On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger stabbed and shot six people to death as part of what he called his "war on women" — an attempt at retribution for what he saw as a lifetime of romantic rejection. After his murder-suicide spree, Rodger left behind a video manifesto and several blog posts filled with his violent and grotesquely misogynistic tirades, and social media did what it always does in response to human horror: It hashtagged it. A hashtag movement typically trends for no longer than a day, but sometimes it takes root and becomes something bigger than itself. After Rodger's killing spree, some were quick to point out that #NotAllMen are ruthless misogynists, capable of such brutality — a sentiment echoed by many. But the response was echoed by many more: No, certainly not all men are intimate with violence and prejudice. But, yes, all women are. More than a year later, Los Angeles artist and writer Jessie Askinazi seized the momentum of the #YesAllWomen hashtag, bringing it out of the ether of the internet and into a room — a packed one, at that. This past Saturday, the #YesAllWomen Art Fundraiser drew a huge crowd to Dilettante, an art space in Downtown L.A., for a night of performance and art auctioning, all to benefit the East Los Angeles Women's Center. "What always leads me is a combination of art and activism," Askinazi told me the next day. Like so many, she had avidly followed the evolution of the #YesAllWomen hashtag, as story after story of abuse, assault, threats, and prejudicial treatment flooded Twitter in the wake of the Isla Vista killings, and now this wasn't just sentiment but a movement in the making. "So, I wanted to bring it into a live space. As a society, we're very passive in our communication," she said, reflecting on both the power and limitations of social media. "I feel we’re growing further and further apart and disconnecting. In terms of making change and progress, it’s very necessary to be together in very tangible ways." Askinazi began reaching out to female artists of all media: painters, musicians, comedians, poets, digital creatives, and performance artists, all of whom were eager to join. In part, it was a benefit for a highly worth cause; the East Los Angeles Women's Center — for whom Askinazi volunteers — has been serving the community for 40 years, never turning a woman away. But it was also a way to pull #YesAllWomen out of our monitors and into our faces.
Askinazi enlisted Rose McGowan as the evening's MC — an ideal host for such an event. In the past year, McGowan has become one of the most present and unapologetic voices in the fight for women, denouncing sexism and violence with an unvarnished anger, making herself into a living wake-up call. "We should be running down the streets with our hair on fire, by all rights," McGowan told me at the event, her eyes and voice both level and unwavering. "And I don’t wanna do that. I’d rather set other people on fire." McGowan had been involved in women's advocacy since she was a kid, walking girls into abortion clinics as a 15-year-old. But as an adult and a public figure, she'd mainly been focused on fighting for the LGBTQ community. "It was really the moment when every Republican voted down equal pay for women that I kind of went insane," she said of the catalyst that brought her focus back to women. "I kind of lost it." In person, McGowan doesn't come across as someone who's lost it but as someone who means it — and wants you to mean it, too. With or without a platform, she says, we all can and should be a part of this fight. On a micro level, "If you hear women talking crap about other women, stop it," she said. The same goes for men. "Just how you would if you heard somebody use a racial slur or a slur against the gay community." On a bigger scale, McGowan wants to remind us that we all can and should call our senators, congresswomen, and congressmen. We all can and should volunteer at shelters, giving our time and/or money. "It's just boots-on-the-ground stuff." But on a daily level, it's as simple as challenging the language you hear directed to or about women — even when the offender is a friend. "A lot of times," she said, "it's not out of being a horrible person. They're just very comfortable." This year, McGowan's big-picture fight is focused on repealing statutes of limitation around sexual assault and child molestation. It's a monumental task, but as she points out, these issues touch all our lives. "We all know people [who've survived assault or abuse], if we’re not them ourselves." That's what matters most, she concludes. "So, when I call on you, please be ready."
