(Content warning: This article discusses the film 'She Said' which follows the investigation into the Harvey Weinstein story)
The New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s abuse in Hollywood and the insidious network of enablers perhaps spearheaded the #MeToo movement that spread across the world.
The movement has, since then, made it easier for survivors of sexual abuse to speak out and hold their abusers accountable.
She Said, directed by Maria Schrader and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (based on Kantor and Twohey’s book), delves into how taxing the investigation was and can also be used to analyse what #MeToo has evolved to, both as a movement and a reckoning.
‘She Said’ and #MeToo in 2022
In recent years, the conversations surrounding #MeToo have been as bleak as they’ve been courageous and hopeful. While scores of people were able to speak out, there were others who would invalidate and diminish their allegations. Arguments like “why didn’t you speak up earlier”, “why now”, “let’s see both sides of the story” filled the online sphere in an attempt to discourage survivors.
She Said, starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan, helps answer these questions and more, especially since it’s a story where there is such a clear and sinister power dynamic in play.
While Kantor and Twohey start off by looking at famous female actors who allegedly faced abuse at Weinstein’s hands, they soon dig deeper, talking to executives and assistants.
This leads them to uncovering stories about cover ups and settlements and non-disclosure agreements (one survivor alleges that her NDA even forbids her from talking about the assault in therapy).
The film explores why each woman initially refuses to talk (and the reasons are diverse) – there’s the culture of fear, the feeling that they’ve already lost too much, the suffocating NDAs, the experience of having spoken up earlier to no avail and increased threats of death, violence, and more.
Rose McGowan (voiced by Kelly McQuail) even points out that her hesitation to talk to the reporters is two-fold – her recounting her experiences earlier amounting to nothing and that she had also faced sexist coverage from their own paper.
Former assistant Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) alleges that standing up to Weinstein and Miramax ended her budding career in media – a sentiment echoed by several others in the film (and in real life).
(Note: Zelda has, since then, started the ‘Can’t Buy My Silence’ campaign with professor Julie MacFarlane, and they aim to “outlaw NDAs when used to “buy” the silence of victims in order to protect sexual predators, bullies, racists and abusers”)
How ‘Cancel Culture’ Attempts to Diminish #MeToo’s Impact
This poses a question about the elusive ‘cancel culture’. Several people criticising #MeToo have claimed that believing all accusations leads to people being “canceled”, reducing the movement’s real purpose and impact to a smokescreen. Ironic, of course, considering how sexual assault survivors often lose out on work, receive threats online, face victim blaming and more.
In She Said, a conversation between Kantor and Twohey addresses the reality of how ‘canceled’ powerful people accused of abuse are. Kantor asks Twohey why she’s worried and the latter says, “The story will run, and people won’t care.”
This opinion is informed by the fact that she was among the reporters who had reported extensively about the sexual assault allegations against 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Despite it all (and all the misogynistic comments Trump made during his campaign), he was elected President and a lot of harmful rhetoric that was propagated during his presidency goes on in the US’ news cycle till date.
Comedian Louis CK, for instance, won the Grammy for best comedy album in 2022 after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct in 2017, something the comedian also admitted to.
The comedian has also been nominated under the same category for the 2023 Grammys.
Powerful people (including celebrities) accused of sexual misconduct have returned to public spaces – as directors on films, to reality TV, to their previous jobs, among other things.
Meanwhile, Ashley Judd (who plays herself in She Said) recalls that she lost a job opportunity after she performed ‘I Am a Nasty Woman’, written by Nina Donovan, during the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.
Kantor’s worries are valid. News cycles move on.
Director Maria Schrader on the Story She Wanted to Tell
For director Maria Schrader, She Said, was about telling a story about agency. With films about sensitive topics, there is always a danger of films exploiting their subjects and becoming a part of the problem (consider what Blonde did with Marilyn Monroe’s story, for instance).
Instead, Schrader focused the film’s lens on the women whose stories were being told, using their heart wrenching recollections to paint a picture of the sinister codependency of abuse and power when aligned with skewed gender structures and power dynamics.
For too long, films have used gratuitous violence when it comes to stories of marginalised communities but She Said makes a conscious decision to not do so.
In She Said, Schrader (and cinematographer Natasha Braier) use visuals like objects being strewn across a hotel room or a bathrobe on a bed while survivor’s recall their experiences.
In one instance, a slow track of a hotel hallway accompanies Weinstein’s own voice coercing a woman to come into his room. These visuals not only keep the focus on the survivors’ testimonies but also give the viewer a glimpse into how mundane settings become disquieting.
Schrader told The New York Times, “We didn’t even have to debate it. I do not need to add another rape scene to the world.” They decided to not even show Harvey Weinstein in the film, but did include the conversations they had with the executive, where he denied all the allegations leveled against him.
All that being said, She Said, is still a story of how a movement as powerful as #MeToo started. Despite the points made earlier, #MeToo hasn’t failed. The court of law, while important, can’t be the only metric used to judge the movement’s success because it started a cultural reckoning.
This reckoning has the making of revolution and, like all social movements, is fair game for constructive criticism. And as it continues to gain traction and support, the concept of a systemic restructuring could one day cease to be just aspirational.