3 Inconvenient Truths from Evangeline Lilly’s ‘LOST’ Exposé

In 2004, the television series LOST introduced the world to several new (or fairly unknown) faces, not the least of which was Evangeline Lilly. And unknown until very recently, LOST introduced Evangeline Lilly to a seedy undercurrent of Hollywood’s secret subculture.

A few weeks ago, Lilly made a guest appearance on a LOST-related podcast hosted by Jack Shepherd (yes, really) and Jacob Stolworthy. During the interview, Lilly revealed how she was coerced into partially disrobing for a scene:
In Season 3, I’d had a bad experience on set with being basically cornered into doing a scene partially naked, and I felt I had no choice in the matter. And I was mortified and I was trembling. And when it finished, I was crying my eyes out.

She continued by describing a similar situation in Season 4, after which she put her foot down and outright refused to take her clothes off for the show ever again.

At this point, much has been made in the media of these two experiences—and rightly so. What I want to examine, however, are three underlying and uncomfortable truths revealed by these experiences.

1. Gross Underreporting

Over the years, I have written much about Hollywood’s secret rape culture. When it comes to cases of outright sexual assault, reporting is woefully low. The statistics on just how many rapes are actually reported, let alone prosecuted, let alone punished, are disheartening.

To be clear, instances of rape are not morally equivalent to forced nudity & simulated sex in films. But Lilly’s experience on LOST was still a form of sexual violation. Against her will, she exposed her body to the world in ways that led to her being “mortified,” “trembling,” and “crying [her] eyes out.”

Furthermore, in Lilly’s situation there was a gap of over ten years between the inciting incidents and the reporting of those incidents. This is typical; many of the stories actors share are about situations that took place years earlier.

It won’t suffice to look at the current landscape to determine how well the industry is doing. Many of the violations taking place right now won’t come to light until much later. That’s how the abuse of power often works; it can go unchecked for a lengthy period of time.

In my research, I have collected numerous stories of actors (mostly women) being violated in some form or fashion on-set. They were not literally assaulted, but they were made to expose themselves or participate in sexual acts that violated their sense of well-being. The number of stories currently available to us is concerning enough. But what we can be sure of, statistically speaking, is that things are much worse than what we are currently aware of. Stories we’ve heard over the last few years, including Evangeline Lilly’s, are just the tip of the iceberg.

2. Abuse of the Most Vulnerable

Part of the reason why situations like this take years to come to light is because of the power dynamics involved. Those most vulnerable to abuse are the newest—which often corresponds to the youngest—additions to the industry. As Lilly said in the podcast, “I feel for women who are just struggling to come up in the industry and dont really know how to navigate that.

When you’re starting at the bottom of the totem pole, your only hope of creating a name for yourself is to get work under your belt. And often, the only way to get work under your belt is to be willing to undo your belt (or other parts of your clothing) for the viewing pleasure of a worldwide audience.

Sexual objectification is a rite of passage in Hollywood—a way to prove your worth and usefulness in the industry. Once you get experience, and once you have a name for yourself, then you are able to do what Evangeline Lilly is able to do: because she’s been in the industry for nearly 15 years now, she has much more clout. As she candidly said in the podcast,

I’m lucky; I’m in a position—a very privileged position—where I’m allowed to be picky. I can be picky. You know, I’ve got enough success under my belt that I can be.

Until actors reach the point where she is, they must submit to sexualized scenes that are thrust upon them, whether they like it or not, whether they are comfortable with the scenes or not. Corroborating Lilly’s testimony, a recent study published by The Annenberg Foundation reveals the following about films shot between 2007 and 2017:

[Women] 13-20 years old were more likely than females 40-64 years old to appear in sexy attire, with some nudity. . . . [and] teenaged females were more likely to be referenced as attractive than were 21-39 year olds or 40-64 year olds.

It’s bad enough that women are especially susceptible to objectification in filmmaking. It’s even worse to recognize that younger women—especially teenagers—are the main focus of this objectification. They have the least ability to protect themselves, and they are the most abused.

3. Denial of Systemic Issues

After Evangeline Lilly’s podcast hit the news circuit, the producers of LOST issued the following joint statement:

Our response to Evie’s comments in the media was to immediately reach out to her to profoundly apologize for the experience she detailed while working on Lost. We have not yet connected with her, but remain deeply and sincerely sorry. No person should ever feel unsafe at work. Period.

This response may be completely genuine, and it may be just to save face. I won’t pretend to know either way. What I can say is this statement seems to indicate only a surface-level acknowledgement of the problem. It fails to address the systemic cause of Lilly’s experiences.

Whether my impression of their apology is accurate or not, the following truth remains: as long those in positions of power respond to these problems only on a case-by-case basis, true and lasting change will not take place. Addressing each instance as a separate issue shows a denial of the longstanding objectification and abuse of actors. If directors and producers move beyond only denouncing specific abusers in the industry or apologizing only for each new case as it is brought to light, and if they confess and acknowledge a systemic Hollywood modus operandi of coerced sexual exploitation—then we’ll be making real progress.

Evangeline Lilly is hopeful that real progress is taking place:

I’m privy to the sort of inner workings of Time’s Up, and the institutions that they’re trying to establish (in really changing the union laws and the procedures that go on on set surrounding a woman taking her clothes off) are incredible. And they’re gonna make it happen. They have lawyers on the case; it will be meaningful change.

From my perspective, such change—root-level, lasting, culture-wide change—if it is going to happen, seems far from forthcoming. I hope I am wrong. I hope Evangeline Lilly is right. The current and future well-being of countless actors depends on it.

photo credit: Gage Skidmore via flickr, CC (This photo has been cropped.)