The Harvey Weinstein stories opened the floodgates in early October, but the fervor with which subsequent stories are released and consumed shows no signs of abating. And for all the high-profile hand-wringing about “witch hunts,” “social intimidation,” and “moral flattening” that’s accompanied the avalanche of naming and shaming male abusers, the most exciting element at play is women’s uncompromising, precise dissatisfaction. Moira Donegan’s viral essay in The Cut last week, “I Started the Media Men List,” felt like a new high in the procession of poised, prudent dissections of what “this moment” consists of, and what it doesn’t.
“It is still explosive, radical, and productively dangerous for women to say what we mean,” Donegan writes. “But this doesn’t mean that I’ve lowered my hopes.”
Nor should the rest of us. Granted, not all women make the team proud. But earlier this month, even millionaire actresses stepped it up. Though it’s wise to be wary of celebrity activism, the Time’s Up movement, announced early enough to become a hashtag during the Golden Globes, seems to at least have a concretely useful goal: “to allow more women and men to access our legal system to hold wrongdoers accountable.” Oprah’s speech at the same ceremony, with its elegant evocation of how race and gender discrimination intersect, provided an example of the inclusive solidarity Time’s Up should adopt.
Some of us have become so accustomed to feeling let down or even disgusted by nearly every popular manifestation of feminism that we assume the current furor over these abuses of power is similarly hollow and reductive, even when evidence points to the contrary. As the list of jobless men grows longer, so does the chorus of voices demanding that our collective energies be developed into something broader, sharper, and just better. What’s happening to (some) men right now is meaningless, but what’s surfacing as the shared sentiment among (many) women is promising, and it extends well beyond the containers of sex and assault.
If there’s a woman in this moment who’s feeling smug, who thinks our job is almost done, then to quote Mariah, I don’t know her. Instead of taking victory laps, we’ve been reminding each other that we need to turn our attention to domestic workers, and to men who’ve been violated; that the core problem is not sex but work, and not sex but authority; that to disregard or otherwise erase race is to render any so-called progress worthless; and that the firings are not nearly enough.
This last point especially comes through with consistency: Firings are not nearly enough. Nor are the resignations that halt further investigation, foreclose formal punishment, and keep details private (which conveniently serves the narrative of commentators who maintain that a majority of accusations are “shadowy” or “vague.”)
Scores of women have felt raw, disheartened, and fatigued by the #MeToo news cycle over the past months for the obvious reason that these are transmissions of suffering and for many, reminders of exclusion. But the relentless news coverage is further disconcerting because these tales of horror are making some companies a lot of money, often by allowing one writer to dismiss and denigrate accusers in the same pages where another writer first broke the allegations.
So the perception of widespread insatiability that has so many conservatives and even liberals lamenting the fall of “due process” is not entirely off the mark. We harpies do indeed want more, much more. Even the handful of prominent men’s professional casualties isn’t quelling our appetite for revolution, which is misconstrued by some as a senseless, hysterical lust for vengeance. If anything, this growing parade of superficially disgraced figures only deepens our aggrievement: again, not by driving us to indiscriminate bloodletting, but by further whetting the craving for true change. Throw another famous gasbag into the fires of public disapproval—hell, throw them all in a fire—and see if we care. We will not be distracted or placated. A scab has been torn away and underneath is not a nearly-healed wound but a puncture so deep it drives down to the bone.
If this past year taught us anything, it was how profoundly every system one might have hoped to improve with mere reform, every institution one might have trusted to “do the right thing,” every politician who’d been positioned as a beacon of integrity, will never come to our rescue. Parity and justice and restitution are not priorities of our existing structures because those structures were designed to maintain hierarchies that make justice and parity and restitution impossible. This means that “the task ahead for women...is immense,” as Jo Livingstone writes: “It’s nothing less than a utopian project.”
You don’t get utopia by tweaking who stars in what Netflix show, or by kicking a handful of .01%-ers off the metaphorical island. The restless women of 2018 did not come seeking cosmetic corrections. We are ready for razing and remaking. Here, then, is an attempt to clear away some of the clutter so we can move on to the work most urgently at hand.
