“I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body”: The political economy of the body & the Weinstein scandal

Hollywood’s commodification of women’s bodies must be recognised as a contributory factor when questioning the (un)shocking prevalence of sexual violence and abuse. Therefore, to fully understand the political economy of the Weinstein scandal, it is necessary to foreground the body

This is the third blog in a series on the political economy of the Weinstein scandal

Salma Hayek’s searing essay published by The New York Times in December 2017 was one of the many stories of extreme bullying, calculated sexual abuse, and violent power-play that manifested the Weinstein scandal. She details several harrowing accounts of the sexual advances and outrageous demands made by her “monster” Weinstein during the filming of the 2002 biopic Frida for Miramax. With a desire to simultaneously pay homage to an extraordinary artist while challenging stereotypes of her native Mexico, retelling Frida Kahlo’s story became Hayek’s “greatest ambition”. When Weinstein took a chance on her – “a nobody” – she was thrilled to work with such an acclaimed producer; yet this excitement was short-lived.

Each of Weinstein’s various sexual advances were met with denial: “No to me taking a shower with him. No to letting him watch me take a shower. No to letting him give me a massage. No to letting him give me oral sex,” she lists. Hayek recounted Weinstein’s retaliation to her lack of sexual submission, stating that he threatened to shut down the film unless she agreed to perform a lesbian sex scene with full-frontal nudity. With little room for negotiation, she conceded. Attempting to belittle her creative integrity, Weinstein reduced Hayek to her bodily worth: he “complained about Frida’s ‘unibrow’…insist[ing] that I eliminate the limp and berated my performance…He told me that the only thing I had going for me was my sex appeal and that there was none of that in this movie.” The story she so desperately wanted to do justice was completely told on his terms.

From the demand of sexual favours to threats of physical violence, Hayek’s account joins the testimonies of several other actresses who have spoken out against Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct. Yet, her story is particularly striking in her engagement with her body: “I was told, especially by Harvey, that I was a nobody…In his eyes, I was not an artist. I wasn’t even a person. I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body.” She makes explicit the objectification, victimisation and perceived sexual worth of her body. Weinstein’s treatment of Hayek – as a sexualised body – suggests that to fully understand the political economy of the scandal, we need to foreground the body: what can this embodied experience of the scandal reveal about the economy? What bodies matter and why?

This focus draws attention to the ways in which hierarchical power relations continue to structure the economy via racialised, classed, gendered, sexualised bodies. In other words, it is impossible to materially separate the economy from the human lives that constitute it. Therefore, bodies – as markers of difference that matter – are understood as produced by, and productive of, the broader political economy. From this, we cannot divorce the ways in which the (female) body is commodified and circulated under capitalism from its continual victimisation and vulnerability to sexual violence – and Hollywood’s complicity in the production of this toxic culture cannot be ignored.

Drawing attention to Hollywood’s exploitation of women’s bodies reveals the intimate link between the economy, sexual embodiment and consumption. Cartesian mind/body dualism has consistently been drawn upon by feminist scholars to explain the continual differentiation between the sexes as one of superiority/inferiority: man equalled the mind (rational, thinking subject) while woman equalled the body (inherently natural, irrational and sexual). Not only did this dominant binary understanding historically exclude women from the status of personhood, but also normalised the identification of femininity with the sexualised, unruly body. Women remain largely confined to their sexuality – a connection that Hollywood and the film industry has consistently capitalised on.

Weinstein’s persistent desire to sexualise Hayek’s performance – “constantly asking for more skin, for more sex” – epitomises the age-old cliché, ‘sex sells’. Hayek’s commodified body, as a site of economic transaction in the global labour market, was worth something due to sexual objectification: she was reduced to her physical appearance, sexually constructed as a body for someone else’s consumption. Hayek’s body is a paradoxical construction: hyper-visible yet indistinct; commodified yet worthless. This reminds us of the power Hollywood holds to disseminate gendered norms; the power to draw the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable cultural knowledge, and, ultimately, to normalise a culture of sexism in society more generally. In this sense, this particular example of sexual abuse – an esteemed film producer sexually harassing an actress – cannot be readily disentangled from the cultural environment it occurred within.

While it is too simple to suggest that Hollywood’s sexualisation of women’s bodies for profit encourages sexual violence, it becomes strikingly clear that the industry is complicit in the (re)production of a toxic culture predicated upon intersecting inequalities that place women in positions of insecurity relative to their male counterparts. As Hayek herself recognises, “until there is equality in our industry, with men and women having the same value in every aspect of it, our community will continue to be a fertile ground for predators”. Emphasising the centrality of the body to political economy makes visible the processes that continue to make a culture of sexual harassment and abuse possible. Therefore, the Weinstein scandal suggests that bodies matter for global political economy – they are incorporated into economic processes in uneven ways, determining who gets access to what, who can obtain positions of power and entitlement – and ignoring this risks obscuring the often-violent ways bodies are inscribed with social hierarchies of global capitalism.