Monday, Apr 19, 2021

A ‘cool girl’ looks for peace in Harvey Weinstein’s aftermath

A ‘cool girl’ looks for peace in Harvey Weinstein’s aftermath

Writer Angela Meng’s traumatic encounter with the Hollywood producer left her lurching through suspicion, anger and moral outrage.

I met Harvey Weinstein in 2014. I was reporting on politics for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong when a friend of a friend asked me to translate during his dinner meeting. At the restaurant, Harvey introduced himself with brio.

He was charming and tenacious and said he was in town working on several important projects. He wanted to talk to the press. We agreed to an interview and his assistant took my information.

A few days later, at the Mandarin Oriental’s coffee shop, his assistant arrived 30 minutes late and informed me that Harvey was not feeling very well but also very busy and could I come upstairs to interview him?

She led me to the suite, where Harvey talked animatedly about his new Netflix drama, Marco Polo. He handed me a portable DVD player and headphones and I put them on to watch the preview.

When I looked up, his assistant had gone. Harvey was also gone, only to re-emerge from the bedroom in a bathrobe. “You seem like a cool girl, not one of those bimbos walking around here,” he began.

Recording artist Taylor Swift, musician Este Haim, actress Jaime King, producer Harvey Weinstein and recording artist Lorde attend a party after the Golden Globes in 2015.

The rest of the details sound redundant now.

I reached for the perfunctory thank-you-but-I-have-a-boyfriend but he didn’t care. He took my hand and simulated oral sex, showcasing his prowess at the craft with his eyes closed, tongue circling my palm.

When I jerked my hand away, he asked if I’d rather do that to him. No? What about taking a shower together? I got up to go and he blocked the door.

I’ve wondered why I didn’t try harder to leave. The most honest answer I can come up with is that it felt rude for me to do so. Here was a nude, middle-aged man, clutching his erect penis, professing his admiration and radiating insecurity. “Is it because I’m fat?” he asked me.

My body was suspended in time, waiting for my mind to improvise a clinical assessment of my circumstance: if I bolted for the door, would he grab my hair from behind and pin me down, like in the movies?

He could be vile, but I would never be unseemly. I chose de-escalation and calmly brokered the terms of this bizarre transaction. I took my shirt off and stood silently while he talked to himself and masturbated into the mirror.

When he finished, a spatter of his semen landed on my black Chelsea boots. He grabbed a hand towel, bent down, and wiped it off.

Before long Harvey began forwarding emails he’d written to top media executives about me.

“There’s a brilliant and beautiful girl who works for the SCMP – she has a well-known French boyfriend who works in what you and I call rag drag but the rest of the world calls this fashion.

She’s stunning, American educated and so bright. Is there anyone in Hong Kong who can put her on tape for CNN? This could be a major star in the making – I’m not kidding and she’s not a friend – this girl really has it.”

I thought he was making it up until one of the executives emailed me. Terrified this was some kind of sinister Eyes Wide Shut scheme in which the masters of the universe traded women for employment, I resisted and wrote a fatuous email in return.

“I’d love the chance to contribute to your organisation someday, but having met Mr Weinstein only briefly in Hong Kong, me and my mere three years of journalism experience are not convinced that I should be networking with a seasoned, distinguished person of your calibre just yet.” That ended that for a while.

When I was in the fifth grade, I tagged along to a parent-teacher conference with my mother. My PE teacher, a long-haired bawdy man who sometimes slapped the butts of my female classmates in jest, walked over to us during a break and asked my mother if she was my sister.

My mother lit up with coquettish eyes, giggled, and answered “no” in the highest pitch I’d ever known her to possess. “I’m jealous of Angela,” he added. “She comes home to you every night.” My mother laughed.

I felt at once proud and full of loathing. I didn’t have the words for it then, but during this exchange, I had detected a flawed girlishness in her character for the first time.

Years later, when I’d been scouted for what became a four-year modelling career, my mother would accompany me to photoshoots and marvel at how often men whistled and stared on the street. “They couldn’t help themselves,” she’d whisper in Chinese. “Totally powerless.”

So, though my encounter with Harvey was the first time I felt wholly disempowered, it was also the first time I viscerally experienced the power my mother described.

After all, wasn’t he the one who stripped, who divulged his sexual fantasies, who reached orgasm, the most physically vulnerable state known to man? Wasn’t he the one who felt he owed me a job?

In an essay on how predators like Harvey implicate the women they target in their acts, Jia Tolentino, a staff writer at The New Yorker writes: “One of the cruellest things about these acts is the way that they entangle, and attempt to contaminate, all of the best things about you.

If you’re sweet and friendly, you’ll think that it’s your fault for accommodating the situation … If you’re talented, he thought of you as an equal. If you’re ambitious, you wanted it. If you’re savvy, you knew it was coming.

If you’re affectionate, you seemed like you were asking for it all along. If you make dirty jokes or have a good time at parties, then why get moralistic? If you’re smart, there’s got to be some way to rationalise this.

Rationalisation was the first of several stages in the post-Harvey recovery process. Somehow I’d grown up to believe that if a man points to his erect penis and tells me it’s my fault, I should feel apologetic instead of insulted.

I apologised to myself and my friends and family, ad nauseam, each time with a new hypothesis on what I did to make him choose me.

The second was cynicism. I grew a sinking suspicion that the skin I left in that hotel room was my most valuable asset and began to see every high achieving woman as someone who had paid the price.

That autumn, I attended Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit and sat in a sea of purple table cloths, pastel candles and pink hydrangeas, judging my fellow attendees with icy disdain.

