The Female Revolution Is Here & Boy Does It Hurt
We should call this loose, messy movement what it is: a revolution.
Everyone who dreams of a living in a radically different world knows that it would take a revolution to get there. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King, Jr. argued, in one of President Obama’s favorite quotations. The picture those reformers paint is elegant: history curving like a rainbow so expansive that it could take thousands of years to find the pot of gold at its base. But dramatic social change within a single lifetime never looks quite so beautiful. Wherever our fantasies fall on the political spectrum, we realize, on some level, that the path there will be painful.
So, instead of mentally preparing ourselves for the revolution, even if we’re working toward it in our daily lives, we focus on its end result. Over the years, I’ve constructed a speculative utopia of my own — a classless society with full political, social, and economic equality for people of all identities, that is fighting climate change on every possible front. It’s a gorgeous vision, in my opinion at least, but we couldn’t get there quickly from where we are now without first enduring a period of earthshaking upheaval. And who wants to daydream about that?
I guess that’s why, even though I’ve been involved in feminist activism for my entire adult life, I was so unprepared for everything that has happened since The New York Times and The New Yorker exposed Harvey Weinstein’s alleged history of serial sexual harassment and assault last month. At the time, he was a powerful, if also widely despised, movie producer gearing up for awards season. Now, he’s unemployed and hiding out — sorry, “undergoing treatment” — in Arizona, where a series of ridiculous disguises hasn’t thrown the paparazzi off his scent.
In the meantime, dozens of famous men from all walks of life have been outed, shamed, and canceled for alleged sexual misconduct. In the time it took me to write this, Time’s count ticked up from 57 to 73 — more than one for each day since the Times broke the Weinstein story on October 5. That doesn’t even include lesser-known public figures like former Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile, a handful of professors at Ivy League universities, or the many accusations that shook the indie film world over the summer.
We should call this loose, messy movement what it is: a revolution. A mostly female army is raiding the corridors of power, picking off abusers. With neither guns nor guillotines, they’re decimating mastheads and organizational charts and political careers and cultural legacies. For the first time, the public is not only believing women, but taking action on their behalf.
At the 2016 Emmys, Transparent creator Jill Soloway ended her acceptance speech by shouting “topple the patriarchy,” transforming an old radical feminist slogan into a rallying cry for a more mainstream women’s liberation movement. It was a phrase I’d certainly heard before, along with variants like “smash the patriarchy” and “stomp the patriarchy,” one that conjured memories of pro-choice marches and feminist punk shows. It had always sounded more like optimistic bombast than a real statement of purpose.
But something about hearing “topple the patriarchy” repeated for an audience of millions made me consider, for the first time, what that toppling might look like. The word itself made the revolution sound so easy, as though male supremacy was a house of cards we could flatten with a single swipe. Even if women around the country had been listening to Soloway with open minds, the idea that change could happen so fast sounded like a wonderful, impossible dream.
Now that we’re in the early stages of what might become the greatest challenge to American patriarchy since 1970s feminism though, it’s apparent that the system is more fragile than it looks. Something does seem to be toppling over, even if it’s only the tip of a massive iceberg. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it isn’t just predators who are getting hit with the debris.
A small part of that shared pain is in seeing beloved geniuses get knocked down along with the notorious assholes. Actors like Kevin Spacey and Transparent’s own Jeffrey Tambor have lost their jobs and had their current projects recast. Louis C.K., whose insightful comedy regularly skewered men’s awful behavior toward women, saw a finished film, an overall production deal with FX, and his HBO archive disappear virtually overnight. Sen. Al Franken is reportedly no better than the sweaty dude who gropes women on the train. High-ranking journalists and editors at NPR, The New York Times, The New Republic, Artforum, Vox Media, and NBC News are getting axed for various forms of sexual misconduct. Celebrities who’ve jumped to the defense of their buddies, as Oliver Stone did for Weinstein, have been hit with allegations of their own. According to eight women, even Charlie Rose is an abusive perv.
As a former fan of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, I try not to presume that artists whose work I love are good people. Still, it upset me more than I anticipated to read that Matthew Weiner, the creator of a TV show I cherished, Mad Men, allegedly harassed a young, female writer. Director Lars von Trier, whose films thrum with righteous anger at the way society crushes vulnerable people, denies Björk’s claim that he touched and threatened her on the set of Dancer in the Dark, but I’m inclined to believe her. Like Slate critic Dana Stevens, I was a Louis C.K. fan.
