In the trailer for director Shane Black’s hyper-masculine new thriller, The Predator, agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) sits across from science teacher Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) and describes the frightening creatures who just crashed a spaceship into Earth. “Predators don’t just sit around making hats out of rib cages,” he warns her, “They conquered space.” It’s the kind of ridiculous dialogue that we’ve come to expect in over-the-top action films, but it’s also not that far from describing the chilling threat posed by men in Hollywood. As we’ve read repeatedly over the past year, the men running movies aren’t just physically attacking women on and off film sets. They’re also dominating the literal space of the movie industry, where women hold only 18 percent of key behind-the-scenes jobs.
And the environment they rule over not only leaves women off screen, but has, for decades, allowed these same men to assault, harass, and intimidate vulnerable people with little repercussion. Days before the premiere of The Predator at the Toronto International Film Festival, Munn once again drew attention to this horrific reality after it was reported that Black had hired his friend, Steven Wilder Striegel, to act in the film despite knowing that he’d once sexually harassed a 14-year-old girl. (Striegel has also appeared in Black’s Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys.) Munn, the only woman in the lead cast, pushed 20th Century Fox to remove Striegel’s scene, and publicly stated that she found it “both surprising and unsettling” that Black did not inform her or the rest of the cast of his friend’s past conviction as a sex offender “prior to, during, or after production.”
It’s hard to believe that Black wasn’t aware at the time of filming the now-deleted scene—which involved Striegel’s character repeatedly harassing Munn’s character—that director Brett Ratner sexually harassed Munn, considering she publicly wrote about the topic months before the casting of his film was complete. Yet even now, the director’s first impulse after the news broke wasn’t to support Munn—but to defend Striegel, telling the Los Angeles Times that he “personally chose to help a friend.” And the subsequent lack of response from Munn’s costars further demonstrates just how stubbornly Hollywood’s patriarchal, predatorial environment is being maintained—even in the face of the #MeToo movement.
As women, especially women of color, risk their careers by speaking up about intimidation and violence, most men have chosen to avoid discussing their own power in the industry, while quietly continuing to applaud the work of men around them. Though Black eventually issued a public apology for casting Striegel, Munn told Vanity Fair that she had yet to hear from him directly. She also told the magazine that she’s been increasingly isolated by the rest of the cast—most of whom hadn’t reached out to her either. After the film’s premiere in Toronto on September 6, mere hours after the studio decided to cut the scene, Munn witnessed costars Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, and Keegan-Michael Key giving Black a standing ovation. “I looked back and I see the guys standing up, and I was just confused because I hadn’t heard from them during the day,” she said.
Holbrook, the white man with top billing in the film (as Quinn McKenna), later admitted to pulling out of press appearances with Munn, because “this type of social commentary is new to me.” When asked about his feelings toward the movie’s director, Rhodes told the Los Angeles Times (while sitting beside Munn) that he “wasn’t disappointed in Shane [Black]” but rather disappointed in the “situation.” Sterling K. Brown, who was not in Toronto with the rest of the cast, tweeted a statement of his own that didn’t challenge Black and praised the studio’s handling of the situation. If men are unwilling to challenge hyper-masculinity on film sets, are they truly willing to make men uncomfortable within the patriarchal world that fuels it? Or are they more concerned about preserving their own ability to rise to the top?
In a 2017 essay for Entertainment Weekly, Munn wrote that “the system that lets men like Ratner and [Woody] Allen back in, is the same system that creates disparity,” connecting a culture of sexual entitlement to other forms of abuse, including the lack of equal pay for women. The “situation” that Rhodes speaks of is larger than this one movie, or even the actions of these few men, but the tendency toward supposed neutrality highlights how most men in the spotlight have chosen to respond to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement. Regardless of how much they know about the specifics of Striegel’s actions against his 14-year-old victim, all of these men are aware of the movie industry’s gender inequities. They knew about misogyny in Hollywood long before stepping onto the set of The Predator, a film series that has historically disregarded women.
If men are unwilling to challenge hyper-masculinity on film sets, are they truly willing to make men uncomfortable within the patriarchal world that fuels it?
And those in Toronto were certainly aware of these conditions when they chose to stand and applaud Black on stage at TIFF rather than supporting the woman sitting nearby. Even as some offer private statements of support for people of other genders (as Key reportedly did with Munn) or donate to charities, few have moved themselves into a place of public discomfort. The decision Black made to protect his friend at the expense of Munn’s safety can only be made in environments where men feel protected, have unquestionable power, and hierarchies of gender, race, and class are firmly in place. When men in Hollywood make choices rooted in a desire not to disturb this house of cards, they’re also working to maintain oppressive conditions.
After all, there’s a great benefit for men (especially straight white, thin, able-bodied cis men) in preserving the status quo of film sets where directors—more than 80 percent of whom are white men—are given endless respect and control. It’s not just that these men should’ve responded better to Munn’s call out, but they should’ve already been using their platforms as actors to speak openly and consistently about sexual harassment and violence in their industry. One of the Oxford definitions of “predator” is “a person who ruthlessly exploits others.” And just as the white men in professional tennis have knowingly, for years, ignored the sexism and racism inherent in the structures of the sport they share with Serena Williams while accepting higher pay, the men of the film industry consistently take advantage of a horrifying cultural imbalance by not being a disruptive, discomforting force.
The question of how men in Hollywood will respond to #MeToo and #TimesUp has been answered loudly by this sort of ongoing silence. Regardless of the donations made or the pins worn, the real answer has been in the quiet, ghastly acceptance of a return to normal; of showing up to productions, premieres, and promotional tours and not demanding a sea change at every turn; and allowing the culture to persist as it always has, regardless of the terror it births, all because of the way it might keep them safe—and in a position to conquer.