The evening echoed McGowan's battle cry in many ways, with intense, gripping performances from artists including Summer and Rain Phoenix, who opened the night with a reading of tweets from the #YesAllWomen hashtag, underscored by piano. Later, artist Snövit Hedstierna brought the room to stunned silence with her bare and gutting performance piece, which involved her writhing and howling naked in the middle of the room. But music and comedy filled the night, as well, including an appearance by Megan Amram, who read an excerpt from her hit satirical book Science...for Her! Amram is widely known for her unmatched and brilliant Twitter persona, but she primarily writes for television comedies — a world not typically known for its commitment to gender equality. "I started looking around, noticing the little things you see every day," she says, explaining her own motivations. "Whether it's in a movie where there are no female characters, or if it’s in the way that male characters on a television show talk about the bodies of women that they see. And I think, 'These are all unacceptable to me.'" Amram began writing feminist satire because, as she explains, "a joke that comes from a place of something you care a lot about is always better and funnier." She adds, "And I was very fortunate to work on Parks and Recreation, where we all spoke about these issues, both the male and female writers, and were very informed and sensitive. It was really awesome to make comedy that was trying to be proactive and sweet and nice." That said, the broader world of comedy still seems conflicted over the "issue" of women, whether it's denying their inherent comedic ability (I mean: Megan Amram) or fighting for the right to make rape jokes. "I am so, so anti the anti-PC movement," Amram says, smiling and incensed. For example, "There’s been a lot of discussion about the concept of trigger warnings. My rule of thumb is always, if the victim of the thing you're talking about doesn't like it, then listen to them." She explains, "I'm not African American and I would never go up to an African American person and say, 'Blackface is okay because I say it’s okay.' I'm going to listen to the person who it's making fun of. Similarly, with topics of rape, it's like, 'Listen to the person who had it happen to them!'" Then there's the specter of Cosby — the elephant in every comedy writers' room right now. "What did Cosby do? Cosby who? Bill Cosby?" Amram deadpanned. After a beat, she launched in: "My instinct is always, like, if you did something in your personal life…things that are incontrovertibly, morally wrong, I can't ever support you as an artist. And that includes seeing movies or buying albums or whatever it is. I realize there are other camps on this, but I personally want to believe that the people who should succeed in their professional life are also the people who are actively working on their personal life." On Cosby, no question: "He should be blackballed. He should never ever have a stage again," Amram said. "I think some people get wary of that super-draconian law because there are so many people that would fall under it. There are so many people who have these pasts — or presents — that are dubious." Furthermore, Amram added, "Women get dinged on the littlest things, and they’re not as easily forgivable. And then Bill Cosby raped and drugged dozens of women and yet some people are still defending him. My mind just can’t wrap itself around that. I'm a strict believer in, like, you should only be famous if you haven't raped people. I know, that sounds crazy!"
The night swung between moods of group-wide levity and loud, wrenching anger, but as the performances concluded, it was clear that one of Jessie Askinazi's primary goals had been realized: The venue was packed with people all riveted by the same message. It was more visceral than anything behind a monitor. It did shake up the crowd and leave them with a sense of mission and of real, tangible hope. It was a great party, too. Then, sometime after midnight, when all the guests had dispersed, Askinazi opened the door to leave. "It was just me and [producing partners] Wil and Eliah," she said. "We walked outside to leave, and there was a girl — 21, I'd guess, maybe 20 — hysterical, on the sidewalk." The young woman had not been at the event. She'd been kicked out of a car by her boyfriend, during a fight, and left on the street. Askinazi, who's assisted women like this as a volunteer at the women's center, sat beside her and tried to calm her down and get her to explain what had happened. The girl and her boyfriend had been coming home from a wedding and got in a fight, at which point, "he became really frightening to her," Askinazi told me. They sat with the girl, trying first to calm her down ("She was just crying so much, saying she doesn't understand, she doesn't understand. Why is he treating her like this?" said Askinazi), and then to come up with a plan. At that point, her boyfriend pulled back up in his car. Askinazi described how he berated his girlfriend "over and over — 'You fucking bitch, you are an idiot.' I can't even articulate how hostile and threatening his language was." Askinazi intervened, again trying to de-escalate the situation. "Once he calmed down, he said, 'You know, I might have said some things, but I would never hit a woman.' What I said to him was, 'Just because you’re not using your hands does not mean that you're not being violent,'" Askinazi explained, still clearly rattled by the encounter. "When I said that, it really hit him and got through — I think." The man left and Askinazi stayed with the girl until a friend came to pick her up. Then, she finally got in her own car to drive home in a state of disbelief. "We came out of the show feeling so empowered and thinking, 'We are on this road to a better future for women,' and, bam — blasted. It was such an indicator — like a divine [reminder]. There is so much more work that needs to be done." Earlier in the evening, artist Kate Durbin had reenacted Elliot Rodger's video manifesto. And Askinazi realized, as she watched the abuse this man just hurled at his girlfriend, that "everything that this guy was saying and doing was almost a mirror of that video." The cosmic timing left Askinazi far more sober than celebratory. "Everything we've talked about with this project — yes, it’s great and wonderful, and yay for the artists. But this is real life. I couldn’t escape it from the moment I opened the door."