Men like Les Moonves and Harvey Weinstein were cultural gatekeepers for decades. How do we undo their damage?

If an artist sees women as objects for his personal gratification rather than fully realized humans, the art he produces will reflect that.
Image: Leslie Moonves
Leslie Moonves, former president and CEO of CBS Corp. has influenced cultural perceptions of women for decades.Jae C. Hong / AP file
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When Linda Bloodworth Thomason, one of the creative minds behind the acclaimed sitcom "Designing Women" and the equally darling "Evening Shade," promised that her essay about the reign of Les Moonves at CBS would be "petty," she wasn't kidding.

Moonves has been the recent subject of a wave of #MeToo stories alleging sexual harassment and assault. But Bloodworth Thomason's essay exposed a different kind of abuse, detailing how the now-former head honcho canceled her feminist-themed shows, slow-walked her overall production deal and eventually ousted her from the network without fulfilling her contract while replacing her programs with a slate of macho programming in which she says he cast women based on the stated philosophy, "Why would I wanna cast 'em if I don’t wanna f--- 'em?"

Of course, as detailed by Ronan Farrow in two searing New Yorker pieces (involving 12 separate allegations that Moonves has categorically denied), Moonves' philosophy of casting and hiring was allegedly not a mere intellectual exercise, let alone a consensual one. (Bloodworth Thomason noted in her piece that she was told Moonves engaged in similar behavior with a 13th woman whom he deemed "too old" to appear on his network.)

In past years — and not that many years have passed — some have seen fit to grapple with the question of whether we can and, by extension, ought to separate the art from the artist.

In past years — and not that many years have passed — some have seen fit to grapple with the question of whether we can and, by extension, ought to separate the art from the artist, pointing to convicted rapist Roman Polanski, alleged child molester Woody Allen (who, notably, married his adopted daughter after having an affair with her) and convicted child rapist Victor Salva as examples of men who have earned social opprobrium but whose art perhaps still deserves an audience.

But as the #MeToo movement has increasingly exposed not just the misdeeds of the rich and powerful, but of the deeply influential, it's clear this is the wrong question to ask.

As Rebecca Traister suggested last year (when writing about the many male journalists who have faced similar allegations of repugnant behavior), the question we ought to be asking ourselves is just how much of our own broad understanding of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual misconduct and gender discrimination has been deeply and perhaps irrevocably shaped by men who apparently regularly engaged in those exact behaviors. Or, perhaps more pointedly, we ought to ask whether our common understanding of the amount of respect that men should show women has consistently been filtered though a cultural lens ground into focus by a group of men too myopic to be making anyone else's glasses.

Take for instance Moonves, who, as Bloodworth Thomason and other feminists before her have noted, populated the network with "CSI" and its spin-offs. A staple of this hit genre were the attractive, naked women who consistently filled its autopsy tables, showing the occasional bare nipple long before Moonves attempted to ruin Janet Jackson's career for her 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. Often the victims had pre-murder backstories involving sexual activity or drug or alcohol use, suggesting to many viewers that, if they had not precisely earned their fates, they might not have taken appropriate action to avoid them — an outdated attitude that contributes to the inability of victims to get justice today.

Or take Moonves' now-colleague in infamy, Harvey Weinstein, who is currently facing sexual assault charges in New York City to which he has pled not guilty and who has faced myriad accusations of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct that he has denied. In a December 2017 New York Times piece, actress Salma Hayek accused him of insisting on the insertion of a fully nude, intentionally titillating lesbian sex scene in her award-winning film "Frida." Hayek says Weinstein told her to shoot the scene or he would shut down the production; she assumed it was for his own pleasure. Weinstein has since been accused of keeping unused footage shot for lesbian sex scenes in the movie "Carol" as part of his "private collection," though his representative denied he had any footage of the film.

There's also Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, ousted from the company by Disney after allegations surfaced of sexual misconduct and gender and racial discrimination; he admitted to "missteps" that made people feel "disrespected or uncomfortable." During Lasseter's tenure, only one woman was ever credited with directing a Pixar film — Brenda Chapman for "Brave" — and Lasseter had her removed during production. The film was also one of a very small number of pictures produced at Pixar that featured female lead characters, though his simultaneous tenure at the larger Walt Disney Animation Studios did feature one other female director and the movie "Frozen."

And, of course, there's Woody Allen, practically the poster boy for the argument of separating art from artist, given his place in the pantheon of American cinema. But in a Brooklyn Magazine piece in 2014, writer Kristen Iverson mapped the age disparities between Allen's protagonists and their love interests, noting that they range from one year (in 1971's "Bananas") to a cringe-inducing 41 years (in 2009's "Whatever Works," which starred Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood.)

What Linda Bloodworth Thomas and a myriad of #MeToo accusers in the entertainment industry have now made clear is that men like these apparently operated with near-impunity for decades shaping our popular culture.

It gets harder to argue in favor of viewing art as separate from deeply troubled and troubling artists when both are, by design, influencing our larger cultural narratives about women, sexual objectification and appropriate male-female relationships. And when those biased narratives are beamed into our homes, streamed on our phones and reflected on our movie screens, we tend to take them for granted as how things are, if not also as how things should be.

For too long, when we've taken allegations like those made against Weinstein, Moonves, Allen and Lasseter seriously at all, we've viewed them as the legal system does — part of an adversarial process, pitting victim(s) against perpetrator, removed from the context of the perpetrators' lives. But what Linda Bloodworth Thomas and a myriad of #MeToo accusers in the entertainment industry have now made clear is that men like these apparently operated with near-impunity for decades shaping our popular culture. And their repugnant attitudes toward women, clearly inseparable from their working lives, were likely able to infest our culture more broadly than we knew.

There is no art without the artist. And if the artist sees women as objects for his personal gratification rather than fully realized humans in their own right, the art he produces can't help but reflect that — and often has.

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