On the Couch: Casting, cruel optimism, and memory work

Kirstin Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article responds to the use of “casting couch” in the defense of Harvey Weinstein during his New York trial for rape and sexual assault in 2020. It traces the emergence of “casting couch” in the early-to-mid-twentieth century as a means of naming, but not acknowledging, sexual exploitation and violence in proximity to casting practices. The “casting couch” cliché invokes genre-scenes which depict sexual exploitation and violence, particularly towards actresses, as pornographic, melodramatic, and farcical, framing it as a source of pleasure for an audience. I compare the conventions of “casting couch” to first-hand accounts by women working in the performing arts in the UK in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. My sources are drawn from interviews and life writing, comprising Dodie Smith’s autobiography, a collection of recorded interviews with music hall performers conducted by Martha Vicinus, and several biographies of performers by Stephen Bourne. I analyse how gender, class, and racialization interact in these accounts and their framing. I analyse these sources in relation to genre, drawing particularly on Lauren Berlant’s concept of “genre as defense.” While Weinstein’s lawyers utilized the genre-scenes of “casting couch” to defend a sexual predator against the consequences of his actions, the various women discussed here deployed them in more complex ways. “Casting couch” was a means to give sexual exploitation discursive presence, even while limiting that presence. By gesturing towards a joke, and invoking melodramatic tropes, the “casting couch” cliché sometimes defended women against the violence and inequality contained in the stories they were telling.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalTheater Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023

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