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feminism film MeToo

The Casting Couches Are Talking…

Casting couch culture. What is it really? I know we have all heard of Harvey Weinstein and his role in casting couch culture, but besides his horrific acts what is the exact definition of casting couch culture? The technical definition is: “a situation in which someone has sex in return for getting a job, especially in show business.” As a woman, I’m in support for people to be able to do whatever with their bodies. However, when it comes to sexual favors for things in return is it ever truly consensual? My point of view on this situation is that there is definitely a power play when it comes to casting couch culture. Phrases like “you are never going to work in this industry again” sway people to make rash choices. Three big factors that come into this conversation are consent, hierarchy, and the stories told. One of my biggest fears coming into the industry is powerful people who can make life-altering decisions based on your actions. Many people have and are speaking out about their stories when dealing with casting couch culture and the people controlling the room. It’s time to hear what happens behind closed doors and give the casting couch a place to wither away.

The casting couch has been a part of the industry for a very long time now, and before you even ask it did not start with Harvey Weinstein and nor did it end with him. Luckily, putting Harvey Weinstein in prison brought a much needed microscope to the conversation. Cari Beauchamp wrote the book Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. She delves into the story of Louis B. Mayer who, long before Harvey, was known for mistreating women and destroying their careers in any way he could when told no. Beauchamp explains that the abuse doesn’t stop at the casting couch, and it continues with producers telling people that they can’t get jobs without looking a certain way. Now I am aware that these are all non-consensual instances but allowing the casting couch culture to continue with its already blurred lines could lead to another Mayer or Weinstein. I’d like to bring in the example of teachers, where you have someone of authority and students who mind this authority figure, the chances of a student making the decision to do favors for the teacher are higher than a student saying no. When in show business you may not have the age difference, but you still have the hierarchy there, which leads me to believe that consent in this situation is based on the menacing factor of authority.

While I do think the casting couch should end, will it ever really end while we still have people in positions of power? Removing the statue of Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch isn’t enough. I think the best way to mitigate the effects of casting couch culture is to start putting either social workers in the rooms or intimacy trainers who are trained in protecting people from assault. This is just one way that I believe will help the industry overall. Another way people are finding help is through the Violence Against Women Act. This act allows their voices to be heard and not silenced. However even with all of these ways of protecting people we still seem lost on who to blame and how to maneuver these cases. One of the biggest concerns is how people find safety when put in this position. We would immediately assume that you could turn to the people running the audition rooms or sending you on these jobs, but that isn’t the case. Most companies don’t take responsibility when complaints are made and some even turn them away to avoid liability. So, finding a safe haven seems impossible to new timers and even veterans of the industry. Having a middle person in any of these situations could prevent these traumatic situations from happening and finding the people OR COMAPANIES at fault will be a big step for the industry.

Not only does the perpetrator not take responsibility but the companies involved don’t as well. When looking into the legality of everything coming out about casting couch culture there is an obvious (but silent) party lurking in the back. SAG-AFTRA a union meant for actors working in the industry. The technical definition of union is “an organized association of workers formed to PROTECT and further their rights and interests; a labor union.” With this in mind SAG-AFTRA has worked diligently to stay out of the light when considering their actors’ safety. This is another reason to consider why stopping the casting couch is a smart idea. The “authority” figure is taking advantage of the people that come into the room, but the company sponsoring these rooms and putting actors in them is SAG-AFTRA and they aren’t doing anything about the complaints. Women have spoken out about the abuse they have encountered when auditioning for new jobs and SAG-AFTRA has turned them away to avoid the liability. The lack of care given to these actors causes them to leave the industry all together. Is continuing the casting couch culture, under the idea of “consent”, a respectful reason when all these people have spoken about their horrific stories when dealing with it? NO. To continue to allow companies to get away with not protecting their employees is despicable.

The fact that people can give consent isn’t enough when we are discussing people’s futures and their “bosses” or soon to be bosses taking advantage of them. It’s manipulation at best. SAG and many other companies should start taking the fall for hiring people who think manipulation and assault is okay and being aware that it’s happening all around them. We should be taking steps to prevent this from happening, but large companies have other things that matter more.

Many people in the industry are guilty of this unspeakable crime and some producers even suggest putting sex on the table before even walking into the room. “…one of the producers suggested that she write “willing to give BJs” on her résumé if she really wanted to get parts.” Is this really the industry we all want to work in? Knowing the casting couch culture is still alive is terrifying to most aspiring actors; me being one of them. For many people in the industry this is an ongoing uphill battle. My goal for my future is to work as an actor in this, already rigorous, industry, but knowing the truth behind the table is discouraging.

