How many women does it take to be believed? It’s a question that percolated along with my morning coffee yesterday, as a routine BBC interview with novelist Ian McEwan – intended to centre on the recent film adaptation of his 2007 novella On Chesil Beach – deviated into an uneasy examination of a disgraced movie mogul awaiting trial for rape.
"I don't know," said McEwan, when asked about the advancing Harvey Weinstein scandal on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. "It seems a kind of circus to me.” Cold detachment soon turned to what can only be described as serene ambiguity and doubt. “There’s the media stuff, which we have to penetrate,” he continued. “We don’t know what actually happened, but it seems as if he’s a moral monster who’s had his comeuppance. I always like to encourage in myself just a degree of scepticism once a whole mob is in full cry. So, I’m going to withhold judgement until I’ve heard the arguments in court.”
At this pivotal moment, when over 70 women have come forward accusing a Hollywood producer (still boasting a net worth of around $50 million) of sexual assault and harassment, there is a quiet kind of privilege to be found in ambivalence: the kind of ambivalence that backs scepticism in the wake of multiple credible testimonies. Over the last eight months, scores of women have spoken out about the trauma they suffered in five-star hotel suites around the world. During a New York Police Department sting operation in 2015, Weinstein even admitted to groping Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, describing it as behaviour he is “used to”. Last week, he was finally arraigned on charges of first- and third-degree rape and committing a criminal sexual act in the first degree. And yet for McEwan, the sheer weight of harrowing testimony, investigative reporting and criminal charges isn’t quite enough.
Both ‘mob’ and ‘witch hunt’ suggest a kind of depraved lawlessness – which strikes an offensively discordant note when contrasted with the powerhouse #MeToo first sought to dismantle: Harvey Weinstein
McEwan’s answer may have only constituted a couple of minutes of airtime, but his hesitant words play into a much larger narrative that’s been rolling for some time, powerfully demonstrating the ways in which women’s voices are brushed aside and disregarded – especially when they pull sharply away from what is perceived to be the status quo. McEwan isn’t the first white man to start crying “mobs” when discussing Weinstein or the validity of #MeToo as a global counter-movement. In March, director Terry Gilliam likened the hashtag movement to “mob rule”, arguing, “the mob is out there, they are carrying their torches and they are going to burn down Frankenstein’s castle”. Weeks later, the Palme d'Or-winning filmmaker Michael Haneke accused #MeToo of instigating a “witch hunt” that “should be left in the Middle Ages”. Neither Haneke, Gilliam nor Man Booker Prize-winning McEwan can be in any doubts over the potency of the words they use – they’re storytellers by trade. As this trio are well aware, these terms conjure up images of riotous, unruly crowds fuelled by disorderly hysteria and devoid of ethics. Both “mob” and “witch hunt” suggest a kind of depraved lawlessness – which strikes an offensively discordant note when contrasted with the powerhouse #MeToo first sought to dismantle: Harvey Weinstein, a 66-year-old man who allegedly hired private investigators and ex-Mossad spies to track actors and journalists investigating allegations of systematic assault.
Words matter. They matter when you consider the severity and scale of Weinstein’s behaviour. And they matter for the 510,000 women – an estimated 3.1 per cent of all women aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales – who experienced some type of sexual assault in the UK over the last 12 months. Last week, “the circus” – populated not by clowns and trapeze acts, but Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters, survivors and campaigners – achieved the seemingly impossible across the Atlantic. The towering movie mogul – once unstoppable in a dressing gown, now a shadow of his former self – shuffled outside a New York courthouse with his wrists in handcuffs. But, while Weinstein’s arrest has been heralded as a key turning point, it is important to recognise that a difficult path still lies ahead for further accusers who wish to break free from scepticism – but who lack the platform and funds in which to do so. “What if only one woman had accused Harvey Weinstein?” Deborah Tuerkheimer, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, asked last year. There is, we are told, credibility in numbers – but if we persist on doubting the voices of 70-plus women in unison, what hope does any woman have of being singularly believed?
As the French actor Judith Godrèche told the New York Times in the hours following Weinstein’s arrest, there are some things you can’t repair. “Women’s souls and bodies and memories and traumas that are going to be there forever, careers that have been damaged,” she said. “You can’t get that back.” Godrèche is right: we can’t turn back time. But we can ensure that Weinstein’s accusers are heard, valued and – with our eyes firmly locked on the moral monster in handcuffs – finally believed.