If Hollywood were to make a movie about Harvey Weinstein, the roles of villain and victims are clearly already cast. But one compelling character in the still developing story has remained somewhat in the shadows. More than 50 women have publicly accused Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment, all following the same general themes (i.e., she was a rising actor/model/filmmaker; he invited her to his hotel room and asked for a massage; he made not quite vague threats about ruining her career). But this particular shadowy character appears over and over in their accounts — a mysterious female assistant who escorted Weinstein to the women he was about to prey on.
“...a young, female assistant there who said the meeting had been moved upstairs to his suite because he was a very busy man…”
“I met a female assistant when I arrived there. I was expecting that it would be a group of us, as it had been for the reading, but she informed me it would just be Mr. Weinstein. She would sit with me until he arrived. She seemed on edge, but I could only imagine how stressful it was to work for a man who had so much going on.”
This unnamed assistant appears in so many accounts of Weinstein’s unwanted pursuits, the perpetual enabler of his crimes, the benchwarmer before the victim’s arrival. Who is this woman (or multiple women, most likely)? It’s not as important to know her actual identity. We know she was ambitious, aware to some extent of what her boss was doing, as so many were at the Weinstein Company, involved directly in the act of handing fresh meat over to him. Yes, Weinstein is an undoubtedly evil figure, as is R. Kelly, Bill O’Reilly, and others like them. But some may ask: Who could do such a thing to her fellow women?
Instead, we should consider the unhappy fact that this young female assistant was forced to assist Weinstein in the first place.
As details of Weinstein’s serial sexual assaults emerged, the right wing was quick to blame Hillary Clinton, Jane Fonda — literally any woman they could think of to take the blame for his crimes. Shaming Kellyanne Conway for blaming Hillary Clinton for enabling Harvey Weinstein ... it’s a dizzying, sickening, never-ending cycle, and it distracts from the real issue at hand. All we can do is wonder why the bystanders in and outside of Hollywood who knew what Weinstein was up to participated indirectly in his acts. Their silence certainly may have perpetuated and helped to cover up his crimes. But they did not commit those crimes, and that’s a crucial distinction to make.
It is true that generally, under our patriarchal system, we women are not very good at sticking up for or protecting one another. But there is no definitive rule to follow about assigning blame to enablers. Real life is much murkier than the movies. Throughout history, figures who have been forced into the role of extreme enabler have taken some of the blame for the crimes of others. Think of the house slave or the kapo. While they participated in a system of violence, these roles would not have existed without the truly powerful people at the helm giving instructions.
In the case of the young female assistant, a recent example is more helpful in understanding her actions: the 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump. We can endlessly probe the reasons behind this vast betrayal of their fellow women, although many claim not to care about or believe the women who have accused Trump himself of sexual assault: Are those 53 percent of white women masochists? Were they scared, or under the false notion that the cause of feminism does not serve their best interests? Or did they knowingly throw other women under the bus because, as a species, women have so deeply internalized millennia of patriarchal oppression that they simply lash out at each other? Are any of these valid reasons for Weinstein’s assistant opening the door for more women to be hurt by him?
Or, could the (arguable) complicity of Weinstein’s young female assistant be explained in some other way? It’s not hard to believe, given all the stories we’ve heard over the past few weeks about the sexism, objectification and de facto sex trafficking built into "making it" in Hollywood, that the young female assistant was simply a person who was given a great opportunity in a highly competitive industry and was reluctant to offend the man who offered it to her. This is what several of Weinstein’s victims have said about why they didn’t speak up, why they eventually gave him what he asked for. The young female assistant is a victim herself, and was just as deeply trapped in the system of violence as the women she helped to ensnare in it.
Saying she is complicit is a different kind of victim-blaming than what we see done in similar cases of sexual assault. Call it “enabler-blaming.” Megyn Kelly has accused a female PR person of assisting powerful men at Fox News to commit their own sexual crimes. It’s important to call her out on her role, but it’s even more important to recognize that a sick culture existed at Fox News for years, and the ones who benefited the most were Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. They created the system of oppression, and undoubtedly, female employees had to participate in it or find somewhere else to work.
We must put in perspective the vast array of victims Weinstein ensnared in the web he created, ranging from the actresses he abused, to the assistants he used as bait, to the journalists accused of allowing it to happen ... the list goes on. Weinstein is the spider at the center of it all, and the web is one of his making. He fed on the fear, the sexism in Hollywood, the competitive nature of the film industry and amplified it to sustain his appetite for sexual abuse.
Blaming the young assistant, Hillary Clinton, Jane Fonda, or anyone else actually obscures a key point. The Times journalists, the Weinstein Company employees, the enabling PR person, all reveal the state of human fragility. Not all of us, faced with a terrible choice, can choose the noble thing, or the self-sacrificial thing. We are hardwired to survive, and our highly developed brains help us to justify the unappealing consequences. It’s what allows us to keep on living. The young female assistant is a reminder that many, many women carry out and participate in oppression by men.
It’s appalling that Harvey Weinstein coerced his young female assistants into betraying their fellow women in this way. Weinstein promised them and his victims that he would boost their careers if they tolerated and enabled his perversions. Faced with no other compelling choice, they bought into this false hope. This manipulation is what allowed Weinstein to sustain his power for so long. So let’s think twice before assigning blame to the “young female assistant” or anyone else — it distracts from the depravity of the crime-doer himself.