will amount to?

At the international Screen Writing Network Conference held at the University of Otago in August this year, writers Fiona Samuel and Kathryn Burnett dealt with this issue through a call to develop better-rounded female characters. Their humorous approach — ‘10 ways not to f**k up your female characters’ — drew on a wealth of experience in an industry where describing female characters by appearance and using them as a vehicle to advance male-centred narratives is the norm. Although they were focused on the writing process, they acknowledged that this problem taints the entire industry.

The question for those of us connected to the entertainment industry is to think about the steps we can take on a daily basis to move toward a more positive environment rather than become outraged at the emergence of details after the fact.

Fiona Samuel and Kathryn Burnett at the screenwriting conference were doing just that: speaking to a room full of educators and screenwriters about how to encourage students and writers they are working with to consider gender equity and consent at the level of the script.

One of my colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington, Dr Paul Wolffram, has been inviting women from the local film industry to speak to our MFA students. Although they have discussed a range of topics, there has been a platform to note the challenges faced by women in the industry and how all students can redress this as they become the next generation of filmmakers.

The New Zealand Film Commission is currently developing a gender policy that will aim to encourage greater participation for women in the industry, particularly in high-level roles such as director and producer.

Fundamental to this debate is recognising that women of colour are often doubly exploited in the contemporary entertainment industry, as they do not historically have access to the same resources and support their white peers do.

While the industry is unlikely to change overnight, no matter how much outrage there is at Weinstein’s actions, an understanding of the steps that can be taken, as well as attention to the various levels of discrimination and harassment, can provide a stronger future for the industry here in New Zealand and overseas.

Dr Miriam Ross is a Senior Lecturer in the film programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment