Does Harvey Weinstein Signal the End of Mad Men?

Social Commentary

Does Harvey Weinstein Signal the End of Mad Men?

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

“Icame of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse, in the office – or out of it. To anyone.”

– Harvey Weinstein

The incomprehensible case of Harvey Weinstein follows in the close footsteps of the moral disrobing of Bill Cosby and the inexplicable rise of Trump despite “the Access Hollywood Tapes”. The over-the-top reaction of Americans to these three revelations should come as an instructive case of real-life “whataboutery” for those watching these reactions from India, but that’s another story.

Mixed with the disgust that women and men all over the world are probably feeling with the Weinstein case, is a tinge of affirmation. If a giant like Weinstein can be taken down by a bunch of women, anyone can.

America, today, is at a pivotal point in the feminist movement: There is a mainstreaming of the gains from what is popularly known as second-wave feminism. Feminist writers and intellectuals may proclaim that this ended in the ’80s with the recognition of a public role for women in the workplace and legal rights over their bodies. But cultural undercurrents usually have an insidious way of overcoming intellectual ones. The elite may have arrived at their consensus but nobody actually informed the poobahs of industry that their behaviour was no longer acceptable.

Harvey Weinstein was one of them. He simply did not get the memo. As the youngest of the powerful men preying on young girls uninhibited, Harvey is 65 years old today. Most of the allegations against him crescendo in the mid-90s. Bill O’Reilly clocks in at a close 68, he too having come of age before the gains of second-wave feminism translated into a commonly accepted zeitgeist.

Young men are beginning to recognise the indicators of consent and women feel empowered to give consent.

Even Cosby’s pattern of alleged sexual assaults crested long before steroidal men had fully confronted the evolving role of women at the workplace. So when Bill Clinton’s white stain came along in the ’90s, it no longer surprised us. The 71-year-old Clinton belonged to this club and as an impressionable 19 year old in the middle of the ’60s, he bloomed in a deeply misogynistic decade that the TV show Mad Men recreates for us: A time when men could whack their secretaries’ bottoms without fear of repercussion; where they could say things like “won’t let a woman talk to him this way”.

As an Atlantic article headlined “Mad Men’s Very Modern Sexism Problem” puts it, “We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.”

As we now know, that is no longer the case.

Harvey Weinstein

If a giant like Harvey Weinstein can be taken down by a bunch of women, anyone can.
Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Today, these men Like Weinstein may be crawling out of the woodwork in America, but the good news is the trickle may soon stop. We might soon be done with the Mad Men generation as they approach their twilight years. Soon, a new generation will take their place. A generation bred in a significantly less steroidal world.

India is currently going through its version of the second-wave transformation. In some ways and in some parts of the country, Indian women have always been more visible in the public sphere than women in the West. Every major South Asian state has had a female head of state; women have been active in politics since well before Independence including as voters with equal rights.

But on issues relating to sex and sexuality, we’ve always been a step or two behind the West. Even in big metros, the idea of women self-identifying as initiators in the “mating game” hasn’t been seeded. Male members of the species are to devote themselves to the singular job of getting a female member to switch a “no” to a “yes”.

And if you think we were bad you should acquaint yourself with the men who came before us. In the last couple of years, we have had supposedly progressive men like RK Pachauri and Tarun Tejpal brought to their knees on charges of sexual harassment.

And yet, despite the cases against younger men like Arunabh Kumar and Manik Katyal, there is a small glimmer of hope. That this might well be the last generation of men in urban India not acquainted with the language of consent.

The next generation in some parts of urban India, hopefully, knows better. They belong to a cultural moment where the very words pre-marital and extra-marital sex are turning into quaint anachronisms from a prudish past. Young men are beginning to recognise the indicators of consent and women feel empowered to give consent. And if a transgression takes place, women are finding the voice to speak up about it.

The twin forces of empowering female consent to sexual activity (taking it out of the domain of secrecy and guilt) and a (slow) cultural shift away from shaming the victim, have altered the contours of the debate in subtle ways. Manik Katyal is just the beginning. It is simply a matter of time before India too has its Cosby-Weinstein-O’Reilly-Clinton-Trump-style moment of reckoning, where cultural icons with the status of a Bill Cosby or a Harvey Weinstein, will be slayed. Bollywood, we’re looking at you.