The Dark Side of The Entertainment Industry

The #MeToo campaign has increased the confidence of women, mainly Western women, to report sexual and gender-based violence. A year after the Harvey Weinstein story broke; the conversation has extended well into Hollywood and beyond. Countless other powerful and famous men have been felled by accusations, victims and advocates have bonded together in hopes of evolution and healing, and the entertainment industry has attempted to keep up with seismic change. But in developing countries like Ethiopia, the shame and blame on the victims has largely kept them silent. In fiercely patriarchal societies, where religion and tradition define the role of women, simply reporting abuse against women in the entertainment industry is so difficult that it is not even considered to bring down men of power, as #MeToo has allowed. EBR’s Menna Asrat reports.

The creative arts and drama attract the attention of young people all over the world as a potential career path. Although it is appealing and well-liked, the entertainment industry has long been haunted by allegations of abuses against young women in the past. On top of this, the industry is blamed for abusing even young men who are desperate to break into the industry.

Recently, the most visible and deep rooted allegations of abuse in the entertainment industry have come from western countries, sparking the fire under the #MeToo movement on social media, which aimed to shed light on victims of sexual assault. Currently, the global push to address sexual harassment and abuse is slowly expanding into many parts of the world.

The #MeToo movement now reached Pakistan, China and even some African countries. Yet, the entertainment industry in Ethiopia, which is still in its nascent stages, is struggling with the sorts of abuses that have been talked about around the world. But for many of the victims, there is very little recourse because of the well-founded fear of speaking out against abusers.

Selam Abiy (name changed to protect her privacy) is an aspiring actress who has already had a few minor roles in plays and one in a film. The 19 year old has wanted to be an actress since she was a child. “When I got cast in the play, I was really excited,” she tells EBR. “It was a chance to do something that was my dream, and I would be working with some of well respected actors that I’d admired for along time.”

The play went well, and the cast and crew, as is often the case with theatre productions, became quite close. However, it also led to an incident that shook Selam’s confidence in her chosen career. After the production closed, she stayed in sporadic contact with one of the actors. “The man was a very well respected actor. He was old enough to be my father. I called him for some career advice, and he invited me to his house one night. I didn’t go because I confided in a female colleague and she warned me against being alone with him at night. After that, he started to verbally abuse me.

Yet, Selam is among the few female youngsters who are considered as lucky. “I am lucky. I’ve heard about other girls that had worse things happen to them,” she says. 

Selam’s story is far from unique in the industry. Many women, from students, to new female actors to even well-established stars have faced harassment and abuse in movie and theatre productions. For many of them, the choices are between giving in to a harasser or lose the career they invested on, sometimes, for years.

Azeb Worku, a well-respected theatrical director, producer and writer, has seen young women repeatedly victimised by men in high positions of power. “There’s a feeling that this is something they’re entitled to,” she tells EBR. “It isn’t just directors and producers. Men at all levels, from producers, to sound guys, to editors, I’ve heard them say openly that the reason they get into the industry is to have access to women. They say that since there aren’t many financial benefits in the industry, their benefits are the women.”

It’s pervasive problem, according to Azeb, starting with teachers. “I remember when I went to school, the teachers used to harass some of the female students. If the girls resisted, or turned the teacher down, they would be removed from the class, sometimes for weeks at a time, until they changed her mind. They would also be blacklisted from performances.”

But the problem isn’t just one of a sexual nature. There are also issues of making spaces available to women in the first place. Azeb recalls a story to support this, of a women years ago who submitted a play to The National Theatre under a male name. She was able to get to the final stage of the submission process, a face to face meeting.  Then the board found that she was a women and play was rejected.

This kind of environment in the entertainment industry is rooted in the country’s deeply patriarchal system, say insiders. Often, coming forward speak about the abuse publically leads to out casting and even excluding them from the industry forever. “It’s hard to come forward about this if you’ve not already established a concrete career,” explains an actress who spoke EBR on the condition of anonymity.  “If you have even a little bit of vulnerability, there are people who will try to spoil your career.”

Other than affecting their career path, sexual harassment and abuse has many psychological effects that women have to deal with. A 2018 study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh looked into whether sexual assault led to long term psychological and physical effects in women.  The study found that women who experienced sexual assault were three times more likely to have clinical depression and two times as likely to have anxiety than women who had not experienced sexual assault.

Yet, most women in Ethiopia try and deal with it on their own because there isn’t a system to protect those who have spoken out. In developed nations, however, the issues that come with the entertainment industry and its treatment of young women stated to explode two years ago when the New York Times published an explosive report in October 2017 detailing accusation of sexual harassment against Hollywood heavyweight producer Harvey Weinstein, which had taken place over decades. Since then dozens of women came forward with their stories of being victimised by Weinstein, detailing their harrowing stories to the newspaper. In the wake of the allegations, Weinstein was fired from the production company he had founded with his brother, and was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Their stories helped to spark the #MeToo movement, which encouraged women to speak out about their experiences with sexual harassment and abuse on social media. It also led to abuse allegations against other powerful figures in all sectors coming to light, sometimes with the incidents going back decades. They included director Bryan Singer, who was accused of sexual misconduct involving minors, and CBS Corporation chief executive Les Moonves.
However, the spread of the #MeToo movement seems to have skipped many African countries, which seems to be a reminder of exactly how power is distributed in what is essentially still a patriarchal system and society. As the case of Rwandan independent presidential candidate Diane Rwigara shows sexual harassment can be wielded as a weapon to end the career of a women labelled as ‘troublesome’. Weeks after she announced her intention to run for the presidency, nude photos of her were leaked across the region.

Of course some countries like South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy, tried to keep up with the #MeToo trend, organisations chose to protect perpetrators when women came forward in many African countries including Ethiopia. As a result, publically telling narratives of sexual abuse becomes difficult, mainly because of the lack of a platform that is accessible to anyone outside the wealthy and powerful.

While the solution for Ethiopian and African women may seem out of reach, Azeb does have idea about where to start. “Acting is not a position where you can make decisions,” she explains. “Women have to try and move into positions where they have decision making power by taking, for instance, the role of producer, director, and writer. Then, they can make their own destiny as well as help other females involved in the industry.” EBR


8th Year • Mar.16 - Apr.15 2019 • No. 72




Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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