The truly farcical aspect of the David Letterman sleeps-with-the-staff story is that it will change nothing.
Oh, it will change Letterman's stature, for sure. A week ago he was the only U.S. late-night talk-show host with the gravitas to have President Barack Obama on his show and discuss politics. He had inserted himself into the cauldron of U.S. politics by lambasting Senator John McCain and by relentlessly mocking Sarah Palin and her family. In the context of U.S. politics, where sexual escapades destroy careers, Letterman has lost his gravitas.
But the Letterman story will not change anything about the secrecy that surrounds sexual relations between the powerful and the needy and vulnerable in showbiz. The fossilized sexism we see on Mad Men is alive and thrives in the TV and movie rackets. Everybody knows it happens and nobody talks about. The casting couch exists, but it is invisible in coverage of the entertainment racket.
Young actresses go to auditions and are called later by a producer, asking for a date. It happens. Successful actresses who have a continuing role on a TV series disappear from the show. The spin is that the actress wants to work on other projects. The reality is that her affair with the big boss on the show has ended. There's a certain actress on a certain hit U.S. network show who has worked continuously on network shows for years, even though she's not a particularly good actor. Everybody knows about her reputation for sleeping her way into high-profile roles. Nobody talks about it.
Nobody talks about it because the men who have the power to offer roles in return for sexual favours are rich and powerful. They can terminate careers and can have any writer who asks the questions banished from the fringes of showbiz where they reside. Powerful publicists who work for the actors ensure that no awkward questions are ever asked. If they are, the writer and publication will never get access to other celebrities represented by the publicist.
In politics, the vice of choice tends to be money. There are abundant opportunities to pad expenses - look at the revelations about British MPs plundering the system - and take under-the-table payments. In sports, it's sex. Professional male athletes can and do prey on female fans, often with little effort. Foolish young women flock to famous athletes and offer themselves. They're cast aside eventually, as all groupies are. In general, nobody wants to talk about that either. One reason why MVP, the CBC's prime-time soap about NHL hockey, failed to find an audience here and met with scorn from some reviewers, is that it actually dealt with the issue. Nobody wants the national game sullied by suggestions that nationally admired, famous hockey players exploit young female fans.
In the showbiz world the situation is different. It is, after all, a workplace. Careers are made or destroyed through sexual relations. It's about power, harassment and exploitation. Male authority figures - producers, directors, network and studio execs - have a sense of entitlement about sex with women looking for work. It is accepted inside the business and rarely discussed outside of it. Little wonder that so many showbiz figures came to the defence of Roman Polanski last week, diminishing or dismissing the fact that he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl hoping for a modelling career. Sexual exploitation is so common that some showbiz types are puzzled that the rest of society finds it disgusting.
In Letterman's case, the fact is that he's the boss. He owns Worldwide Pants, The Late Show's production company, which also produces Craig Ferguson's talk show and has produced several sitcoms. As of Friday afternoon, it appeared that the one person with whom Letterman likely had an affair - his on-air explanation on Thursday hinted at several relationships - was his assistant at the time of the relationship and about 30 years his junior.
Letterman might well be an engaging character, a good boss and a funny guy, but he's still the boss having a relationship with one of the most junior people in his staff. You can be certain it happens on other TV shows, on movie sets and at production studios. Male bosses do it and feel entitled.
One has to ask, though, if the public isn't complicit in this. Newspaper coverage, magazines and websites devoted to celebrity coverage thrive on the interest of readers who prefer to see their idols as heightened versions of ordinary people. The celebs are looking for love. They're devastated by the breakup of a relationship. The public doesn't want to know about the crudeness of the showbiz world and the reality that some female celebrities are elevated to stardom and exist there temporarily thanks to sexual affairs with powerful male figures.
It's ridiculous to talk of Letterman being fired. Something far more dark than what has emerged will have to be revealed before that's a possibility. It's redundant to talk about "damage control," as if Letterman were a politician needing to manipulate the news cycle.
It's time to talk about the casting couch and the exploitation of women in the TV and movie rackets. But it won't happen. Nobody wants to talk about it. It's not a joke and it's not isolated to one talk show, one network or one movie set. Too many women in the entertainment racket understand and accept the reality that they're there to service men. That won't change soon, but it should.
Wired for Sex, Lies and Power Trips: It's a Teen's World (Newsworld, 10 p.m.) is tangentially related to today's main, Letterman-related topic. Made by Lynn Glazier as a follow-up to her acclaimed documentary It's a Girl's World, this doc explores how teenage boys and girls feel about the sexually charged popular culture that influences their behaviour and attitudes. It's about young women, still in high school, posting sexy photos and raunchy video on the Internet, and how young men react to it. One conclusion is that "harassment is commonplace, even acceptable" in the high-school world. It's not the most linear of documentaries, as it switches from documentary vérité and self-directed films made by teenagers, to interviews with Toronto teens, and sometimes, their parents. The upshot, really, is that some young women learn the dangers of projecting a very adult sexuality, and some don't. J.D.Check local listings.