By Sharon Clarke
The media industry has come under the spotlight recently for all the wrong reasons. Repeated allegations of serious sexual harassment have been made against prominent members of the Hollywood elite, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to name but two. Every now and again a major incident takes place, exposing a celebrity for not only overstepping the boundaries but committing serious crimes. Many claim that is part of the scene, that actors, both male and female, have been playing the casting couch game since the film industry began. At what point does it become non-consensual? At what stage does it become sinister and sleazy?
The idea of powerful men in the film industry exploiting actors has plagued Hollywood long before Weinstein. Film critic and historian Carrie Rickey stated: “The perils for women in Hollywood are embedded, like landmines, from an actor’s debut to her swan song.” He added: “Moguls like Harry Cohn reputedly wouldn’t cast starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak unless they auditioned in bed.” Why haven’t we moved on? Why does this behavior continue?
I decided to look into the film and television industry in Northern Ireland, using various platforms, attempt to uncover if this practice is present in our media culture. The results were both shocking and heartbreaking. I asked both males and females if they would come forward and share with me their experiences. Many came forward to tell their story but also stated that under no circumstances were they to be named. I discreetly asked why this was, an echoing similar answer emerged, that these events happened decades ago and it uncovered a rather frightening common factor: they all feared for their careers. Much of the harassment they had endured had been known by other why would the present day be any different? In fact, many felt self-disgust that they ever allowed to let it happen in the first place. I also received statements such as: “I didn’t want to lose my job, or be talked about, or worse, that people might think I deserved it.” What also must be taken into consideration is the Northern Ireland culture. Whether it’s acceptable or not, at times, our humour can be quite inappropriate, dark and tongue-in-cheek. It’s within this humour that falls under the term ‘the craic’ where things are said, things are done.
I received numerous stories from actors, mostly female albeit some male, stating that certain directors would email them in the late hours. Those emails began with a friendly chat about the script, but then becoming personal; commenting on how pretty they were and if they ever wanted to meet for a one-to-one meeting they would only be too happy to oblige. One female actor said she deliberately played along and it became very sleazy, very quickly; he started commenting on her breasts, she told me she deliberately lied about an illness to get out of the film.
Actors have been manhandled on set and stage, directors would slap their behind and make lewd remarks in front of a laughing cast and crew. Apparently, this is ‘normal’. Could you imagine if this happened in an office job or GP surgery? There would certainly be dismissals and hefty lawsuits that followed.
I think some of the saddest stories for the victims came from the crew who weren’t harassed, but saw it happen to others and did nothing. They now feel they should have said something but were too afraid of dismissal. The bottom line is a low moral standard is ‘accepted’. Cast and crew feel expendable and those who complied got the jobs. I once heard a director refer to an actress as ‘a nobody’ and tragically that’s how some in positions of power see the cast and crew, as pawns: pawns they can play and no one can stand in their way.
As a writer and producer myself, I can recall being at a media event in London with some well-established names in attendance. A very loud, elderly, well-dressed man came up to me and put his arm around me and asked me what films had I starred in. I quickly disentangled myself and told him I was a writer and planned to make films. He threw back his head, laughed and mockingly said: “You are too pretty for that carry-on my dear.” Even back on home soil, I’ve had many producers act distastefully; my revenge is, as a woman, to be as successful as I can be, on my own merits.
A local female actor relayed her experience to me. A well-known producer followed her around in a bar and said to her: “You better f*****g sit with me and speak to me.” He then went throughout the bar critiquing other females. On one he remarked: “Yes, nice eyes, pity about her mouth.” Other stories reveal both male and female actors being dropped from films due to their reactions against unwanted advances.
I would love to reassure people that it won’t happen to them, that it’s a supportive industry but it’s not. It is cut-throat and it’s full of certain individuals who will use and abuse people because of their silence. That’s the problem and therein lies the solution. No more ‘silence’! With the #MeToo campaign, more and more are standing up and speaking out.
Maybe this will start a change in how actors are treated in the not-so-gentlemen’s club. Northern Ireland’s media industry is similar to Hollywood in many ways. Firstly, we must recognise that it’s not always viewed by workers as ‘real-life’. Primarily, we in the industry are creating a fantasy world of escapism for the masses so it can easily spill into the work ethics. The idea that it’s ‘fantastical’ like children with paints or Lego, there are people in power are the same, only with money. Like petulant children, they can abuse that power and use people for their own gain.
The area of abuse and inappropriate behavior that exists in Northern Ireland is not black and white, unfortunately, we have a grey area. As mentioned before, that grey area being the Northern Irish idea of humour and joviality, which we believe is unique to our culture. At what point do we accept a remark or laugh as antics? Through hearing the stories of actors, the studies I have pursued in anthropology, psychiatry and working in the industry, I can firmly say that it is never acceptable to cross personal boundaries or make anyone a pawn in your own goals. There is no excuse for those in authority who have touched someone suggestively or tried to get a person to do something they’re uncomfortable with, on the promise of getting a job. This happens, it is a fact. It is abuse plain and simple.
What we need is for people to stop being afraid of these abusers of power, and realise that they are not alone, or that this is an isolated incident. Speak up because you will be heard and supported. For those in power who have been involved in wrongful activities, they know who they are, your time is up; people realise this is not acceptable. Sexual misconduct is not ‘craic’, it is abuse. Only when actors, crew, directors, producers and all involved with the business stand together will the ‘not-so-gentlemen’s-club’ realise their days are numbered.