The best thing that can be said so far about the slew of firings and resignations is that they’ve likely stanched the flow of opportunities for specific men to sexually mistreat others—or at least, as many others as they once did. That’s valuable, but it has nothing to do with permanent, lasting change. “Scapegoating a few perpetrators will still leave oppressive social structures intact,” wrote the anarchist Words to Fire Collective in 2015’s “Betrayal.” “Rape culture values the perpetrator about as much as any imperialist army values its foot soldiers. It will happily sacrifice them if necessary.”
This is what we’re witnessing now: a few men showily going down while the systems that bestowed them (and countless other unnamed abusers) with such outsized power are unshaken.
Arguably, displacing these men serves to protect the dynamics that fostered their abuse in the first place, in the same way that suppressing symptoms of an infection without appropriate treatment only allows the infection to fester and spread. Specific men might leave, but there’s no guarantee that the culture—as it’s shaped by and reinforced by HR departments, PR professionals, and upper management—will look any different. Sexism and capitalism and white supremacy chug along without impediment; there’s been no actual wealth or power redistribution in the process of stripping some men of professional titles. Much like the “few bad apples” defense stymies discussions of policing’s inherently abusive nature, so too does the vanquishing of a few big personalities imply that the harassment problem is isolated instead of an epidemic.
The haphazardness of how consequences are doled out testifies to this underlying lack of commitment. Louis C.K.’s latest film lost distribution after the New York Times reported on his history of harassment, but Woody Allen’s recent film rolled out with little drama, while R. Kelly—another prominent man whose alleged pedophilia has been public record for many years—seems untouchable. Republican Congressman Trent Franks resigned in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, but Roy Moore continued his Senate campaign with party (and constituent) support. (Despite his loss, he garnered 63% of white women’s votes.)
And the most obvious example, the admitted sexual assailant who’s ostensibly running the country, has suffered no professional or, as far as we can discern, financial consequences for the many accusations against him, nor for his recorded confession of guilt.
There’s also the question of what “going down” means, exactly, when it comes to social censure of outrageously rich men. Harvey Weinstein’s fortune has been pegged as high as $300 million, an amount so cartoonishly (tycoon-ishly?) large that I have trouble conceiving of it. Louis CK is buying back the rights to his film, which he could then sell on his own website to profit, recoup, or defray the costs. According to Forbes, he’s worth $52 million. Matt Lauer, who’s already earned more than $100 million in his years at NBC, may yet receive more money from the network that fired him. Whether or not he gets it, I’m sorry to say: He’s rich for life.
These men may have radioactive reputations—for now—but it’s increasingly clear that those they worked for knew what they were doing, and excused, protected, or further facilitated their violations. Moreover, as higher-ups rush to avoid and paper over imminent scandals, innocents are caught in the crossfire. One of the most poignant aspects of Trace Lysette’s account of Jeffrey Tambor’s behavior on the set of Transparent was her plea that the other cast and crew members, and the show itself, not suffer for his misdeeds. But when men enmeshed in their industry go down, collateral damage is inevitable.
Of course it’s good if, as some pundits maintain, men in the workplace are now “afraid” of their female coworkers. Better to be afraid than leering down shirts and groping asses like no one who matters is watching. But very little about today’s strain of public pressure is likely to inspire companies to promote women, or hire more women, or rectify salary discrepancies among existing staff—and financial stability is a reliable form of protection for anyone who is otherwise vulnerable.
The lesson so far remains: Don’t get caught aiding and abetting serial abusers. But sexual harassment is only one way of making women’s work harder, or nearly impossible.
Over the past few months, when I’ve pulled up the landing pages of various women-centered verticals, I’ll see that four of the five top stories are pieces highlighting details of the latest assault scandal and my heart sinks. Many were nothing more than updated lists of every accusation made public against a single man, the textual equivalent of those Greatest Hits compilations once sold on late night TV. “I get chills down my spine watching the pageviews go up, and up, and up on Ivy League rape stories,” Buzzfeed senior reporter Katie Baker told Adult magazine two years ago for a roundtable discussion on rape culture. “The more brutal the story is, and the prettier the victim, the more successful.”
