Author Says Gossip Helps Protect Women From Workplace Predators

Oct 15, 2017
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For many people in Hollywood, Weinstein's behavior did not come as a surprise. Rumors had circulated for years, and that gossip network helped warn some women away from him. Anne Helen Petersen is Buzzfeed's culture writer. She argues that gossip has a vital purpose, especially in Hollywood.

ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: You know, I don't think that all gossip is progressive or feminist. You know, gossip is a major way of policing women's behavior. But at the same time, gossip about which men are dangerous, which men you shouldn't go on to lunch alone with - that sort of information is currency that women use to protect one another.

MONTAGNE: And in this last week, a document surfaced that was essentially a burn book for men in - who work in the media. The contributors are women who work in the industry, and the accusations are anonymous. They're unsubstantiated. The complaints range from rape to being unsupportive of female colleagues. It's a real range, and it puts illegal behavior, in a way, on the same level as dislikable and unfair behavior. So when does gossip become destructive and more about maligning people than really identifying serious abusers?

PETERSEN: This is the - you know, with the thing about gossip networks, sometimes called whisper networks, is that the reason that they work is because you know the woman who is saying the thing to you. So I can - when someone says to me, this is what type of guy this is, I can decide what to do with that information based on that woman.

Now, the principle of this document is we trust everyone, right? But we - also, there's no way to control who has access to this document, you know, firmly control it. You can say don't share it with men. You know, share it with people that you trust. But the network's really become diffuse. And then it also becomes a tangible thing, like, an actual written thing that can be used to damage people.

And so I think that that's something that we need to think a lot about in terms of what happens with gossip when it becomes, you know, a written document that can be taken to HR and how that's different than the way that women use gossip to warn one another about a man's behavior.

MONTAGNE: One thing about this story about Harvey Weinstein and also earlier stories about some very powerful men in the media harassing women is a lot of people think this is just sort of Hollywood. What's your take on it?

PETERSEN: Yeah, I think that's a lie we tell ourselves to try to cover up the fact that this isn't, you know, a power dynamic that is endemic to so many different industries and structures, you know, to churches, to academia - the number of women who have emailed or reached out to me to say yes, we have a whisper network in academia to protect ourselves against these senior professors. You know, this is something - and academia's, in a lot of ways, the opposite of Hollywood in terms of glitz of the industry. But what Hollywood and academia have in common is this power differential in the way that men continue to hold and excuse the behavior of others.

MONTAGNE: Anne Helen Petersen is senior culture writer for Buzzfeed. Thank you very much.

PETERSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.