Colette Fountain discusses the outcome of the Weinstein trial, and what it means for #MeToo
Editor’s note: since this article was written, Weinstein has been sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Content warning: this article contains reference to rape and sexual assault.
Harvey Weinstein: a name that seems to have come to signify more than just the man himself, instead reflecting the enormous efforts of the #MeToo movement and as of 24th February 2020, a convicted rapist.
Although official accusations against Weinstein didn’t occur until 2017, rumours of his ‘casting couch’ practices seemed to permeate the film industry with actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie alluding to his predatory nature as early as the 1990s. Why then has it taken almost three decades for his fall from grace? As with many sexual assault allegations, there is an insistence on the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’, meaning women are rarely believed unless there is enough physical evidence, something which is rare in rape cases. As a result, it becomes a kind of he-said, she-said horror show, meaning women often don’t come forward for fears of destroying their careers or never achieving justice. Weinstein has been hugely influential in the film industry having helped produce cult classics like Pulp Fiction and Lord of the Rings, becoming another reminder of the indestructibility of powerful, rich men. A significant number of the accusers were employees of Miramax, the Weinstein Company or aspiring actresses, something Weinstein used to his advantage as he effectively had power over their careers. As of 2020, over 80 women have come forward to accuse Weinstein of various sexual allegations occurring between 1980 and 2015. Weinstein’s New York trial has now come to a close, ending with him being convicted of only two crimes; 3rd degree rape of Jessica Mann which occurred in 2013 and the sexual assault of Mimi Haleyi in 2006.
In many ways Weinstein’s conviction offers hope for the future. 3rd degree rape carries a maximum four-year sentence while sexual assault carries a maximum of 25 years, meaning Weinstein is facing up to 29 years imprisonment for his crimes. In addition to this, he is yet to stand trial in Los Angeles for similar offences meaning he could potentially be imprisoned for the rest of his life, as he is currently 67. Even if he doesn’t receive the maximum sentence, Weinstein’s life is ruined; his wife divorced him, his children have disowned him and he will have no career, perhaps achieving justice beyond the legal system. For the #MeToo movement, Weinstein’s conviction is particularly important as it demonstrates the power women have gained particularly against hugely influential public figures – it shows that despite Weinstein’s money and status, he can’t avoid the consequences of his actions. Previously, accusations have emerged only after a celebrity has died, as seen with Michael Jackson and Jimmy Saville, however, Weinstein’s conviction shows that the ‘untouchability’ of celebrities is crumbling. The immense bravery of the women that testified and came forward has finally achieved some sense of justice. While this won’t offer a magic fix for their trauma, it is still a ‘triumph’ as it will have a long-lasting impact on the way that society views and treats survivors of sexual abuse.
However, despite the fact that Weinstein was convicted at all can be viewed as a victory, there is still a long way to go in the way we treat sexual abuse survivors. Weinstein only received two convictions out of the five charges he was being tried for, being acquitted of predatory sexual assault which carries a maximum of life imprisonment. The fact that Weinstein was accused by over 80 women and yet only convicted of two offences shows just how difficult it is for women to come forward with sexual assault accusations. So many cases never go to trial due to lack of evidence or simply lead to acquittal. Trials also require the victims to recall severe trauma, something which many don’t want to put themselves through for it to simply end in acquittal. Therefore, while we should be celebrating the fact that Weinstein has received any formal punishment for his crimes, we still have a long way to go before the justice system accurately reflects the worrying regularity of sexual assault.
Throughout Weinstein’s trial he has faced many controversies, particularly regarding his lawyer, Donna Rotunno. Rotunno has made a career defending men accused of sexual crimes, helping to undo some of the achievements the #MeToo movement worked so hard for. In one of her most controversial statements, Rotunno stated that ‘it’s sad that men have to worry about being complimentary and pleasant to women’, perpetuating the view that men are the real victims in this situation. Her statement reflects the same fear expressed by men who worry that they will be accused, despite believing they have done nothing wrong. While I am not denying that false rape accusations occur, this is definitely a minority, currently believed to be around 2% according to the United States Justice Department. Rotunno’s comment therefore seems to dismiss the larger issue, negating women’s experiences of sexual harassment and instead victimising men who feel that women’s growing independence and autonomy is something to be feared. Her stance is that men are having to be more thoughtful and cautious in how they treat women with little regard for the immense precautions embedded into women’s minds on how to best protect themselves, including carrying rape alarms, taking self-defence classes, not wearing headphones or walking alone at night, and of course not wearing anything that could be perceived as ‘asking for it’.
During the trial and in the immediate aftermath, Weinstein has also been criticised for his attempts to gain sympathy from the public, despite claiming that ‘he didn’t want the press to think he was seeking sympathy’. At his trial, Weinstein was photographed walking with a zimmer frame and looking unwell. While it isn’t uncommon for lawyers to alter their clients’ image to make them appear more likeable in court proceedings, Weinstein’s approach seems particularly unusual as they usually try to appear more presentable. Since being convicted, he has been taken to Bellevue Hospital as a result of chest pains, in addition to fears that he may be a suicide risk meaning he may require constant surveillance when he finally does enter Rikers Island Prison. This helps to further Rotunno’s problematic view that Weinstein is the real victim here.
At this stage it’s difficult to predict how Weinstein will be sentenced on the 11th March. My hope is that he will receive the full 29-year sentence, in order to achieve some sense of justice for the victims. Weinstein’s conviction also marks a monumental shift, hopefully towards a society that is more likely to believe and investigate rape accusations, rather than dismiss them for lack of evidence. As the #MeToo movement continues to gain momentum and make change for the future; for now, we can celebrate the downfall of a man who was once one of the most significant producers in Hollywood.