With the onslaught of #MeToo allegations still far from over, many have already begun to wonder how this movement will end. Some suspect that the current climate will give way to radical restructurings, particularly at work—a whole new approach to what is permissible, and added scrutiny of how professional power is often wielded at women’s expense. But while it’s important to keep moving forward, and to applaud the bravery of 2017’s silence breakers, we should also acknowledge women who spoke out in the past, only to see their industries carry on with business as usual. #MeToo might feel like a sudden reckoning for some, but for many women, it’s still too little, too late.
We can’t go back in time and support these women, many of whom subsequently left their chosen professions as a direct result of sexual harassment. We can, however, hold every alleged abuser to the same standard—a standard of respect and decency that so clearly is not, and has never been, the norm. As we’ve seen from recent stories, harassment thrives on complicity, and a workplace culture in which subordinates are afraid and higher-ups look the other way.
In 2016, Holly Hughes wrote an essay for XoJane’s “It Happened to Me” section entitled “An Oscar Winner Bullied Me So Badly That I Quit the Film Industry.”
Published at least a year too early for #MeToo, Hughes’ piece made selective waves, but didn’t have the cultural force behind it to yield substantive changes. In it, she delves behind the scenes of 1999’s Election, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, where she says she suffered months of abuse.
In the original piece, Hughes did not name the film, but she did use the director’s first name (Alexander), and other identifying features like the location (Omaha) and distributor (Paramount). On Hughes’ personal website, she published a post about the essay and tagged it “Election,” “Election Reflection,” “sexual harassment” and “workplace bullying.” Additionally, her bio lists her writing and producing credits, including, “Survived working with Academy Award winning director, Alexander Payne.” (Hughes could not be reached for comment.)
Hughes’ essay opens on a disturbing scene involving George, the assistant director. “George hoisted me up on top of a plastic picnic table in the middle of the front office and began dry-humping me,” she writes. “He pinned me in place as the table legs scooted back against the wall with his bodily force. The front doors opened, letting the fall chill my exposed skin. He was laughing. They were all laughing.
“I thought there were only five people in the front lobby—a few producers, the production manager, the director, maybe a driver from transportation, a production assistant or two,” Hughes continues. “I remember people saying to me later, when we were alone—not in front of anyone who could fire us—‘I can’t believe he did that! If we worked anywhere else, he’d be fired.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said. I thought the same thing. But none of us did anything about it. What could I do? I was pretty low on the food chain. And my bosses all saw it.”
Hughes went on to detail George’s continued alleged harassment, writing, “He took pleasure in making jokes at my expense, asking me if I wanted to act in the porn the characters in the movie watch, telling me I was stupid.” With seven years of production experience under her belt, Hughes had moved to Omaha for three months to work as production coordinator on the low-budget film. On top of long hours for little pay, Hughes recalls being subjected to both harassment and verbal abuse. As she notes, “George wasn’t the only man on set to treat me disrespectfully.”
In another anecdote, Hughes describes how a producer, Jake, asked her to forge SAG sheets, “changing the working hours of actors.” After Hughes refused, he threatened her. The issue of the forged sheets, Hughes alleges, also earned her the wrath of her director. She writes that, “Alexander had a problem with me.” In addition to pushing back against the paperwork, Hughes explains, “I had the nerve to send a whole script to a minor. Sending scripts to the cast was part of my job, but he didn’t want the minor’s family to read the script. He didn’t want the parents to back out because of the scene of the actors watching porn or the lesbian relationship in the movie. Which is what happened.”
The director then called and allegedly asked to speak to Hughes directly, for the first time in eight weeks.
“‘Tell me Jake made you do it,’” Payne allegedly began. “His tone was terse,” Hughes writes. “I imagined his temples sweating and his thick, black-rimmed glasses sliding down his hot face. ‘Do what?’ I asked. I had no idea what he was fuming about. ‘Send the script. Tell me Jake made you do it.’
“Looking back, I know at this moment everyone else would have said, ‘Yes, Jake made me do it’; would have told the up-and-coming director that their tormentor told them to do it. I could’ve made myself the hero. I could have moved up the food chain and saved myself. I wish I had said yes. But I thought the truth mattered. I didn’t want to join in the blame game. ‘No, he didn’t,’ I whispered. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ Alexander cursed me out for a good minute or two. He called me every nasty derogatory term and anything else his quick wit thought of. He drowned me under his tidal wave of rage. Calm came over my mind as my body began to shake with fear and fury and inferiority. I kept my voice flat. ‘I’m going to have to stop you there,’ I said. ‘No one talks to me that way.’ ‘Fuck you,’ the director said.”
While Hughes assumed that she would be fired immediately, she claims that, “Alexander waited to dole out his punishment,” this time humiliating her in front of her mother and co-workers. The incident took place around Thanksgiving, and Hughes’ mother had come to visit. She writes, “To make up for the hell I dealt with, the second assistant director, Sean, invited me to set the day before Thanksgiving. He placed me as an extra in a scene. I sat in position during rehearsal, and just before Alexander was about to shoot, he asked me to leave… Without a word, I got up. As I walked off the set, Alexander spoke. ‘Get back to the office,’ he said. ‘I don’t want you on my set. At all.’”
Though Hughes stayed on the project, she was ultimately disillusioned with the entertainment industry, explaining, “On the last day of filming, I walked away from the business.” In contrast, as she points out, George and Alexander’s careers continued along an upward trajectory. Hughes writes, “Alexander was nominated for an Academy Award or two. People talk about his genius. George is a first assistant director on A-list blockbusters and became a producer for Alexander… I wonder if they’re still up to their old tricks. I wonder if the actors who looked up to them and the viewers of their movies knew how misogynist they were if they’d still be successful. And I know the answer is yes.”
Hughes, now working as a contemporary YA writer, has blogged frequently about the #MeToo movement. In an October post, she wrote about the aftermath of sharing her Election story, including her disappointment in how mainstream media outlets failed to cover it. Citing the many friends and strangers who supported her after the essay came out, she continues, “You know who never reached out? George or Alexander—the two men who harassed, assaulted, and belittled me. If so many strangers could find me, why didn’t they?… You know what I want? An apology. I want them to own it, say sorry and never do it again. I’d like them to do it publicly. I would accept a private apology, but think being honest about how wrong they were warrants a sincerely public apology. My story isn’t going away.”
Hughes adds, “My story of abuse and harassment used to be linked to Alexander’s Wikipedia page and Google searches. But guess what? He’s got a movie coming out and any trace of his bad behavior is erased. My story is nowhere to be seen near his name.”