In the summer of 1984, Tomi-Ann Roberts was living in New York City. She was 20-years-old, and pursuing an acting career and waiting tables.
When she met Harvey Weinstein at her restaurant, he offered her a movie audition for one of his earliest films. Later, having arrived at his apartment to try out for the role, Roberts found the film producer in his bathtub. Roberts said no to a request to take off her top, she left the apartment and acting.
Now a psychology professor at Colorado College, Roberts studies sexual objectification. She spoke with Colorado Matters about the response to the growing allegations, and the #MeToo movement.
"I have to confess that initially I had sort of a mixed reaction to that campaign," Roberts says. "Until I started to consider these sort of sheer numbers speak to an almost mundane, ordinary quality to these experiences. And I think shining a light on that is exactly what I hoped to be able to do by speaking out.
"I was not traumatized in 1984. I was certainly terrified in the moment, but I got out of there. And I don't feel traumatized now. But I look back and I think, well why wasn't I? Why did I think that that was just some sort of ordinary thing that I ought to have expected should have happened? And so the power of this 'Me Too' hashtag I think is the power of sort of calling out the everyday quality of these continua of experiences for girls and women, and I've been very moved by it."
Read The Transcript
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. We're gonna begin with how a run-in with Harvey Weinstein changed a Colorado woman's life. In the summer of 1984, Tomi-Ann Roberts was living in New York City. She was 20, pursuing an acting career and waiting tables. Weinstein ate in her restaurant. He offered her a movie audition. She showed up later at his apartment to find the film producer in his bathtub. Well today Roberts is a psychology professor at Colorado College and she studies sexual objectification and she is with us from Colorado Springs. Welcome to the program.
Tomi-Ann Roberts: Thank you.
RW: You went to Weinstein's apartment with the expectation that other people would be there.
RW: You say you were frozen in terror you were, when you saw what was waiting for you.
TR: Well I was. It's hard when you're 20 years old and you are confronted with a situation like that. I certainly, the only way I thought I could get out, of course, was to sort of sweet talk my way out, to blame my own self. To say something like, "Maybe I'm not cut out for this kind of thing. Maybe I'm a bit too prudish," etc. etc. It doesn't occur to you in a situation like that, that you can just kind of scramble. You think back on it and you think, "Man, I should have told that person what for."
RW: He asked you to take your top off. You did not. I think at one point you might have uttered the word 'sorry' to him.
TR: I think I did. Right and when the New York Times piece came out by Jody Kantor some weeks ago, I was meant to be grading exams in my office and here I see this piece and I was motivated to write her an email. I thought surely she won't read this email. It started with, "I'm not an actress. I don't work for the Weinstein brothers. I am a 54 year old college professor but this happened to me." And I think what was so uncanny I guess for me, was as these stories were coming forward, they were just so alike. And I think Jody said to me something like I had the dubious of honor of being one of the earliest stories they had heard, so clearly Mr. Weinstein developed an MO that involved bathrobes and bathing and these kinds of things.
And almost to a person, every one of the women who has spoken of their experience say that at some point, he says, "Will you at least take your top off?" And yeah. He explained to me at the time of course that surely there would be some nudity scenes in the movie and if I wasn't comfortable with nudity in front of him, how would I ever be in front of the camera. And that's probably when I said, "I'm sorry."
RW: That was his tool of manipulation. I wonder if you sometimes think of the women who didn't feel they could walk away or say no. Maybe who felt that they had too much on the line financially to refuse him.
TR: Absolutely, in fact I've been sorrowful over the past couple of weeks, as this story has unfolded that we haven't heard from more of those women. And it speaks to me of a greater cultural shame. I want to say that I don't think of myself as any kind of hero for having gotten out of there. It's just that the stakes weren't as high for me. I had my senior year of college still to do. I had been considering either a theater major or a psychology major. I had a life to walk back to and I think that I would like hear a little bit more from women who didn't feel as though they had a choice, who felt like this was the only commodity they had to trade in. And that given Hollywood's preoccupation with women's sexualized appearance, this was what they needed to do to get what they were so hoping to get.
RW: I understand that because of what happened, this really tipped you towards psychology and away from acting. One of your research interests is what the effects are on girls and women of being sexually objectified. How much of that focus do you think relates to that experience in the 1980s?
TR: Yeah, you know it's funny because that email that I sent to Jody Kantor allowed me maybe for the first time to really sort of draw the narrative arc. And it's not, as I said to a Denver Post Reporter, it's not probably a solid line, rather a dotted one. But for sure, for sure, these kinds of experiences added up for me. I had certainly more seemingly benign experiences throughout my graduate years and in my early career where I'd be in the middle of some kind of a presentation or a teaching effort or a discussion about my scholarly work, and receive a comment that was about my appearance.