Commodification of stories of rape and abuse should disturb us. It’s sickening to sit with the knowledge that these first-person accounts generate revenue for those publishing the story far more reliably than they yield a change in a company’s policy, a manager’s sexist beliefs, or women’s self-perceptions, or laws at any level. A willfully oblivious or amoral newsroom culture wherein decisions are made solely based on revenue cannot be a source of careful and progressive coverage—and what newsroom can operate without thinking about clicks?
“We’d talk about all of these issues from 10 feet above, even though they were the wallpaper of my own personal hell,” Alana Levinson writes in her piece on determining how to cover #MeToo at a men’s magazine. “I was really screaming inside, my hands sweating, grasped into the tiniest, hardest fists under the table.” Freelancer Roslyn Talusan outlined a series of callous editorial exchanges when she tried to share the story of her assault: “I’m often told by journalists with far more experience in the industry than me that ‘It’s just the way it is,’ but let’s face it—‘the way it is’ no longer cuts it.”
To require women to smooth out their stories for public consumption demands much of those who’ve already suffered and virtually nothing from us, their audience. Are we being challenged and stirred to action, or are we being pruriently entertained and kept complacent?
Cumulatively, stories can force some change; lawmakers introduced legislation to address sexual harassment within Congress, and Microsoft recently eliminated the forced arbitration agreement previously required to proceed with sexual harassment claims. Prior to the #MeToo movement, a strong example was set by college activists’ leveraging bad PR against universities who’ve been negligent in responding to reports of sexual violence. (Though whether or not these changes constitute success is a matter of acrimonious debate.) Advancement of their cause would not have been possible without decades of other women doing the same. But a formal response from any institution is most likely if the storytellers fit the preferred cultural script—if they are white, middle or upper class, innocent, cis, and young.
Women have been waging hashtag campaigns and stapling their pain all over social media for years now, but as Lauren Oyler noted in early 2017, the purported impact of these tactics “seems to exist in a parallel universe to our political reality.” Feminist academic Renee Heberlee’s words, written more than 20 years ago, are still excruciatingly poignant today: “[Survivors] express themselves out of the conviction that once society understands the truth about itself, it will transform its terms of existence,” adding that if (when) that proves not to be true, “the emphasis on speaking out is not questioned in itself; instead it is said to not have worked yet.”
We’re told there’s a sea change occurring, yet there’s no codification of that shift—no formal reform, no organized action—and we’re left with the sense that while “speaking out” has little to no power, it’s the only power we have, or the only one we’re permitted to wield.
It’s worth asking if the “power” to identify as victims is real power at all. If you believe that patriarchy requires constantly shoring up “the otherwise fragile edifice of masculinist power,” as Heberlee puts it, an impasse emerges. It’s very hard to emphasize the damages of masculine dominance without simultaneously, implicitly confirming its tenets. (Men are strong, though helpless, against their libidos; women are weak and ill-suited for the workplace.) How do we talk about the reality of abuse without telling those in power exactly what they want to hear?
Moreover, “speaking out” can come at considerable personal cost, even when the internet is mostly on your side. Donegan’s essay, as brilliant as it is, exists only because she chose to out herself before it might otherwise have been done without her consent. Meanwhile, defamation suits are increasingly common on college campuses as more students report sexual assault, and they’re hardly confined to university settings. Though this tool has so far not been used during the #MeToo reckoning by accused, its burgeoning popularity in the university context has very bad implications for the millions of women whose civilian abusers risk no media savaging if they retaliate this way.
This is the hellscape created when public sentiment is noisily tipped against sexual assault without there being any actual structural change. Public shame campaigns are not forms of prevention. They may deter others, but they do not work toward offender accountability and rehabilitation, nor do they concern themselves with protection and care for victims. They do nothing to meaningfully rectify what wrongs have already been committed; they do, however, give abusers a convincing case for reputational damage.
To take stock of where we stand now is inevitably to be intimidated by how much must change. But there’s so much good thinking and good work by which we can be inspired and guided. There’s been a steady stream of unsparing, smart commentary that goes deep into the true causes of harassment, assault, and rape that’s poised to overtake the breathless breaking news reports of whichever scummy millionaire is newly disgraced. The outpouring of feminine emotion expected to perpetually accompany the latest resignation or contrite public statement has instead been attaching itself to these manifestos free from sentimentality or equivocation. So many of us are ready for what comes next, and we’re bringing our best ideas to the table. This need not be another false start.