From our Obsession
Power in Progress
Exploring diversity from all angles.
Her decades in Hollywood have given Krista Vernoff, the showrunner for Grey’s Anatomy, a keen ear for bullshit and illogical arguments.
It’s part of her job to call out and fix faulty dialogue, she says in a guest column for Hollywood Reporter. In this case, the script she was critiquing was not fiction, but instead some spin from the lawyer defending Brett Ratner, the movie director and producer who is facing claims of rape, sexual assault, and harassment made by several actresses.
Among other things, Ratner is accused of “offering background players promotions in exchange for sex, luring young women back to his party house or some other apartment and watching while his friends rape them,” Vernoff writes, pointing out that this is “some pretty extreme stuff even in this climate.”
For the Hollywood Reporter, Vernoff wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to comments by Marty Singer, Ratner’s lawyer, that were recently published in the Los Angeles Times.
As well as debunking several inaccurate and simply untrue assertions about how business is done in Hollywood, Vernoff takes on Singer’s strategy of casting doubt on Ratner’s accusers’ stories by pointing to their relationships and affectionate email messages to Ratner. “Basic psychology” explains why women do this, Vernoff says, citing examples from her own experience and adding: “When abuse is ongoing, and a woman has a job to do, she also often ‘goes along to get along.'”
And strikingly, the longtime Hollywood writer pushes back against Singer’s comments about the scene of the alleged crimes, Ratner’s “party house.”
In response to accusations that Ratner and his buddy James Toback invited models back to his party house and sexually assaulted them: “Singer said the claim that Hilhaven Lodge was a venue for alleged inappropriate behavior … ‘does not square with the fact that there are regularly many other people around to whom someone could voice a complaint if something objectionable was allegedly taking place.'”
Vernoff’s reply to this assertion was incredulous:
LOL. No, seriously. LOLOLOL. This one is just too absurd. If I didn’t laugh and choke on my coffee, I might have to scream.
To illustrate why she finds this notion ridiculous, she recalls walking through a Sunset Strip bar party, where nothing out of the ordinary was happening—people were chatting and drinking—except a powerful director was receiving oral sex from a woman in front of everyone “and leering aggressively at all the women as they walked past.”
“I turned to my friend and said, ‘Is that who I think it is?'” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Yeah, he likes to do that kind of thing. Everyone just looks away.'” If that could happen out in the open in a bar, women are unlikely to have real recourse in a famous director’s party house, Vernoff points out: “Now imagine these very young models trying to ‘voice a complaint’ about the owner of the house, or the best friend of the owner of the house, who maybe just assaulted them in his bedroom.”
But the bigger point is that women shouldn’t have to avoid socializing in private settings for safety reasons, she writes:
We live and work in a town where business and socializing regularly conflate and one often depends upon the other.
I remember being in my twenties with big screenwriting dreams and making friends with heterosexual male working screenwriters who would say things like, “We’re all gonna go back to my house and watch this documentary my friend made.” And you know what would happen next? We would go back to his house and … watch the documentary! Y’know why? Because this town is full of good men who are artists and thinkers and who are not rapists and we were young and life was fun and we would take the party back to someone’s house and talk about art.
Vernoff, who is now in her in early 40s, also writes about a gathering she went to at the actor and celebrity Ethan Hawke’s home in New York, when she was in her 20s.
Did I pause and worry that this invitation might be loaded? No, I didn’t. Was I “naïve” to jump at this invitation? I don’t think I was. Because you know what happened when I got there? People drank wine and whiskey and sat around and talked about art and theater and poetry and music and life and possibility. And many of those young artists went on to work with each other on many fine projects. For many of us, those “social” gatherings were career building blocks. I remember meeting the playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman at one of those parties and realizing that people my age really did make a living writing. It was huge for me. Those moments, those revelations, those parties arguably changed the course of my career.
Young women do not and should not expect to be raped when we accept an invitation back to a fellow artist’s house—even if that artist is a powerful man. It is not naive to believe that good men exist and to accept an invitation based on that belief, or even based on our admiration of that man. It should go without saying that we should not expect that by accepting an invitation to a social gathering in this town or any other, we should also expect to have genitalia thrust into our mouths against our will.
The effect that Hollywood’s climate of male sexual aggression has had on the output and career trajectories of the industry’s women artists was also the theme of an essay this week by New York Times critic Wesley Morris, who looked back at the on-screen performances of the talented actress Annabella Sciorra, who has described being raped and terrorized by the film producer Harvey Weinstein to the New Yorker.
Sciorra had been an actress riding high in the 1990s—including being “the emotional center of Spike Lee’s third-rail social melodrama Jungle Fever,” Morris writes—but she never reached the stardom many believed she deserved.
“Whatever kind of counterrevolution this turns out to be, much of it, so far, has necessarily been about the actions and art of men,” Morris writes. “How do the claims against them alter the perception of what they’ve made? Should they? With their victims, it’s the opposite. How does what’s been done to them bear out in art they never got to make?”
It’s an important question, because in the stories we’re hearing about attacks by powerful men, “business” is often used as a front to put women in impossible positions and unsafe situations. As Vernoff describes, in show business, professional relationships and creative collaborations are formed over martinis and whiskey sours, at party houses, hotel restaurants, and private dens, as well as in boardrooms and offices. The same is true in politics, journalism, and many other industries, which is why women (and many men) were outraged after learning of what we now call the Mike Pence rule: the Vice President of the United States supposedly never dines alone with a woman who is not his wife, and he does not attend events involving alcohol without her, either.
The suggestion is that men can not control their sexual urges in tempting situations (never mind that Weinstein and Ratner’s alleged crimes actually fit a pattern of premeditated predatory behavior). By that logic, women are supposedly behaving recklessly when they attend a dinner alone with a male colleague or a social event where they’ll find men and booze.
Calling women who attend these gatherings and meetings naïve is not only a disturbing form of victim-blaming; it also denies their role and agency as artists deeply engaged in and vital to the industry’s creative processes, painting them instead as bit players or eye candy in the stories and deals that men dream up.
The real naïveté is to believe that fairy tale.