Weinstein, Hefner and the Poor Excuse that Explains a Lot

Everybody rolled their eyes because it’s the sort of rationale that deserves an eye roll. Great. The “Mad Men” defense. Yet, if taken at its word, there is something clarifying about an explanation like that. It suggests that his behavior belongs to some time when it was common for, say, a female co-worker to be treated like an item in the supply closet. Help yourself.

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Harvey Weinstein in 2015. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Mr. Weinstein’s social diagnosis successfully invoked the era that we had just memorialized after Hugh Hefner died. Mr. Hefner invented the Playboy ethos that Mr. Weinstein used like a get-out-of-jail-free card. “The culture then” encouraged men to loosen their libidos and women were expected to tolerate it. Playboy operated with a patina of civility that granted the average man a presumption of pleasure that went one way — his. And that permission flourished in the psyches of all kinds of men.

When Oliver Stone and Woody Allen came forward to express sympathy for Mr. Weinstein, everybody rolled their eyes at them, too. More defensive insult, and from men seemingly indifferent to an internet that swiftly dredged up trouble from their own sexual histories. That both directors felt a need to speak up illustrates an enduring, but misguided, myth of the sexual revolution. We romanticized Mr. Hefner’s empire as a revolutionary force — lovers gonna love, and all of that — but it was actually just a popularization of entitlement.

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In 1980, Hugh Hefner got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. Credit Associated Press

In the wake of the Weinstein news, as more women detail unwanted encounters with colleagues and bosses, we’re seeing how common it was for men, indeed, to help themselves. We’re seeing how the personal Playboy fantasy, benign as it might have looked, could spread into the workplace.

Mr. Hefner’s disdain for sexual limits fueled fantasies and shaped self-images. He was the Walt Disney of lust — and had his own set of seemingly innocuous iconic animal ears. You didn’t have to read Playboy, visit the mansion, wear pajamas or even be straight: The effects of its ideas about women on the American psyche were totalizing. Women were inferior to men because, for Playboy, they were scenery — pretty, passive, usually white, often blonde, there.

The Playboy doctrine would mutate into the darker, more explicit realm that is spooling out on “The Deuce.” Pornography gave us a framework for understanding sex as both an act and a state of mind that was similar to Hollywood’s imposition of ideas about romance.

The stories that get repeated in plot after plot have become a kind of erogenous pop-culture value system: women as prey, as parts (boobs, bottoms, lips, legs) as often as wholes; leading women but also the “final girl.” A search for full female humanity in Hollywood movies turns up a lot of dolls and dream girls.

The culture now seems eager to challenge some of those values — or at least to restage, unpack and reckon with, in Mr. Weinstein’s words, “the culture then.” The journalistic depiction of prostitution and a burgeoning porn cinema on “The Deuce” is grim and queasy and morally suspenseful. Not even the wiliest, most enterprising female characters fare well. But the show’s most exhilarating moments are on the faces of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dominique Fishback, as they come alive with plans of self-determination, of power-sharing. But it feels like it might take forever for their dreams to come true.

The other night I saw “Battle of the Sexes,” which recounts that time in 1974 when the former tennis champ and self-styled chauvinist clown Bobby Riggs baited Billie Jean King into playing a match that became a national political spectacle. It’s not a great movie. Things get logy anytime it goes near a hotel room. (Why don’t moviemakers know that hotel air isn’t quite the same as oxygen?)

But I went home happy, anyway. That’s because the movie takes a rollicking, triumphal approach to the feminism of its day. (It was also known as “women’s lib” back then.) The men sit around in locker rooms and lounges grinning and grunting and slurping beer. Howard Cosell says about Ms. King, “Should she ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders, took her glasses off, you’d have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen test.”

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“Battle of the Sexes” takes a rollicking, triumphal approach to the feminism of its day. Credit Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s true that no one is bragging about how easy it is to grab a woman by her vagina. And Riggs, courtesy of Steve Carell, is a cartoon: loud, bawdy, shameless, mildly pathetic, opportunistically insincere, a little desperate, a jester in misogynist drag. He’s like the villain in an episode of “Scooby Doo” before Scooby and the gang yank off his mask. I would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you meddling feminists!

And yet the old Riggs’s chauvinism is still out there. Earlier this month, Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback was asked by a sports reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, a standard professional question about his receivers and their routes. He didn’t notice her professionalism. He noticed something else: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.” (The lassitude in his response acquires some lasciviousness for that last word.)

This is to say that the Playboy-era myths are hard to shake. “Battle of the Sexes” and “The Deuce,” especially, show how resistant we are to real equality. One dead pimp on “The Deuce” doesn’t end male-controlled prostitution. Systemic inequity is harder to kill. So is the misogyny that fuels it.

The disentanglement of Harvey Weinstein from Hollywood’s institutions has, so far, culminated in the termination of his membership in the Motion Picture Academy, the outfit whose duties include handing out the Oscars. His eviction might address an aspect of the Harvey Weinstein problem. But it doesn’t do much to reverse the absence of women from all kinds of craft jobs; nor does it end the drought of best picture winners that feature two or more women in major speaking roles who also speak to each other. In the last 34 years, that’s happened twice, with “Terms of Endearment” and “Chicago.” We’re talking about a phallocentrism that’s baked into movies and television. It’s the reason we have the Bechdel Test, which asks whether female characters, among other very simple things, meaningfully communicate with each other about something other than a man. Almost no movies pass.

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In an episode of “Girls,” Hannah gets inside the apartment of a famous writer and notorious harasser. Credit HBO

There’s power in turning to the past to illuminate the current state of things. But there’s different power in the culture now looking at the culture now — or now-ish. The second-season dismount of the Amazon show “One Mississippi” involves a woman’s reaction to an important, sexually creepy male producer. A sensationally complex episode of “Girls” from February — “American Bitch” — puts its protagonist, Hannah Horvath, inside the apartment and on the bed of a famous writer and notorious harasser whom she had visited in order to confront. The best thing about the HBO show “Westworld” is the struggle of female androids to extricate themselves from the limiting fantasies for which they’ve been created. And a major Emmy-winner this year was HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” in which a group of frenemies wind up training their focus on an abusive husband. Another was “The Handmaid’s Tale,” on Hulu, about life for women under patriarchal totalitarianism. An idea associated with that show was the same as a hashtag that showed up during the women’s march in January: Resist.

Before this month, I had heard Beyoncé’s “Formation” as a song about, more or less, united, self-protective black feminism. But since the Weinstein news, the chorus sounds more than ever as if it could double as a gender-wide war command: “O.K., ladies now let’s get in formation” — or “let’s get information.” Either way, now I can hear a call for action and solidarity, to be seen and believed.

Still, the persistence of all this combat can leave you weary. That accounts for the mixed emotions of my night at “Battle of the Sexes.” This is a movie about a tennis match that really happened, yet it feels like a fable. When Billie Jean King, who’s played by Emma Stone, wins the first set, cheers broke out in the theater. Actual cheers. I turned around to see who clapped, and one section was filled with women who seemed old enough to remember seeing the match. Celebrating it felt good; it felt just.

It also felt dismayingly recurrent. The movie is called “Battle of the Sexes” but only because somebody already took “Groundhog Day.” And Ms. King is very much a civil rights legend. But, here, she’s also Sisyphus.

So what now? If the entitlements of the Playboy era have suffused our lunch breaks and boardroom meetings and subway rides home, and porn has evolved into something elemental, like fire and water, how do we prevent their personal encroachments and abuses, along with every other important but less salacious imbalance, like for instance, with salaries? How do we reconcile all the complications? “Resist” is one thing. “Change” is something else. Beyoncé is sending that solidarity cry out for ladies. But to get anything meaningful done, more than a few good men are going to have to answer it, too.

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