Sexual Favors in Media Work

The disgusting case of Harvey Weinstein's decades long history of bullying, pestering, abusing and thereby controlling (young) women in the US film industry is, as the fabulous Emma Thompson and other media workers have testified to, the tip of the iceberg of sexual harassment and abuse of power by (old, white) men at the top of the pyramid of the media industries toward (young, male and female) workers trying to get a break. It is important to realize that this is not just an element of toxic masculinity - it a direct consequence of the way media work is managed and organized.

Ten years ago I wrote about this in my book Media Work on the ways in which media professionals 'make it work' in the games, news, advertising, film and television industries. Below is a snipped specific to this issue. Looking back, I realize I should have spent much more time and space to articulating the complexity of gender dynamics and power relationships across all these industries, which tend to be run and organized and financed by old white men yet at the bottom end overpopulated by eager and exploitable young men and (primarily) women, creating a perfect breeding ground for predators such as Weinstein and a culture of mutual dependency that makes people keep their mouth shut instead of speaking out and risking losing all chances for future employment.

Excerpt from Media Work:


Thomas Borcherding and Darren Filson suggest that the risky, project-based, extremely uncertain yet completely hit-driven nature of the business “creates an environment that can lead to exchanges of sexual favors of newcomers” (2000, p.26), hinting at the so-called ‘casting couch’ problem of alleged sexual exploitation of young men and women entering the movie industry. 

The authors however conclude that with the breakup of the large studio-system and the death of long-term contracts tying certain employees to these companies, their power to make or break the careers of newcomers has diminished. However, as there are many more people wanting to get in to the film and television business than that there are jobs available, tension runs high in finding, keeping and consolidating jobs and, ultimately, a career. 

Scattered evidence from recent lawsuits in the entertainment industry (such as a long-running case in the U.S. ending in February 2006 against the writers of the popular television series Friends), suggest that the courts are sympathetic to arguments from industry lawyers that because of the particular nature of media work a pervasive sexual atmosphere can be necessary for the creative process of producing adult entertainment in general, and comedy in particular.

Helen Blair is among those who warn against both an overtly romantic view of the glamorous nature of working in film and television, as well as against the notion that in these industries everything is unpredictable and uncertain. Blair(2001) considers the film and television industries to be in a state of “precarious stability.” 

The End of the University (or a New Beginning)

after reading about the current protests across the University of California system, and the ongoing commercialization and corporatization of higher education (as exemplified by top-down hierarchical decision-making practices focused on the "bottom-line" and the domination of managerial speak in bureaucratic rhetoric on education, such as: "efficiency", "results", "return on investment", and so on) - and considering my own research on the precarity of work in contemporary liquid modernity (especially in the creative industries, but evidently across all industry sectors), I'd like to share a few thoughts on the end or possibly a new beginning of the university.

as mentioned, the inspiration for these concerns comes from recent publications documenting the transformation of the university around the world, as exemplified in the US by:

- a gradual decline in the number of tenure-track jobs (and an increase of adjunct, parttime, visiting, and otherwise contingent positions);

- the ongoing marketization/commodification of knowledge and innovation produced by universities exclusive to companies, including closed-access corporate publishers (as opposed to actually making that knowledge available to all people, which the university increasingly does not do);

- increasing investments in e-learning (in effect "virtualizing" teachers), financial markets (making budgets of universities contingent on market fluctuations, see for example the endowment problems at all US universities that manage such funds), and sports facilities (intended to boost revenues from ticket sales, merchandising, and corporate sponsorships);

- a shift in thinking about education from teaching critical thinking to offering industry-driven or "work-ready" skills (preparing students for a labor market that is increasingly precarious, contingent, atypical, and uncertain).

although my university - Indiana University - has a long and proud tradition of protecting the faculty and students against much of these influences, recent years have seen an acceleration of the aforementioned trends: huge building projects (of up to $ 1 billion dollars), tenure-track hiring freezes (but plenty of openings for adjunct and visiting lines), and increasing pressure on us to provide students with e-learning facilities and "practical" skills that help them in the "real world" (where what is "real" is defined by mainstream segments of industry).

all of these trends boost the corporate and commercial orientation of the university (which trend in turn gets reinforced as one-third of US college presidents in fact serve on the boards of corporations).

i do not consider the role of corporations or commerce a problem per se (one could argue that the current proliferation of academic knowledge mainly through and perhaps due to the internet is encouraging), but if that orientation does not come with specific caveats, protections, checks and balances, the university as we know it becomes just another factory workplace - not a place for independent and critical reflection; a place that teaches people to make up their own minds.

now let me assure you: i am not a socialist or communist, nor a fascist or capitalist (if anything, i am radically opposed to anything that comes even close to TINA-thinking).

i am, however, concerned about the growing threats to the foundational values of the university - especially academic freedom and faculty governance - that compelled me to come to the US to work there in the first place.

optimist as I am, I'm looking for evidence for a new beginning...

some further links that offer food for thought:

Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor

essay on Digital Labor and education by Michelle Glaros (Dakota State University)

EduFactory