I’m willing to bet I will come across this one day and all I can hope for is that I have the courage to stand up for myself and others because who knows if someone else will. I want to come into the industry knowing that people are fighting to stop this play of power and that people are being held accountable for their actions or lack thereof. “Hollywood is a business of freelancers going from one project to the next, a set that makes predators difficult to contain and blowing the whistle especially risky.” I think we are slowly but surely heading in the right direction to change this culture, but it’s about time we start holding people accountable. In any law case regarding sexual assault, it is known knowledge that you would be going after not only the people in the room but also the company. The #MeToo is causing a change in how people, and industry workers, view this culture. Soon enough there will be an uproar for justice.

The impact on projects and actors is severe when considering what they are put through. How does this directly affect the industry? It will soon start to be documented and many people will start to lose their jobs. Rightfully so, because many people left their hopes and dreams out in LA to avoid casting couch culture. An article from The Guardian says that “a survey found that 94% of women employed in the American film industry have experienced sexual harassment or assault.” This ranges from all different types of sexual harassment or assault, including: “unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures” to being “forced to do a sexual act.” Women should feel comfortable when stepping into any room, but instead are given ultimatums. The Guardian also reported “that only one in four made a complaint, and that of those who did, only 28% said their situation improved as a result.” How will the actions of others affect the women being violated? “’When it comes to sexual harassment or sexual assault, our study shows that lived experiences may have a serious impact on women’s health, both mental and physical,’ Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry at the Pitt School of Medicine and the study’s senior author said in a press release.” Low morale causes for all sorts of issues in our lives. Personally, finding a way to put an end to casting couch culture will allow everyone to breathe a little more freely. This doesn’t change the fact that people will have to live with their memories forever.

The lasting effect will forever live on in every spectator and victim. This is just another reason for casting couch culture to end, and for people to fight for justice. Watching the trials on Harvey Weinstein was just a broadcasted version of what is happening every day in the industry. The stories are important to hear but very traumatic to tell so giving people the peace of mind knowing there is support out there is so important. While the big companies may not be any help, I hope that people can find their voice to speak out through the support of their agents, loved ones and community. Victims have to go through years of counseling and therapy and not everyone can afford treatment especially when a union doesn’t provide healthcare. There are hotlines for people to reach out to that provide information and support such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE). Creating a conversation for the general public to hear will allow people to become more knowledgeable and better support systems. Killing the casting couch is a must and it can only begin when everyone involved stops being silent… and that means big companies like SAG-AFTRA.

My overall point of view is to end casting couch culture and I’m aware that this wont happen overnight, but small steps are a huge success within the industry. Fighting for a positive change in the industry is worth all the trials and tribulation. There is no consent when dealing with an “authority” figure that has the power to manipulate. The play of power is the most detrimental thing within this industry. Harvey Weinstein being put in prison was a win for many women, but people are still being taken advantage of. The microscope on the industry needs to become much larger now that we have heard many stories, and we need to keep talking about this awful part of the showbusiness industry.

As a soon-to-be graduate, I feel the need to prepare myself for the worst and it’s an atrocious feeling. I hope the word keeps spreading to make this a well-known thing. I recently got to speak with a few working actors, and they wanted everyone to know that even if someone says that if you don’t do something you won’t make it in this industry, you will. Don’t let an angry person sway you to do something you aren’t comfortable with. Fight for what you believe in and speak out. It’s time to be the voice for the voiceless and find your own voice to END CASTING COUCH CULTURE.

Works Cited

Adams, Thelma. “Casting-Couch Tactics Plagued Hollywood Long Before Harvey Weinstein.” Variety, 17 Oct. 2017.

Fisher, Luchina. “How Hollywood’s Casting Couch Culture May Have Contributed to Weinstein’s Alleged Behavior.” ABC News, 12 Oct. 2017.

“A Guide for Friends and Family of Sexual Violence Survivors.” PCAR.

Haring, Bruce. “‘The Casting Couch In Hollywood Was Not Invented By Harvey Weinstein’ – Attorney Benjamin Brafman.” Deadline, Deadline, 3 Mar. 2018.

Harris, Elizabeth A. “How #MeToo Is Smashing the Casting Couch.” The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2020.

Pulver, Andrew. “94% Of Women in Hollywood Experience Sexual Harassment or Assault, Says Survey.” The Guardian, 21 Feb. 2018.

Yurcaba, Jo. “Exclusive: Violence Against Women Act to Offer Support to LGBTQ Survivors.” NBCNews.com, 17 Mar. 2021.

Zimmerman, Amy. “Inside Hollywood’s Abusive Casting Couch Culture.” The Daily Beast, 10 Feb. 2019.