Behind The Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck: Why Directors Become Harassers

Portrait of the blogger as a young director…

It has been pushed from the front pages by other matters, but the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck is still picking up passengers and crushing powerful and famous men. It has hardly been a shock that a plurality of the figures exposed have come from the world of show business, with prominent directors taking a heavy hit.  Another one became rail kill this week, when the board of trustees of the famed Long Wharf Theater  fired its longtime artistic director Gordon Edelstein over accusations of sexual misconduct, one day after The New York Times published an article detailing the allegations by multiple women, four of whom accused  Edelstein of groping or worse.

Like Weinstein himself, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and many other men on the list, Edelstein is a less than stunning male who may have never learned normal ways to interact with women, because he entered the warped and unique culture of the performing arts before he was an adult, and never learned the manners of civilized society. Directors are especially at risk for this effect: expect many more to be accused and fired.

This is one way to increase the ranks of female directors, I guess.

Here is the typical progression. A young heterosexual man whose talents and interests do not run to sports and who is not  particularly successful socially joins a theatrical group or club in high school. It is a revelation. Females vastly outnumber males, and many of the males that are involved are gay. He finds it far easier to form relationships with girls in this environment, particularly during the hyper-intense, exciting period approaching production and the performances themselves. All the classic features of a crisis-sparked romance are present, and they are especially enthralling the first time around in a theater setting. The girls are similarly stimulated. Flirting is epidemic, easy, and successful. If you have never experienced it, the environment is hard to imagine, but it is addictive, and it is sexy.

The young man follows a similar path in college. If he begins directing or producing shows, he learns that power and position are aphrodisiacs, and he is sorely temped to abuse his authority by accepting one or more the many sexual overtures he receives from female members of his cast and production staff. Nobody looks at this as a conflict of interest in college, or later in community theater, because literally everybody does it. It is expected. It is a perk of being a director. So the young man, who was and is too scrawny, short or fat to be an athlete, too ordinary-looking to be a player, too shy to be the sexual aggressor, finds that his attentions to young women are almost never unwelcome. The competition in college theater is fierce, and unless the young man is literally a troll, plenty of actresses will find a way to regard him as attractive for their own ends.

After college, community theater offers the same benefits. Talented—hell, competent— directors are rare, and those who exist are treated like sultans by the organizations and grateful performers. There are more performances,  more parties, more booze, and the single women are more desperate, as are the actresses and singers with high and often unreasonable aspirations.

Starting in college with my first directing gig, I developed a personal ethic that it was wrong to have relationships within a show I was directing. Nevertheless, I have yielded to opportunity and temptation a few times over the decades, though I was and am so reticent that in every case, I was the courtee or the propositionee rather than the courter or propositioner.

If a director moves up to professional theater, the culture and sexual culture is no different, and neither is the typical behavior. Yet it is different, and materially so. The theater is a workplace now, and what was unethical abuse of power in amateur theater—amateur means “for love”—is unprofessional and potential sexual harassment once paychecks and careers are involved.

Yet after a lifetime of enjoying the weird culture of the theater and the magical way it converts nerds, geeks and dorks into objects of desire, how are directors supposed to learn this? Why would they want to? The rules should have changed, but they haven’t. There are no ethics codes for directors. Nobody teaches seminars in directing ethics. Moreover, the directors’ sexual attentions have always been welcomed because of their power and position, and because performer crave attention.Why would a director assume that actresses would suddenly find the moves they’ve used since the 9th grade “unwelcome,” and thus sexual harassment? Most directors don’t assume that, or comprehend the rish they are facing by acting like it was the Yale Drama School all over again, but for money They are living by high school and college rules in a professional world. It always worked before. Suddenly directors like Edelstein are being fired for the ingrained habits that have been reinforced by positive results since their teens.

Most of them don’t know what hit them.


19 thoughts on “Behind The Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck: Why Directors Become Harassers

  1. I have seen women put themselves out there and then cry harassment by the men they pursued when it became advantageous for then to do so. Yes, even in factories and businesses in little old back country East Tennessee. Then I have seen women who were truly harrassed remain silent because they knew the cards were stacked against them. To say it is a complicated issue is an understatement.

  2. ”crisis-sparked romance”

    Is that like the condition Heidi Postlewait wrote of in ”Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures”?

    “ripping off her boyfriend’s clothes immediately after coming under sniper fire in Somalia (‘It has to be right now, not in ten minutes, not five … Emergency sex’)”?

    Or like the MASH episode where Hawkeye & Hotlips canoodled after holing up in an abandoned hut after getting shelled while returning from visiting a forward aid station?

