Confronting the ugly face of sexual harassment

The lack of a studio system in Australia means few locals have the unfettered power of Harvey Weinstein, but sexual harassment can and does occur in our industry. How to address it?
Confronting the ugly face of sexual harassment

The New York Times’ story on 5 October detailing American film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged history of sexual harassment, and the subsequent allegations of rape and assault that followed, have sent shockwaves around the world.

The response has been significant, including everything from social media movements – such as the #MeToo hashtag, which made the widespread and pervasive nature of sexual harassment more visible than ever before – to the French Government proposing a new bill cracking down on sexual harassment, including introducing fines for catcalling on the street.


‘I think there is one clear message that’s come out of the last couple of weeks arising from the Harvey Weinstein instance, and that is, I think the entertainment industry globally is shocked. They may not be surprised … but this is clearly a watershed moment for our industry,’ said Zoe Angus, the National Director of Equity.

Structural differences between Australia and the USA mean that an individual like Weinstein is unlikely to exist locally, Angus continued.  

‘We don’t have the studio system here, so that means there is not the same large unfettered power … Screen productions here are made by – certainly in film – small to medium independent operators. And so in that context there’s not that same monolithic, unfettered power that enables the sort of shocking instance of sustained sexual harassment that has arisen in the United States in Harvey’s instance.’

Which is certainly not to say that sustained instances of sexual harassment don’t occur in the Australian entertainment and media industries.

‘If you were to look at our experiences of women in media, then they have quite a significant tale to tell about high levels of sexism and harassment,’ Angus said.

‘My journo colleagues [at the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance] have recently undertaken some research which found that 48% of female journalists report experiences of harassment working in the media. So I think there might be some parallels of working in large, heavily financed, male dominated corporate cultures where unfettered power can enable and hide that sort of conduct.’

Sexual harassment also exists in other sectors within the Australian arts and entertainment landscape, though again it takes different forms from the overt and ugly power exerted by Harvey Weinstein.

‘We have heard about instances amongst crew, because crew is a predominantly male area, and there is in some instances a culture that can be demeaning and belittling and harassing of the few women who work as screen technicians in this country. That is certainly a source of concern to the union,’ said Angus.

‘I genuinely don’t think that we have same phenomenon of the “casting couch” in this country as this whole Harvey Weinstein instance suggests may be rampant in the United States, and that’s again because we have some structural differences – casting directors are freelance, independent, small scale.’

Ensuring actors’ safety

In the performing arts sector, as well as in film and television, one of the areas of greatest concern is the vulnerability of young actors – both male and female.

‘We’ve had instances of what we would call “gentle coercion” of actors in situations where they find themselves performing certain types of nudity scenes, simulated sex scenes, which go beyond what they expected, what they wished. I think there have been certainly a number of instances reported to the Union where that’s occurred, and that’s a real source of concern to us,’ Angus said.

Read: Naked theatre: impact versus exploitation

Young actors’ vulnerability and their limited options for reporting sexual harassment are an issue of real concern for Eleanor Howlett, a WAAPA-trained actor and arts publicist who works closely with Melbourne’s independent theatre sector.  

‘I think there's a real disconnect with young actors entering the theatre scene particularly – whether it be just wanting to explore being an actor or from training institutions – with wanting to please and also being aware of what's appropriate professional conduct. The theatre community is a tactile, intimate one with a dense mesh of friendships and working relationships. The lines can become very blurred if you're trying to make connections and start up a career. Knowing how to deal with someone whose treatment of you is unprofessional and/or predatory is not a black and white affair,’ Howlett said.

‘I know as a young actor I never thought of MEAA as being accessible in instances like this, purely as I wasn’t a member. I assumed that meant their support and services were out of my reach – I think that belief still applies to many artists in similar positions. And what's the other option, really, for addressing these kinds of situations in the independent arts sector? The police? Sure. But there are many reasons artists won't take that avenue.’

Ensuring actors’ safety and security is a priority for Live Performance Australia (LPA), said the organisation’s Chief Executive, Evelyn Richardson.

‘As the peak employer body for live performance in Australia, LPA strongly supports safe and respectful workplaces for everyone, without exception,’ Richard said.

‘Workplaces should be non-threatening, respectful, safe and free from all forms of harassment. All employees have the right not to be sexually harassed or discriminated against in the workplace. That is the law. No excuses.’

Similarly, a spokesperson from the Confederation of Australian State Theatres (CAST) told ArtsHub: 'While member companies of the Confederation of Australian State Theatres group are bound by the same laws and legislation applying to all Australian employers, when it comes to the identification and management of bullying and sexual harassment we are committed to providing a work environment for all employees that is free from harassment in any form. 
'CAST companies are focused on continually improving the physical and emotional safety of their workplaces. In particular, it is important to remove the stigma that can be felt by the victims of harassment and abuse, encouraging them with confidence to instigate formal complaint proceedings, and to seek appropriate counselling services and support from the employer,' they added.

How to deal with harassment

The arts and entertainment landscape in Australia – particularly the film sector – is very different to that of the USA. Nonetheless, the shockwaves caused by the Weinstein case undoubtedly have ramifications locally.

Angus said: ‘There are undoubtedly unhealthy work cultures in certain environments, in certain parts of our entertainment industry, that give rise to demeaning, offensive, belittling, harassing inter-actions with women and other vulnerable actors and technicians. And there are other ways in which the ugly banal face of sexual harassment displays itself in this country.’

She hopes that the publicity around Harvey Weinstein’s case will help usher in a new level of awareness around sexual harassment – including empowering more people to stand up to abusers in their sector.

Read: Where to after Weinstein?

‘I think because of the shock and the outrage and the extended offering of support and solidarity towards those who have experienced harassment, I genuinely think and hope that we are about to enter a new chapter where people who come across these unpleasant experiences, or even quasi-violent experiences, will feel more confident to call it out, in that moment,’ said Angus.

One of the conversations which arose at last year’s Equity Summit, Gender on the Agenda, focused on empowering people to say no.

‘The most important thing is for young women and young men in these situations, for vulnerable people in these situations, to feel empowered and confident and strong so that they can negotiate the no. That is the first, absolutely vital point,’ Angus said.

‘And for that, frankly, you need a strong collective sense – you need a strong union, you need a sense of solidarity, for the vulnerable. So it’s about empowering the individual to deal with that situation and then the next step is about ensuring that there are proper mechanisms of support and reporting within the company, and also amongst our union to take appropriate steps to provide support and work out what the next best steps are for that person.’

Having dealt with several sexual harassment cases during her time at MEAA/Equity, Angus said every instance needs to be dealt with differently.

‘Sometimes an appropriate response is negotiating the no in the moment. And sometimes the appropriate response is formal reporting. Sometimes the response is a direct, face to face confrontation between an advocate on behalf of that person to the [harasser],’ she said.

‘There’s a multitude of ways that these things can and should be dealt with, so it’s tricky to come up with a pat answer about how to deal with sexual harassment in general because frankly, it takes on quite a banal, ugly face that varies in different instances, and different responses are appropriate in each of those instances,’ Angus concluded.


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Richard Watts

Monday 23 October, 2017

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts