Guest Post: From Hollywood to Academia, Power Structures of Sexual Harassment Remain the Same
This post was originally published as “From Hollywood to Academia” with The Activist History Review.
A note from ERA: Kristen Hillaire Glasgow wrote the below piece in January 2018, years into the Title IX investigation process at UCLA. Kristen first reported her experience of sexual assault to the university in 2013, in support of another graduate student who had recently stepped forward about her assailant, History professor Gabriel Piterberg. This March, UCLA announced that a Title IX investigation had determined that Kristen’s professor had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. As covered by the LA Times, Piterberg has agreed to leave his position and forgo future employment in the University of California system. The UCLA Title IX coordinator who led Kristen’s second investigation that resulted in this positive outcome has since gone on to be the system wide UC Title IX coordinator.
Below, Kristen discusses how the communities of Hollywood and academia “are remarkably similar in how & why they harbor sexual predators.” Earlier this month, Equal Rights Advocates announced a slate of anti-sexual harassment bills, supported by activists within Hollywood. This week, we filed suit against Sacramento City Unified School District for the gross mishandling of student sexual assault.
Having grown up in Hollywood during the late 1960s through the 1980s, I have not only witnessed sexual harassment, I have experienced it firsthand. I understand how it is an integral part of the way Hollywood operates, where abuse of power is seen as a sign of strength and sexual harassment is as ubiquitous as the palm trees that line Sunset Boulevard.
My father was a well-known manager, representing Bill Cosby and other famous men. He also managed women, like Joan Rivers and the rock band, Fanny. The difference in their treatment by the Hollywood community was stark in contrast. My own experiences as an actress and singer were rife with accounts of sexual harassment and sexual intimidation, by which I mean that men suggested I sleep with “so and so” in order to accelerate my career. Show me a powerful man in Hollywood who has not sexually harassed women and that would be a story to cover.
I left show business because I was not willing to play the game, whether in terms of my own exploitation or the shallowness of the industry writ large. Show biz was not fulfilling in any capacity, since I had long-seen its seedy underbelly. I was searching for a career with more depth, something challenging yet satisfying. So, at thirty-three, I enrolled in community college, worked my way through undergraduate, and entered the Ph.D. program in history at UCLA. I had found my calling. I wanted to be an academic. Little did I know that, more than a decade later, I would leave the profession because, like my time in Hollywood, I was not willing to play the game of sexual harassment or intimidation to accelerate my career.
My father, Roy Silver, was at the height of his success as a manager and producer in the 1960s and 1970s. He launched Bill Cosby’s career from “start to stardom,” as he liked to say, and soon after both men were winning Grammys and Emmys for Cosby’s comedy albums, producing “I Spy,” and starting a production company called Campbell, Silver, Cosby. Being too young to know about issues of sexual harassment, I was not aware of anything Cosby would subsequently be accused of doing by over sixty women. This does not mean that their accounts are untrue. Even though my father’s management of Cosby ended in the early 1970s, rumors were already circulating.
I wanted to be an academic. Little did I know that, more than a decade later, I would leave the profession because, like my time in Hollywood, I was not willing to play the game of sexual harassment or intimidation to accelerate my career.
Harvey Weinstein recently quipped that his behavior was merely a sign of the times. Horrifyingly, he is not entirely mistaken. The time period is well documented with abuses of unquestioned power and unabashed solicitation of sex combined with excessive drug use. The difference, however, is that Weinstein blamed the historical timeframe of the sexual revolution, invoking sex, drugs, and, in his case, films, to justify predatory acts. And if Cosby and Weinstein were outliers as serial assaulters and rapists, sexual harassment remained a major component of Hollywood’s DNA. Those who managed to carve a place for themselves in the competitive world of show biz were not going to blow the whistle and risk ending their own dreams and aspirations.
During this same time period, my father was also managing the nascent careers of Joan Rivers and Fanny, the latter the first all-female rock ‘n roll band signed under contract to an American record label. Yet unlike Cosby or my dad’s other male clients, Rivers and Fanny were treated differently by the male moguls of the industry. Rivers was difficult to sell as a star because she was not conventionally pretty, while Fanny was difficult to sell because they were playing rock ‘n roll and were too pretty. These women were entering fields dominated by men—whether in comedy or the record industry. This not only meant breaking down professional barriers, it meant having to infiltrate an old boys’ club that didn’t want them there as equals, only as commodities.
Even though my father was certainly a man of his era and enjoyed women as much as his Glenlivet, he was hyper-aware of the inequity and unfairness for talented women trying to break into male-dominated fields like comedy or music. Another client of his, Carole Wayne, a blonde bombshell, was lusted after by the men on the set of the Tonight Showand was a frequent guest in comedy sketches alongside Johnny Carson. Joan Rivers, however, was “not pretty enough” and was therefore a hard act to pitch. A beautiful side kick was easy, but a cerebral comic, not so much. Significantly, because Rivers was not considered attractive, my father and her agents were unable to potentially offer her up as sexual leverage to land her a gig. Rivers’ physical appearance diminished the value of her intellectual attributes while tacitly signaling her rejection as a sexual object to Hollywood’s chauvinistic power brokers who remained the gatekeepers of her success.
Sexual harassment in academia is a carbon copy of Hollywood in that it enables abuse at the hands of a few elitist men in positions of authority and has destroyed too many careers of talented women trying to enter their profession of choice.
Contrary to what my father faced with Rivers, Fanny was composed of four conventionally attractive women. After their first record was released in 1970, they went on tour across the U.S. and Great Britain. These female musicians were asked to open up for The Who and jammed with David Bowie. Yet, despite their success, the only question they were asked was whether they were truly playing the instruments (they were) or if it had been men playing behind the curtain. The audiences, the radio DJs, and the nightclubs collectively saw Fanny as a novelty act. It was unthinkable that women could play in a band on their own without Svengalis like Berry Gordy or Phil Spector. What was not a novelty, however, was Fanny perpetually being exposed to the predominance of powerful men in the music industry. They experienced the ongoing carrot-dangling of fame in exchange for the unsolicited and non-consensual propositions of sex.
When I was a singer and actress in the 1980s and early 1990s, the liberality of sexual harassment permeated every aspect of Hollywood. Many of the names being outed today in the #metoo movement were known then, and it was more than an open secret. It was patently understood that successful careers were made with casting couch consummations. This was not new or surprising to me. What was new and surprising was having to experience the monotonous and serial sexual harassment first hand.
One incident changed everything for me. I was being interviewed by a man who was potentially going to manage me as a singer/songwriter. At our meeting, he name-dropped one famous person after another as I feigned interest and awe. The conversation turned to him asking if I would be willing to bring my music over to a well-known producer’s hotel room that evening. It was already late afternoon. The situation suddenly became very real. When I told him that I wasn’t comfortable doing that, he stood up from his chair, almost knocking it back, and screamed with disgust, “Do you really want to have a career like Bonnie Raitt’s, where it took her over twenty years to make it because she wouldn’t fuck her way to the top?!” I thought to myself, “Oh, if there’s a God in heaven, please let me have Bonnie Raitt’s career.” But I knew that wasn’t his point. It was, however, the point that turned me away from Hollywood and toward academia. Naively (I now know), I thought I would be recognized for my intellectual talent and not for what I might potentially offer someone sexually in exchange for a shot at being famous.
Once I came forward publicly, I was labeled “crazy” by some in the academic community, both men and women.
I have now been a doctoral candidate much longer than anticipated, having entered the program over a decade ago. The main reason is that academia, like Hollywood, is filled with those in power and those who are seeking it, and the chasm is almost insurmountable. As in Hollywood, there are games, hoops, and behaviors that must be performed for the slimmest chance of achieving scholarly goals, including tenure. Like Hollywood, academia is a small, private, and elite world where only the few get in and even fewer remain influential and vital in their work. And, like Hollywood, the profession has long been dominated by men.
I noticed the similarities between Hollywood and academia soon into graduate school. As a woman, I found myself having to perform in similar ways as to my days in Hollywood, despite having a well-earned and impressive C.V. After Hollywood, I foolishly thought I could handle the seemingly-innocent flirtations of older professors in exchange for potential letters of recommendations and scholarly contacts. I was wrong. Like in Hollywood, where men in power may pretend to be interested in an actresses’ work to curry sexual favors, older male academics often treat female graduate students in the same way. I have been privy to many conversations where they unabashedly commented on the physical attributes of their female students and colleagues, while dismissing their intellectual contributions. And I’ve often heard these same professors snidely remark that female academics don’t produce as much scholarship and only received fellowships and/or tenure because of diversity requirements.
Both Hollywood and academia are cloistered communities, where access is contingent upon a certain degree of talent as well as the inherent inequity between the actor and the mogul or the graduate student and the professor. Sexual harassment in academia is a carbon copy of Hollywood in that it enables abuse at the hands of a few elitist men in positions of authority and has destroyed too many careers of talented women trying to enter their profession of choice.
In 2015, I brought a lawsuit against my university’s Board of Regents for failing to protect me under Title IX after a tenured professor sexually assaulted and harassed me. Once I came forward publicly, I was labeled “crazy” by some in the academic community, both men and women. I was ostracized by peers and faculty, as well as blamed for having somehow brought this on. I was the subject of unfounded gossip, including that I was making excuses to not finishing my dissertation or that I had returned to school only to marry a professor. What became evident to me was that it was easier for many in academia to use traditional and unsubstantiated victim-shaming rhetoric rather than believing that a well-known and prestigious scholar could be a sexual predator. After almost a year and a half in litigation, the school settled the case. But, to this day, the professor remains employed.
What is striking about sexual harassment in academia is that, like in Hollywood, where a starlet speaking out against a producer’s sexual advances often marks the death of her career, a graduate student speaking out against a professor often results in similar professional annihilation. The producer or the professor can claim that the starlet or the student is crazy, untalented (or unintelligent), or difficult to work with. These inaccurate but potent descriptions are often purposefully injected into the discourse in order to undermine her credibility. Having spent as much time in academia as I did in Hollywood, I never once heard a male professor refer to a male graduate student or colleague as being difficult to work with. It’s code for “she won’t play the game.”
The actions of a sexual predator are often excused, justified, or ignored because of the status and acclaim they bring to a film or an academic department. Oftentimes, financial settlements and non-disclosure agreements accompany the cover-up. Much easier to silence marginalized voices as well as those trying to dismantle the paradigm. Sexual predators in both professions have gotten away with their actions based upon a climate of silent complicity that has allowed the abuse of power to continue far too long without consequence. From Hollywood to academia, these institutions have both been trapped in a patriarchal time warp that is finally buckling under the cultural pressure to no longer tolerate sexual harassment.
Kristen Hillaire Glasgow is currently a Ph.D. candidate in History at UCLA. She entered the program as a (West) Africanist. Two years later, she did a field switch to U.S. history with an emphasis on nineteenth century African-American and Transatlantic history. Her dissertation focuses on free woman of color in Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem during the 1830s-1860s. These women were highly educated intellectuals and used their education and socio-economic status to help uplift poor people of color in the North and emancipate those enslaved in the South. Ms. Glasgow received her B.A. at UCLA in History with a minor in Art History. Prior to this, she was signed to a three-year contract to Warner Bros. Publishing as a songwriter at the age of fifteen, and remained in show biz until she was thirty. The rest is history. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at @KHGlasgow.
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