There’s a lot of talk of girl power at those conferences, and every time someone with shiny hair and a finely tailored skirt sauntered on stage to pontificate on women’s philanthropy, I wondered how many Harvey Weinsteins she’d acquiesced to and allied with to get there, whose ejaculate baptised her shoes for success.

The third stage was unmitigated anger, which gave me free rein to use words and phrases like “patriarchy” and “oppression” with reckless abandon. I kept a copy of Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse by my desk, and proselytised sex as “the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women”.

Seething with resentment, I embarked on a campaign of remorseless hostility against everyone. If my editor gave me a difficult assignment, he was exploiting me. If my boyfriend asked me to make lunch, he was an oppressor.

My mother’s maxim to get me to wear sunscreen (“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”) won her a “special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. And my father’s probing of my dating life, well, he’s a man so he’s a misogynist, too. I was irked by every man who flirted and every woman whom I caught flirting back.

In those months after the encounter, I was held together with the force of my moral outrage, and it was no fun, which is how I eventually found myself doubling down on the “Cool Girl” stage.

Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl defined the “Cool Girl” for most of the decade. She is “a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers … Cool Girls are above all hot.

Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.” Nowadays it takes even more upgrades to become a cool girl. She’s edgy but mainstream, opinionated but charming, provocative but inoffensive.

When she does get angry, it’s for a beautiful, irreproachable cause, like saving coral reefs or sea turtles. She admits to being a feminist, but won’t be caught doing feminist things, like fighting for reproductive rights, or taking political action, because those are unbecoming for a cool girl.

She can, however, take cultural action, such as reposting quotes by famous feminists on Instagram or posing for an alluring selfie to encourage her followers to vote.

Harvey Weinstein arrives at Manhattan Criminal Court in February.

I was tired of being a downer, tired of feeling the constant acceleration of my anger but not the velocity of it. Gradually, I accepted that people like Harvey behaved this way for the same reason my dog peed on the street: because they can, because redress is elusive.

I started meditating and found myself embracing the narrative that I was collateral damage in his unique expression of consciousness. Maybe in Harvey’s deranged world, this had been an act of seduction, spurred on by the same yearning for connection we all share.

I avoided the V word that rhymes with dictum and the S word that rhymes with reviver and listened deeply when friends told me to count my lucky stars because my orifices weren’t penetrated, because I never required a rape kit. I was lucky, too lucky in fact, to get bogged down by the patriarchy now.

You seem like a cool girl, not one of those bimbos walking around here.

I was cool again, and cool girls transcend victimhood: hot enough to be assaulted, cool enough to shrug it off.

Around the time I got cool, The New York Times and The New Yorker published stories of more than a dozen women accusing Harvey of various forms of sexual harassment and rape, followed by an avalanche of other, similar reports. The assistant who’d left me alone in the hotel room with him that afternoon posted her own #MeToo story online.

There is a basic human desire to be a part of a collective good, and it had been awakened. The #MeToo movement permeated every industry and corner of the globe, and uncovered not only decades of unreported assault and harassment allegations by powerful men, but also their army of enablers – HR personnel, publicists, lawyers, even former spies who made up the machinery that protected their image. The energy felt vital and glorious.

We were finally addressing the pink elephant in the room, and with it grand promises of solidarity, redemption, and healing.

But the danger of waiting so long is the elephant’s ability to stampede, flattening everything in its path. Those who spoke out about their experiences, whether from rape or molestation or an uncomfortable date, were either placed on a pedestal or suspended from a tree.

Warriors of the movement celebrated the downfall of dictators, sages of the intellectual dark web lamented the end of nuance. Sex and power are complicated and so rarely politically correct, yet there was little time for reflection. So much hope lost in the frenzy to keep it.

We were now discussing the abuse of women without the proverbial “what did she do to deserve it though?” reaction, a few notable sex criminals had been incarcerated, others fired or disgraced, albeit some with large severance packages.

But in the three years since Harvey’s ignominy, the US Education Department reversed Obama-era guidelines on college sexual assault investigations, and nine states passed legislation limiting women’s rights to abortions. Weaponised by both sides of the political aisle, my womanhood felt both glorified and infantilised.

Over the years, well-meaning advisers have tried to protect me from the aftermath of speaking about Harvey in the public sphere. The day of the transgression, their general recommendation was: don’t provoke him by confrontation, you’ll be the one slut-shamed.

A few years later, it became: even if you’re not in the movie business, he and his army of powerful henchmen will ruin your life. Better wait until you’re 50, when you’ve built enough personal clout before you even think about such a thing.

When the allegations started piling up, it became: people will believe you, but do you really want your Google results to be contaminated with his name forever? Even as he was convicted of rape, it evolved into: justice has been served, adding your voice to the mix would risk being mistaken for attention-seeking.

It’s a strange reality to be confronted with, to have the freedom of trying to make sense of something taken away from you, to be perpetually reactive.
Six months ago, just as the World Health Organization announced the coronavirus pandemic, I got an email notification that Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual abuse.

I stared at the image of him slouching over a walker, hangdog expression on his face, and felt a tinge of sympathy. Monsters have children, too. I then saw the testimonies given by women during Harvey’s trial.

I read that one of them repeatedly burst into tears during her three hours of interrogation by the defence counsel, while others admitted to having their spirits crushed and self-perception forever altered. Justice looked devastating. Is this the catharsis I craved?

I thought by now I’d have new-found wisdom to share, profundity to impart. But I don’t, not really. I only found my way to the words above, words I’m no longer afraid to share, turning the page to a peace not yet made.


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