There have always been Harvey Weinsteins, only with different names and different faces.
Since the story about Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting behavior came out, it became glaringly obvious that this is something that has been happening for years, and that if he got away with it until now, it was because he knew very well how the movie industry always turned a blind eye to these kinds of crimes. But why are people so shocked now? It’s no secret that several performers have had to make “certain sacrifices” in order to get the roles they want, so why the outrage now? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t feel this way about what’s happening not only in the film industry but also all over the world in every single area of life. What I’ve been wondering since all the allegations began (and are still) being exposed, is how, now that these horrible acts have a name and a face, we somehow see it as something real, even when we know this has been happening forever.
One of the first cases of sexual harassment that became known was that of beloved actor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, almost one hundred years ago. One afternoon in 1921, actress and model Virginia Rappe was heard screaming in room 1219 of the palatial St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. She was found lying on the bed, horribly injured, and was taken to the hospital, where she died a couple of days later from a ruptured bladder. When she passed away, the friend who took care of her in her last hellish days said Rappe told her that Arbuckle had abused her.
The news spread fast, and the man who was the first Hollywood actor to sign a million-dollar contract, and one of the most famous and beloved figures of the silent film era would soon become America’s number one public enemy. What’s interesting about the case is the two sides and opinions it raised, and how it set the pattern for how these cases are still handled nowadays. Some versions claim that, when Rappe’s friend informed her doctor about the sexual abuse, they didn’t even bother to do a test to confirm it. Others say that they did the test but there was no trace of the rape. What’s true is that, after the accusation, the police got involved immediately and arrested Arbuckle. He was originally charged with first-degree murder, but later it was changed to manslaughter.
Now, it’s important to keep in mind the atmosphere at the time of this event. It was the roaring twenties, when women were starting to experience more freedom (I mean, this happened just a year after women got the right to vote). However, at the same time, all the freedom we tend to associate to this decade wasn’t the lifestyle real people had. In other words, this was the very beginning of the Prohibition Era, so there were many double standards that would later be used against Rappe in the trials.
So, back to the story. Arbuckle was a very famous public figure, so the media was naturally really interested in the case. Immediately after the story broke out, people expressed their disgust toward this man that they had admired and had let them down. Crowds of people would gather outside the police station to demand that he be given the death penalty. Just like what's happening now with the many cases that are being exposed, studio bosses and movie producers publicly condemned Arbuckle out of fear that people would stop buying movie tickets if they thought they supported him. In the blink of an eye, his promising career was over. However, was it punishment enough?
In one interview before the first trial, Arbuckle stated that he and Rappe had gone to a private party where Rappe had some drinks. All of a sudden, she started getting “hysterical”, screaming that she couldn't breathe. According to his version of the story, he took her clothes off to help her breathe, but this happened in front of many assistants. When she started looking a little better, he told two women in the crowd to take her into room 1219 and take the rest of her clothes. He claimed that he was never alone with her in the room.
However, during the first trial, he changed his version a little bit, since his team of lawyers wasn’t able to find any witnesses to back his story. This time, he said he found Rappe in a deplorable state in the room. She was vomiting and in pain, which he assumed was because her bladder was already broken. However, according to reports, there were no traces of vomit in the room, and a specialist explained that spontaneous bladder ruptures are extremely rare. To make matters worse, a witness said that the actor had invited Rappe to the party, promising her something huge for her career (sounds pretty fishy, right?).
Despite presenting two versions of the story (both of which had tons of inconsistencies), his legal team built a solid case to defend their client. They described Rappe as an immoral woman with a questionable lifestyle. That characterization proved to be enough for the jury: they thought it was only logical that something like this would happen to a libertine woman who drank publicly, who was seen with different men throughout her career, and who, according to them, had had several illegal abortions.
Her friend who accused Arbuckle, and who was an important witness for the case, was treated in the same way. They claimed that she was a convicted criminal who had admitted to the lawyers that she had made the story up to get money from the wealthy actor. She never took the stand, so people just assumed she was too embarrassed, but, hey, no one stopped to think that perhaps this group of lawyers had managed to intimidate her, which is quite possible. In the end, Arbuckle had three different trials, since all the media and people outside the court were calling for his head. After the three trials, the victim-shaming strategy worked perfectly, and Arbuckle was acquitted from all charges (well, not really, he was accused of illegal bootlegging because there was evidence of alcohol in his party, but that was it).
However, this didn’t mean his life went back to normal. His career never prospered again, since the studios were afraid that people would never forgive him, and that investing money in him would be just like flushing it down the toilet. He had to spend most of his money on the trials, so besides the public shaming, he was also deeply in debt. Finally, whenever he dared to go out in public, people would heckle him and spit in his face all the time.
Now, when I was researching this story, I found several articles arguing that he was actually innocent and that it was all an exaggeration fueled by the media that ended up sticking in the collective memory. I wasn’t there, so I can't really say anything. Almost one hundred years have passed, so I can’t assure you he murdered Rappe or that he was innocent. Actually, I don’t think anyone can. But what's true is that slut-shaming has always been a strategy used by men to justify their actions. I mean, I didn’t read about anyone asking why he was partying like that, or about how he was often seen with women he didn’t treat well. That’s because that was and still is the way these things work.
Yes, Virginia Rappe was a modern, free woman who wasn’t afraid to be herself and do what she wanted, but that doesn’t mean that her word was worthless, or that this powerful man didn't do any of the things he was accused of, or that her sex life was the cause of her tragic death. All in all, I think that cases like this one, even when we can’t know for sure what really happened, helped set a trend that many men have followed for generations in this society. So, now more than ever, we really have to speak up and not let these attitudes spread to the next generation.
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