Uma Thurman’s and Salma Hayek’s deeply personal accounts of abuse share several things in common: they both point an accusatory finger at Harvey Weinstein, they both moved me to tears, and they both remind us that even rich and famous women are not immune from sexual abuse and harassment.
While Thurman and Hayek are not the first Hollywood actresses to come forward, in both these stories you can particularly taste the bitterness, anger, disillusionment, confusion, sadness, disbelief and powerlessness of having someone you trust and look up to violate, abuse, and disrespect you both as a human being and as an artist.
People like to say that Hollywood isn’t real life. It’s a world that’s fake and riddled with abuse and the exploitation of youth, sex and beauty in the pursuit of money and power. They say that Hollywood attracts broken people. People who are willing to do anything and anyone for a shot at fame and celluloid immortality. People who sell their souls to the devil for a chance at a dream. It’s occasionally all that and probably more.
But it’s also a microcosm of real life amplified and exaggerated and exposed for all to see. It’s both a dream and a cautionary tale. Where people who “have it all” are often found to have absolutely nothing. Where what goes on behind the scenes is the ugliness of real life magnified and bloated; maniacal self-absorption and one-track ambition that often leaves no room for common decency.
If they’re not exempt from abuse, none of us are
To see two gorgeous, glamorous, immensely successful movie stars like Uma Thurman and Salma Hayek reveal the dirty underbelly of their beautiful lives is horrifying, because if they can’t protect themselves, who can? If they can’t call the shots, with their privilege and their money and their status, what chance does a lowly waitress down the street working the night shift and getting her ass grabbed by the manager every time she goes into the storage room have? What chance does the hotel housekeeper have when she finds herself alone in a room with a door that can lock? What chance does a low-wage factory worker have when she navigates a lecherous manager’s office and she can’t leave her job or say anything to anyone because she’s a single mom who has bills to pay?
What chance does a staffer in Parliament Hill have when campaign managers treat her police report as nothing more than a political liability and something to be buried because there’s an election coming? What chance does a young student have when she goes against an entire university, which immediately treats her as a problem, circles the wagons and protects its own? Or a young gymnast who comes forward against a team doctor and is not protected, but instead paid money by USA Gymnastics to stop talking?
Every time I see a famous star come forward, it cuts straight to my worst fears about all the women who aren’t in the limelight and aren’t attending red carpet events. If these women can go through such horrendous treatment living in the lap of luxury and with the money and power they enjoy, what recourse does someone with none of those things have?
The systemic complicity of abuse
Both Thurman’s and Hayek’s testimonials left me seething with anger, because there was total disregard for their emotional and physical well-being. They were treated like tools and objects with which the men who surrounded them built their careers, reputations and artistic visions. In some ways, after reading Thurman’s piece, I found myself even angrier at Quentin Tarantino than at Weinstein. Perhaps because Tarantino was not only Thurman’s director but also supposed to be her friend. Betrayal by a business associate is no fun, and it cuts even deeper when you’re betrayed by someone you thought had your back and would protect you; someone you thought was an ally and turned out to be just as complicit and toxic.
Tarantino is every guy who looks away because he doesn’t want his carefully laid-out life and career to derail, who looks away because to pay attention would oblige him to go against his own self interest and ambition. There are more Tarantinos than there are Weinsteins out there, but the latter can’t survive without the former. Complicity casts a long shadow.
The #MeToo revelations have created a maelstrom of reactions and instigated numerous conversations, not only about assault and harassment and how they infest all social and economic classes, but about abuse on all levels. The long-held notion that “geniuses” are somehow allowed their abusive quirks because they created timeless art is now being questioned.
How much abusive behaviour should we, as a society, tolerate for the sake of art? Why should we tolerate any at all? There’s a parallel conversation we should also be having about how, for decades, we have been consuming toxic art by toxic men and how their banal and routine depictions of violence (often with women as their primary targets) has shaped our culture and how we view (and consequently treat) women.
“Harvey assaulted me but that didn’t kill me,” Thurman told the New York Times. It was Tarantino, her friend and someone who called her his muse, who finally left her feeling like a “broken tool” by forcing her to do something — driving a stunt car — she didn’t want to and almost killing her in the process.
The disregard for her life, her safety, and emotional well-being for the sake of his artistic vision, the abuse and the gaslighting to wear her down — as women, we don’t have to be Hollywood movie stars to relate.