Constructing the Weinstein story: the political economy of scandal

While the Weinstein scandal has generated a pseudo-systemic critique of sexual violence in the workplace, economic inequalities still determine who gets scandalised and who gets to respond

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

Popular podcast The Guilty Feminist released two episodes of the show relating specifically to ‘Weinstein culture’. Comedian Jessica Fostekew commented in one of these that broadening the terms of discussions of sexual violence in the workplace to include a multitude of transgressions of varying degrees of severity is what lends power to the backlash and response to the scandal. She jokes that anyone who engages in inappropriate forms of behaviour at work, from rape to being ‘a bit handsy’, should be dubbed a ‘Harvey’. While this was said in jest, it draws attention to the growing sense that, while there are hugely variable examples being shared of examples of sexual harassment and violence at work, there is a culture that reinforces and allows the reproduction of certain behaviours across all sectors and industries in the economy. Her comments also highlight one aspect of the Weinstein scandal, the ensuing #MeToo campaign and generalised public outrage that is particularly interesting in that it has generated something akin to systemic critique of the extent of the issue. The viability of online social movements to bring about real world change is highly contested, and may require reinforcements in the form of organisational and social infrastructure to make a real change, but the opening up of public discussion does seem to hold some promise.

This is contradictory to some critical approaches to studying scandal. Hozic and True have argued that scandals turn systemic problems into matters of “individual failing”. Similarly, Johnson has argued that in wartime, scandals have the social effect of rendering that which is not ‘scandalous’ or ‘criminal’ in wartime permissible, and thus the practise of war itself is left largely unchallenged; this is a very convincing argument in the context of war. There is certainly a high degree of personalisation involved in the Weinstein case. However, unlike cases of wartime scandal, and contrary to the suggestion of Hozic and True, the widespread reaction from people who claimed ‘they too’ had suffered abuse at work suggest some kind of destabilisation of the underlying social conditions that allowed such endemic sexual violence in the workplace to continue for so long.

However, it is important to bear in mind that scandal is intrinsically bound up with the telling of some stories and the obscuring of others. Whose stories get scandalised and whose reaction then gains public attention is underpinned by an array of intersecting social and economic inequalities. To understand this, it is useful to consider the reasons behind the breaking of scandalous stories; while there are a multitude of factors involved in the breaking of a story, news agencies must ultimately deem a story profitable to be worth the reputational risk involved in publishing a scandal, particularly when there are powerful individuals such as Weinstein involved. When the evidence had mounted and the threat of libel charges was thought to be sufficiently minor, the story was broken. The profitability of scandal as a valuable commodity determines whose stories get told, and whose are simply not worth it in the eyes of news agencies and the news consuming public. Such high-profile individuals are those who carry the most weight in their ability to influence media activity, by influencing journalists or taking the agency to court, for example.

However, there is an additional and complicating dimension to the profitability of scandal. Such high-profile cases are likely to be the most lucrative for news agencies as consumers are more enthralled by the exposure of transgressions of the rich and famous compared to those of restaurant or office managers. There is therefore a tension involved in breaking stories in that the high-profile cases are simultaneously the most lucrative in terms of capturing consumers’ attention and the most risky in terms of the relative economic power of the transgressor.

Furthermore, where backlash can be significant enough to contest something greater than the scandal itself, there continues to be a telling of some stories and a subsequent obscuring of other voices. In the case of the Weinstein scandal, we were sold a story of a glamorous industry with an evil man pulling all the strings, and then we were presented with a barrage of reports from predominantly Western women in a position privileged enough to allow them access to social media. Where are the stories of agricultural workers on coffee plantations in Uganda, slum-dwelling women in Kolkata, or sex workers in Sheffield?

The movement revealed how sexual violence in the workplace can happen anywhere, but with a skewed view of what constituted ‘everywhere’. It is true it opened up a space for a generalised critique of the struggle faced by millions everyday in a competitive labour market and male-dominated workplace environments. However, moving forward, we need to be aware of the gaps in this apparently universal critique of sexual harassment and violence, in order to continue to feed the fire of the #MeToo campaign and recognise the plight of all workers – no matter their geographical location, gender, class or industry – and move towards a genuinely totalising critique of the role of sex abuse and domination in modern capitalism.