What it's like to be young in Hollywood’s culture of harassment

As the Harvey Weinstein scandal unfolds and demands to reform the industry intensify, VICE News spoke with dozens of assistants and young actors in Los Angeles and New York by phone, email, and text message about Hollywood’s persistent culture of abuse...

Every year they arrive in Hollywood with dreams of making it. They’re told to grow a thick skin and that if they work hard and land the right meetings, they just might become a showrunner, an agent, or a movie star. Many of them start out as assistants and have to endure bad bosses — who often scream, sometimes humiliate, and occasionally throw things. And some young people in Hollywood experience the sexual harassment we’re finally acknowledging is endemic to the entertainment industry.

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As the Harvey Weinstein scandal unfolds and demands to reform the industry intensify, VICE News spoke with dozens of assistants and young actors in Los Angeles and New York by phone, email, and text message about Hollywood’s persistent culture of abuse — and what it would take to change it. (We granted them anonymity to speak candidly about their experiences.)

These young people working in film, television, and theater say sexual harassment isn’t necessarily worse in their industry compared to others, but some aspects of the business — endless competition, a premium on physical appearance, and the voyeurism inherent in the work — allow it to thrive. Now, they’re watching their bosses react to the scandal and taking notes on how to be better leaders as they come up through the ranks.

Harassment is common

We asked assistants and actors to share their experiences with harassment, and many responded with stories of abuse by superiors and peers alike. Others said they hadn’t experienced sexual harassment themselves, but most knew friends or colleagues who had.

[One of the co-owners] jokingly had a company policy called “Sexual Harassment Thursdays” where he couldn’t be held accountable for any fucked-up things he chose to say. There was a pervasive culture that harassment was something employees of the company were expected to put up with. The culture of harassment was so endemic that it became a joke.
— Male assistant at an LA animation company
[The first assistant director] would come up behind me and give me unwanted shoulder massages. This was on stage in front of everyone. I felt so uncomfortable and even more uncomfortable to speak in the moment and draw attention to it. One particular time he massaged my shoulders, then whispered in my ear something along the lines of, “That’s the closest you can get to sex on stage. I have to go smoke a cigarette now.” It’s been pretty prevalent on every show I’ve worked on. Nothing that felt substantial enough to report, but definitely a lot of things that have stuck with me.
— Female assistant in LA
[I’ve been] harassed in the sense that I’ve felt like I had to flirt or lean into flirtation in order to keep the job I had, yes. Like, “Hook up with me and I’ll help you. If not, fuck off.” I feel like it’s normal for girls in any industry.
— Female production assistant in LA
I have worked for men who asked me to meet them at their apartment, only to greet me in a towel or robe. I have worked for men who have taken me out to dinner and asked me to take a car home with them. I have worked for men who have blocked me from my next gig when I didn’t accept their sexual overtures. And as an assistant, I have watched bosses have affairs with underage boys. The gay mafia is very real here, and as a young man, there isn’t an opportunity to speak up about these things and still have a career when so many people are part of it.
— Male assistant on Broadway
I’ve been groped. Been taught to think it’s commonplace. Normal. That everyone has slept with SOMEONE to get somewhere (I have not). “This is how the business is. Get thicker skin.” That I was hired because I was a girl. That I wasn’t invited to set and had to stay in the office because I wasn’t “pretty enough.” Plenty of it.
— Female producer in LA
This [talent manager] is known for being lewd and inappropriate within the comedy world, and when I started working for him he thought I wanted to have an affair with him, though I absolutely did not. One night in particular, he tried to make advances on me, which I declined, and then he kept asking me to explain why I wasn’t interested/how he could have possibly misinterpreted “all the signs” (such as eye contact). It was really uncomfortable, to say the least, and made me feel like it was just me. Maybe my lipstick was too bright. Maybe I was too friendly. Maybe I HAD inadvertently given him “signs.”
— Female assistant
I had a previous [female] boss who was a VP who constantly made comments about my figure/size — a lot of “Are you going to eat that? You’re going to have to do a lot of crunches if you’re going to that festival.” “Oh, there’s no way she’d fit into a size 4,” on a conference call.
— Female assistant in LA
[A coworker] made a rape joke in a meeting with no consequences. He’d often make similarly sexually suggestive “jokes” to me and other employees. It was after he asked me and two of my female coworkers if our “periods synched up” that I decided to report his behavior to my superior. My supervisor assured me he’d take appropriate action — however, what this resulted in was him getting a “stern talking to” from his direct superior in which he somehow learned that it was me who had reported him.
— Female assistant in LA
One of my bosses started making comments on my sex life. I found out that he had asked a previous assistant if she had done anal, and that was his first warning from the company. The final straw for me was when we, the assistants, took a trip to Vegas. It was like as a thank you for pilot season; they bought our hotel, which was really sweet. And we came back and I was telling [my boss] about the trip. And I’m a big foodie, so I was saying the things I ate, and I said I had a burrito. And he said, “By burrito, you mean cock, right?”
— Female former assistant at a talent management company in LA

Abuse is accepted because of industry culture

Assistants described a culture obsessed with power, where senior people often display their status within the hierarchy by berating underlings. They said more-casual industry norms — like meetings over drinks — and casting decisions that are often based on people’s appearances can blur the lines around sexual misconduct.