    Meaning, a fast-n-furious emotional buildup requiring an…um…immediate physical release?

  3. Is it possible that the same learned behavior of the directors is also learned by tbe actresses who find the “director attractive for their own ends”?

    Exactly who is controlling whom?

    It seems to me that the director’s behavior is simply a manefestation of operant conditioning and not necessarily inherent predation.

  4. Great post, Jack. Thanks. I ran away screaming from college theater because it was so messed up on so many levels.

    I suspect the same observations could be made of politics. Who runs for office in student council? Not the guys who are any good at anything else.

    I’ve always been able to imagine Bill Clinton’s fury at not being able to enjoy all the unlimited sexual benefits bestowed upon his idol, JFK. He had to be absolutely outraged.

    • JFK: “Render therefore unto Caeser…”

      WJC: Susan McDougal: “(Bill Clinton) loved being Governor because ‘women are throwing themselves at me. All the while I was growing up, I was the fat boy in the Big Boy jeans.’ ”

      Awww, poor Bubba!

      • My favorite Clinton story is still her time sheets from ‘The Prestigious Rose Law Firm’ showing up a decade or two later in the bedroom at the White House. I don’t remember ever having a time sheet be anywhere other than on my desk or sent off to accounting. Bedside reading?

  5. Producers and impresarios are just as guilty, then again, a lot of them started out as directors. Those with access to the producers and impresarios are as bad too, there have been more than a few incidents where an aging but still viable tenor offered to introduce a budding young soprano to someone important – with the unspoken expectation that she would show her gratitude later. There have also been more than a few situations where the uncommon (but far from unheard of) skilled hetero male dance instructors a la Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing have offered to “privately coach” or give access to a promising young dancer… and get close access to her.

    Dollars to doughnuts says that by the time “Jenna,” who got all the choir solos and played Laurie in Oklahoma in her Podunk high school in Indiana, realizes on her own she’s nothing all that special or hits the wall, “Enrico” has probably gotten what he wanted and moved on to another kid with stars in her eyes who he “thinks has a bit more of what it takes vocally.” The odds are also that if “Helene” who was top of her ballet class and lead in community productions in small town upstate NY starts to figure out what’s going on when “Ilya’s” hand slips down on her backside once too often and calls him on it, that soon after he’ll tell her “I think you are just shy of what it takes to make it” and find himself another protégé who’ll play along.

    What do they care? There are no classes or standards in proper mentoring standards or the ethics of industry access. Once these young would-be-stars realize they won’t be and go back home, who will accuse them, and to what end? Even if they did, the odds are the accusations of budding stars who are a dime a dozen against established people would fall on deaf ears. In three years Jenna will be the wife of a garage mechanic and mom to a newborn and a toddler with a third kid on the way, and Helene will be married to some diner cook and unrecognizable as a dancer after she had her first kid and her body changed from sleek jet to Goodyear Blimp.

    • Steve in NJ

      I think there may be a difference in your example and Jack’s explanation.

      Jack describes a process by which the popular/beautiful people are complict in the corruption of the non-beautiful in which the non-beautiful are made to feel confident and attractive which the think carries into the professional world.

      In your example, you describe a process through which the naive are knowingly exploited by the impressario or producer.

      I think the psychology of the behaviors is markedly different. In Jack’s example the behavior of th director is a function of the behavior of others, while in your case the behavior of the artistic engenue is predicated on the predatory behavior of the impressario or producer.

      • I think actually the one builds on the other. Those who knowingly exploit got to the point where they thought they could do somehow. I think Jack describes that admirably.

        • Agreed, but the initial behavioral development is a function of the exploitation of another’s insecurities for personal gain.

        • Isn’t the money or ability to provide access to future money what gives power over the engenue? That is what producers have. I am familiar with the old saw that guys would tell the young actress he was a producer and would cast them in an upcoming production. That is predation.

          I interpreted Jack’s description as more in line with artistic power insofar as the engenue sees the director as someone who is a “proven” artist and the engenue either believes the attentions are reflective of mutual love of theater or that the director can help them grow professionally and financially. Conversely, the attention the director gets reinforces his sense of self-esteem personally and professionally so he feels that he should continue behaving this way.

  6. Wait a minute….

    This sounds like the makings of a pre-confessional. Coupled with a later post on a hypothetical on the rightness of aborting unplanned Kangaroo-Human offspring…

    That and this post working towards a tell-all exposing Jack’s darker past…

    Did something happen between you and the only female character from your stage production of Winnie the Pooh?

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