And I found those comments so derailing and I began to sort of draw a line across all of these experiences and consider the fact that certainly we know that there are atrocious and extreme ends of the sexual objectification of girls and women. Trafficking, rape, even sexually motivated murder, but on this more seemingly benign end of the continuum, exists a whole range of things. Somebody appearing in a bathtub in front of you. Somebody asking you just for a massage. Somebody even commenting blithely on your appearance instead of on your competence in a situation like at work for example. And I began to think I want to look at what it's like to grow up female in a culture where you're aware of this continuum, where you're constantly exposed to it. And as a psychologist, I find that fascinating.
RW: Indeed. And you sat on the American Psychological Association's Task Force on the sexualization of girls. How early does that begin in girls' lives?
TR: Oh gosh, right, so young and we see increasingly evidence. Part of our task force's charge was to look at whether or not this was a treatment that was occurring at younger and younger ages. And we concluded that indeed, yes. We now have gender reveal parties for pregnant women where we begin already not only to think about girls as belonging in pink and frilly and things like this, but also as princesses. And so before the girl child is even born, I think we're putting them on a conveyor belt that says that their appearance is the most important thing about them. That they look pretty. And that commentary on their appearance is going to be a regular part of their life, that that's going to be what they're going to seek in terms of praise and so on.
And so I think what ends up happening there is a kind of proactive internalization of that perspective on yourself, so that you can anticipate that treatment, right? You know that if you dress this way and if you do your hair this way and if you keep checking in mirrors, you're going to be in a better position to know whether or not you're fulfilling those cultural standards of sexy appearance.
RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters, I'm Ryan Warner and my guest is Tomi-Ann Roberts, who's a psychology professor at Colorado College. She is also one of many women have come forward recently with stories of sexual harassment and abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein. And she's told us that that event in 1984 is it least partly responsible for the psychology career she has pursued and her research interests.
The Me Too movement has sprung up in the wake of these revelations. This is the hashtag on social media, in which women say, "Me too, I've had this experience myself." It's been used over 1.7 million times in 85 countries. What do you make of Me Too? Has it been comforting, to some regard?
TR: I'm so glad you asked that. I have to confess that I had initially, a sort of mixed reaction to that campaign until I started to consider these sort of sheer numbers speak to an almost mundane, ordinary quality to these experiences. And I think shining a light on that is exactly what I hoped to be able to do by speaking out and that is to say, I was not traumatized in 1984. I was certainly terrified in the moment, but I got out of there and I don't feel traumatized now, but I look back and I think, "Well, why wasn't I?" Why did I think that that was just an ordinary thing that I ought to have expected, should have happened? And so the power of this Me Too hashtag, I think, is the power of calling out the everyday quality of these continua of experiences for girls and women and I've been very moved by it.
RW: Is it possible that after this story has emerged and this conversation has started, that the pendulum though might swing too far in the opposite direction? That men and women perhaps become, in a workplace or something, become terrified to interact, because someone is so afraid of making a mistake or saying the wrong thing?
TR: I don't buy that. I really don't. I think, as Zerlina Maxwell, with whom I appeared on a PBS program called Third Rail said, to sexually harass or to even make a comment on a woman's appearance is a choice. And we can make better choices and we teach our sons and the men in our lives to make better choices. We all know that it feels wonderful to be complimented by people who are close to you, people who you've spent time with outside of a work context. I just think that it's not hard to leave those kinds of comments at the door, when we recognize that we're in a professional setting. I guess the other thing I would point out is that to me, the issue is why are we insulting men by assuming that they cannot control these kinds of behaviors? I really want to think a little bit more about that.
RW: Say more about that. So the idea that men in this have been cast as somewhat incorrigible. Is that what you're saying?
TR: Correct. I think that that's an odd thing that we've all tacitly agreed to. That the management of this issue is on girls and women's side, because we always hear boys can't help it and this sort of thing. But it seems to me as though they can and that we should maybe take a harder look at what we are assuming about boys and men, if we imagine that they are not capable of distinguishing between competence relevant settings, achievement relevant settings and the interactions that we engage in, between the genders in those settings versus intimate settings. Settings with friends, settings with lovers, settings that are more romantic.
RW: Before we go, would you, if you could, like to have any face-to-face time with Harvey Weinstein? And if so, what do you think you'd say?
TR: Oh gosh, wow. I don't know if I would. I had an opportunity or so I thought, some years ago in the late '90s, when I happened to see him on Cape Cod, but there were so many ... by then, he had become ... and he and his brother, so famous, that there were a lot of handlers around him. But I had at that time, the courage. I wanted to go up to him and say, "You did this thing to me." I think what I would want to say is that I don't want anything from him directly, but that I would like him to recognize that he has significantly impacted and in some cases, ruined a lot of people's lives.
RW: Thanks for being with us, I appreciate your candor.
TR: Thank you so much for having me.
RW: Tomi-Ann Roberts is a psychology professor at Colorado College. She's one of many women who have come forward recently with stories of sexual harassment and abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein. When we come back, a debate. Should Denver mandate green roofs on big new buildings? This is Colorado Matters on CPR News.