Anybody who heard these revelations about Harvey Weinstein and said, “I just never had any idea, I never could have imagined,” that person would be either lying or has lived under a rock for their entire lives, because that kind of behavior has been the subject of films, it’s been the subject of TV shows. Everybody knows that that kind of stuff goes on. So obviously before I started working in the entertainment industry, I had some idea that there was a lot of fucked-up shit going on behind the scenes.
— Male writer’s assistant in NYC
We work in an industry where there is an extraordinary fixation on looks. Women are expected to look a certain way, present themselves a certain way. That’s our industry. We’re making videos about how to make yourself look that way, too. I think it sort of creates a culture of being allowed to talk about women in a way of judging their value.
— Female video producer in New York
I was very aware going into this that I was going to be sexualized at every turn, and that there’s the pressure to be super thin and know how to do my makeup and know how to dress. That’s all stuff that I struggle with but also kind of accept. I don’t love it. I do think that the whisper network is a very real thing. I’ve been told about directors and actors like, “Oh, yeah, FYI maybe don’t stay out and get drinks with them.”
— Actress in NYC
I’ve personally heard [a top director] say he wished he would’ve cast an older girl so he didn’t feel weird staring at her. When you are in movies, which are inherently voyeuristic, it seems like it gives people the green light to do and say things like that due to “creative” or “artistic” reasons.
— Female assistant in LA
The entertainment industry is almost the perfect environment for irresponsible behavior to come out of, because everybody has a ton of pressure on them. And the culture that I experienced is like, it doesn’t matter what it takes to get this done, as long as we get it done. So I can understand how that would be a prime habitat for harassment, abuse, people taking advantage — especially for people who are in positions of power.
— Male writer’s assistant in NYC
I’m lucky to work for a kind, awesome woman who fights for others. That is not often the case. In fact, more often than not you work with someone who does not give a shit about you.
— Female executive assistant at a major studio in LA

HR is MIA

Many young people said harassment is especially difficult to deal with in entertainment because they often work freelance, without human resources contacts. Some assistants said their companies didn’t have HR departments, or had ineffective ones that served only the top bosses.

You can always quit, and they’ll always say that to you. There isn’t much of a reprimand from HR when your boss is abusive to you.
— Female assistant at LA talent agency
With [actors in] the entertainment industry, it’s not like there’s a human resources department who’s going to watch out for those kind of people. There’s unions and stuff, but nobody’s looking out for the sleazy directors or casting directors or whoever else. There’s not anybody who’s trying to keep people in check. And there are actually more people who are helping keep things hidden. Because if that director likes them and is giving them work, why would they bring them down? Because that would just bring themselves down, too.
— Actress in LA
There is essentially no real HR department to go to with any workplace issues, as the employee who functions as HR is also a relative of the president.
—Female assistant in LA
When the discrimination is coming from HR, you don’t have really any backup.
— Female assistant at LA talent agency

What’s ahead for the assistant class

Many young people said they are skeptical the Weinstein scandal will bring about immediate change. But they’re determined to lead the industry differently when they’re eventually in positions of power.

Over the past week, the conversation has become more serious and considerate and talk about the issue has actually increased. This is primarily due to our showrunner, whose wife also works in this industry, who is taking the time out to make sure his writers are respectful and comfortable around each other.
— Female writer’s assistant in LA
My boss just basically brought to the top of our company an initiative to not only train the managers in sexual harassment stuff, she wants to make it a requirement for the whole company. That just happened this week as sort of a response to what’s going on. She basically brought it up to the management, and now it’s up to them to respond.
— Female executive assistant at a major studio in LA
I’m friends with many of these men, just having been produced by them and cast by them, and I’ve seen their awareness go up even in the past year, and that’s encouraging to me. It doesn’t mean that things are going to change in vast or rapid ways, but I’m optimistic that this takedown will be felt.
— Actress in NYC
The only realistic answer I can come up with is to rise to a position of power. Period. Every day, I wake up and make a promise to myself: I will never create an environment that enables oppression. I will do my best to act justly and fairly, even if it goes against my self-interest. I will believe women when they come forward. I will never be the woman who hangs up the phone because I don’t want to hear what is being said.
— Female assistant in LA
I’m a writer, and I want to be a showrunner. But since all of this has come out, I’ve kind of felt more and more inclined to be an executive of some kind, so I can make real change for bigger companies. Because as great as a showrunner is, and I could create a great work environment for a smaller amount of people, I want to reach the largest amount of people to make sure everyone feels comfortable and happy to come to work every day.
— Female former assistant at a boutique talent management company in LA

Quotes have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Are you a young person in entertainment who has experienced sexual harassment? Get in touch with VICE News to share your story: emma.fidel@vice.com. We won’t use your name without permission.