What happens after Harvey Weinstein?
I wasn’t surprised at the Weinstein revelations. Pessimistically, I assumed that this kind of behaviour was endemic to every industry.
I was surprised by how many people, from celebrities to friends, opened up about their experiences of sexual harassment. Sure, some high-profile statements feel more like politicking, shameless cardboard men covering their own asses rather than expressing genuine concern. These empty words infuriated me but they also highlighted how terrified these Hollywood men were of having their reputation tarnished either by being implicated in sexual predation or in keeping quiet about sexual predation. Why has this case, rather than say Casey Affleck or Johnny Depp’s stories, caused such a widespread response?
As Carina Chocano puts it, ‘[this has been] an incredibly long time coming. The drumbeat of revelations about powerful men abusing their power to harass, intimidate and assault relatively powerless women had been building since – well, since forever. But evidence of the harassment we’re subjected to on a regular basis has only gotten starker since the election: since the Donald Trump Access Hollywood recordings and the assault allegation since dropped; since Anthony Weiner’s dick-pic apocalypse; since Bill Cosby was revealed to be a serial rapist off the hook on a technicality. It’s rape culture on parade against a chorus of grievances. Anger mounts. It snowballs. It jolts you awake, screaming.’ So maybe Weinstein is the fuckstick that broke the donkey’s back? Or maybe it is the size and reach of his abuse, incorporating a whole network of assistants who organised hotel rooms and ‘casting meetings’, that has sparked such public outrage? I’m already queasy for the end of March 2018, a couple of weeks after the Oscars, when the story will have died down- will anything have changed?
I did feel my heart swell as I read piece after piece of honest, incisive, outraged writing by thoughtful women and men on the subject. Last week, after Ronan Farrow’s investigative piece appeared in The New Yorker, I avoided thinking about my own experiences. Much like Joanna Goddard, I hesitated about adding a #metoo to the protest because really I had been lucky, nothing much had happened to me. Why make a big deal of small ‘normal’ incidents- some catcalling, some hassling in bars, some condescending comments- when much more important people were being defrocked. I wrote my uncomfortable moments off as the odious gifts of a few sad strange little men who had my pity. Plus why dredge up bad memories, I have outgrown the idea that I need men to define my self-worth.
It was, of course, an incredibly long time coming. The drumbeat of revelations about powerful men abusing their power to harass, intimidate and assault relatively powerless women had been building since – well, since forever.
I did however want to re-read (and share with you) a few articles that I found really insightful, particularly Jia Tolentino’s in The New York Times. She so brilliantly explains the thought process women go through when sexual harassment happens. As I read again the section where she says ‘Afterward, you are rarely presented with even a single good option’, I felt the red hot flush of shame creep up my neck. The memories come back to me- the completely unexpected groping at a gig, the sexual propositions and intimidation in a previous job, the aggressive behaviour at a local bar, the frequent demeaning criticisms by one of my male bosses, the daily patronising comments about being irrational, needing a husband, sticking to what I’m good at.
I was shocked at my reaction. The behaviour of those men is pitiful and disgusting but it seems that I am less angry at them than I am at myself. I feel embarrassed; I feel that I should have done more to handle the situations better. I am such a fool, why didn’t I smoothly talk my way out of the encounters like a poised female James Bond? Or I am a cowering wretch, I should have stood up for myself and eloquently confronted and denounced these men. Pathetic idiot! I could have coldly used them to my benefit, stepping on them to climb some metaphorical ladder. Then their satisfaction would have been outweighed by my own gain. And below even these thoughts, the creeping sickening worry that I didn’t do what they wanted, that I failed them.
Afterward, you are rarely presented with even a single good option. Stay silent and you have acquiesced to whatever happened. Tell a friend and nothing much will be done. Come forward to an authority figure and you’ll face unfair consequences: people will be uncomfortable around you, perceiving ulterior motives; people will look for reasons that this happened to you, specifically; maybe you simply won’t be believed.
The mass outpouring of #metoo demonstrates that sexual harassment is so widespread that it can be considered symptomatic of an engrained way of thinking both for men and women. My instinctive reaction is to take it personally. In my mind, each situation is a reflection on me. The difficulty with this reaction, besides the consequences it has on my self-confidence, is that then I also judge the men individually, rather than connect them to the wider cultural archetypes that we are still struggling to overwrite. I believed each of the asshats who bothered me to be exceptions when maybe I should see them as explicit demonstrations of the rule.
But how do I balance the systemic and the individual when confronted with this behaviour? How much should I blame them? How much is it my fault for playing out the role of mild young woman? How much is it ‘social conditioning’, which removes blame from both of us?
There are no blurry lines when it comes to Weinstein. I blame men like Weinstein for his horrific actions. He knows right from wrong. Even taking into account learnt social behaviour, Weinstein (and Trump, and Cosby, and Saville, and Clinton) knows where the line exists and when he was barreling through it. However, tamer, less offensive versions of these clear abuses of power exist in my daily life, often perpetrated by men I admire. Their behaviour is not the same as the abuse being reported at the hands of Weinstein, but it is connected to an enduring unequal way of viewing men and women.
But how do I balance the systemic and the individual when confronted with this behaviour? How much should I blame them? How much is it my fault for playing out the role of mild young woman?
I would love it if one of the consequences of Weinstein’s case be that we begin to properly revise the stereotypes and gender dynamics that we teach children and reinforce over and over again in adults. Just as reacting with shame was encoded into me by years of social and cultural signals, so many men, who I respect, are enacting what they have been taught when they hold doors open for me, insist on carrying my bags, make decisions for me, interrupt me and seek advice from other men. These subtler, unthinking acts add to the confusion when we’re trying to deal with more traumatic, intended abuses.
Men need a new script just as much as women do. Justin Myers in GQ asks ‘have you been a good man?’ and goes on to outline how a ‘good man’ behaves. He stresses that Weinstein’s behaviour ‘is loaded with our complicity’. His description of a ‘good man’ fits with how I would like to act and how I would like my male friends and colleagues to act. I urge you to read it and see what you think. Much of his argument depends on removing male aggression and superiority and replacing it with listening and speaking out against sexist behaviour. I would love to see his vision come true. He ends his piece by saying ‘we start today’ and while that’s addressed at his male readers, I have to also see myself as complicit and begin speaking out too. Beyond this, I hope that we can push the conversation on to how men can behave to create a more equal inclusive society.
What do you think we should do to resolve this problem? Tell me about your experiences.