Power and Narcissism: Can Hollywood Be Honest with Themselves and Us?

I wonder how long it will take for a movie to be made that uses Harvey Weinstein‘s persona as the basis for the movie. I wonder if Hollywood can be honest with themselves in this movie about how they have contributed to a culture where sometimes, a woman is put in a position of having to serve a man sexually in order to get what she needs or wants. An example is in Forrest Gump, where Forrest’s mom trades sex with the school superintendent to get Forrest into the local school. After sex, the superintendent says to Forrest, “You mommy sure does care about your schoolin’ son.” The movie never explicitly portrays this as sexual abuse, but it is nevertheless. It’s a man with power taking advantage of a woman who lacks power.

When any given man (or woman – Martha Stewart is a good example) amasses too much power, his chances of becoming narcissistic is quite high. Men with power abusing women who lack power is well known and not uncommon: JFK, Jim Bakker, Bill Clinton and King Henry VIII come to mind. The proverbial “casting couch” also comes to mind – and that was Mr. Weinstein’s modus operandi (here and here). The fact that a casting couch was both well known and accepted in Tinseltown is an implicit admission that the entire industry has accommodated men like Mr. Weinstein for decades.

Countless movies portray women as sexual objects whose value is found primarily in the man’s selfish enjoyment of their body parts. Their core role is portrayed as serving the man’s narcissistic needs even while it injures the woman – the Huffington Post reports on the phrase “making women ‘rape-ready'”. Nearly all pornography promotes this narrative and it is estimated that roughly 10% of all internet traffic is pornographic (an opposing view puts it at 35%), so it’s no wonder that Mr. Weinstein’s behavior was minimized for so many years. I suspect most of the men in Hollywood are regular consumers pornography, so it probably seemed more natural to them that a casting couch existed in the first place.

But if those with power don’t abuse women sexually, they certainly abuse in other ways. Men like Martin Shkreli, Bernie Madoff, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and others abused thousands (perhaps millions collectively) through their financial schemes and they didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. This is one of the core points of the book “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work” – these people (usually men, but not always) have significant talent and charisma that causes others around them to look the other way when their peccadillos and abusive behavior is known, but isn’t damaging the organization as a whole. So, those around them have a choice: Either confront this highly talented man about his abusive behavior or look the other way. I think those around them conclude that either A) he is too powerful to confront or B) he is bringing so much good to the table (in one sense) that his abusive behaviors are are seen as minimal by comparison.

Power and narcissism is especially harmful in churches and ministries, where, I don’t like saying, my experience is that a plurality of Pastors and ministry leaders can be both abusive and power-hungry guys. They start out well-intentioned, but as their ministries grow, they change. They are usually very gifted communicators with significant leadership abilities. Their theology and exegesis are impeccable. But their public lives can be highly choreographed which hides their narcissism. Privately – don’t cross them or you *will be* on the receiving end of a rather unpleasant experience. I’ve been there several times. It’s not sexual harassment, but it is abuse nevertheless. Experience it enough times and you conclude its’ easier just to sit in the pew and be blissfully ignorant of all the dirt that’s going on behind closed doors. Power and narcissism don’t stop at the front door of a church or ministry.

Politics is filled with elected officials who are both powerful and narcissistic. Our election system is geared to elevate Snakes in Suits. Both parties, mind you, elect these people. Even though the Snakes in Suits book doesn’t allude to this, I was struck by how much what they describe in the book is actually applauded and pursued in our political system. Power and narcissism is apolitical. The fact that a sitting President of the United States could engage in sexual acts (I think harassment solely due to the power imbalance) with an intern working in the White House, lie to the nation about it and then have an entire political party defend his actions is an example of the Snakes in Suits principles on full display.

Sexual harassment is about power and narcissism, not sex. Mr. Weinstein is not a sex addict as much as he is a power addict with lots of narcissism baked in. He expresses his power and narcissism through sexual acts, but he would be no less destructive had he expressed himself in other ways. Hollywood may very well make a movie based on his life, but I doubt they will really deal with the larger issue of people in power who develop significant narcissism and the damage it does to others as well as themselves. You and I see it and experience it every so often in our grassroots lives, but I wonder if Hollywood will be able to get to our grassroots level and become real with us and with themselves.

I’m not holding my breath.

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