It’s narcissistic to fixate on personal losses that distract from the pain these men have inflicted on their victims. What really freaks me out, though, is the extent to which I allowed misogynists and predators to shape my worldview with their work. My sadness about Weiner and Louis C.K. and Von Trier reveals how invested I’ve always been in this patriarchy I’ve claimed to want to topple. I read, watch, and support as many non-male artists as anyone I know. I figured I had freed myself of the sexist values society foists on all of us. But if that were true, losing men who I thought of as heroes wouldn’t have hurt so much.
As the news cycle lurches forward, there isn’t much time to reflect on our own complicity as we process the magnitude of this sexual misconduct crisis. The dizzying pace of the revelations — and the sheer number of new predators unmasked every day — feels like progress. But it also amounts to a daily avalanche of graphic stories about rape, assault, verbal abuse, and careers cut short because of those horrors. That is more secondhand trauma than any of us is equipped to handle. If we have any empathy, we’ve spent time in the past six weeks crying over all the human suffering it has taken to get us to this crucial place.
What cuts even deeper is the personal reckoning this revolution has forced on me and so many other self-identified feminists I’ve spoken to recently. For my part, I just didn’t see it coming. I’d been reading, writing, protesting, and talking with female friends about this shit for so long, I thought I’d wrapped my mind around the magnitude of the problem. If you’d asked me, this time last year, if I believed that a huge number of powerful men were abusers, I would’ve said yes without even having to consider what I really meant by it. I didn’t anticipate how awful it would feel to have my most pessimistic assumptions confirmed. Accepting the logical reality that some substantial percentage of dudes are creeps is one thing. Processing the details of each nauseating, depraved story is an entirely different, much more emotionally taxing task that has left me exhausted. Now, those gross details haunt my interactions with almost every man I encounter. It’s a depressing way to go through life.
Since #metoo started to trend and thinking about sexual misconduct became a full-time job, I haven’t been able to stop revisiting fucked-up moments from my own professional life that I never recognized as such. There was the quiet, middle-aged guy who routinely asked young women in the office out to boozy lunches and the handful of college and grad school professors I avoided because of their reputations for harassing students, not to mention all the times I’ve heard men comment on a female coworker’s appearance. I know people who’ve quit jobs because they could no longer stomach working for companies that seemed to condone predatory behavior.
I identified deeply with my onetime colleague Rebecca Traister’s honest and perceptive New York magazine feature, where she recalled a bagel-shop manager who rubbed his dick against her, a potential mentor who propositioned her over coffee and a co-worker who harassed a different woman in the office but tried to sabotage Traister with misogynistic rumors. Later, while she was on maternity leave, he took a temporary position at her new workplace and skeeved out the younger women on staff. “I was never serially sexually harassed,” she writes. “But the stink got on me anyway. I was implicated.”
Some stink got on me, too. I have some similar guilt, over not working harder to thwart, or at least warn colleagues about, harassers. As the rumors filtered down to me, of men with power taking some sort of vaguely defined advantage of women without it, I rarely doubted them, but it never occurred to me to say anything. Sometimes my friends and I laughed behind the alleged creep’s back, maybe to convince ourselves he was too pathetic to take seriously. When I was a teenager working summer jobs, I didn’t question gossip that tarred low-wage female workers who slept with their bosses as gold diggers or sluts. Later, I assured myself that they simply weren’t my stories to tell or that I would’ve sprung into action if the name of any of my own direct reports ever came up — and both are probably true. It didn’t absolve me of any responsibility to help, though.
What about that job where a man in a different department, who had no work-related reason to speak to me, regularly muttered gross comments as he walked past my desk on his way to the bathroom? Once, he wanted to know whether I could hear him peeing. That most certainly was my story to tell, and although it pales in comparison with what so many women have endured, I can’t believe I let it happen for weeks. The insane thing is, I don’t even remember if I eventually told my boss. Before #metoo, it had been years since I’d even thought about that guy (and I still couldn’t tell you his name). Now, I’m not sure whether he really failed to make a lasting impression on me or I shoved it into a dark corner of my memory because it was too humiliating to keep contemplating. I do know that I have a visceral aversion to seeing myself as a victim, because it means acknowledging the limits of my agency, and am capable of summoning some pretty sophisticated defense mechanisms in order to avoid it.
Perhaps that’s why learning the truth about so many well-respected men in my industry, media, has shaken me up so much, even after years of rumors. Sure, I knew in some abstract sense that men abuse power. And yet, I managed to disassociate that knowledge from the men who actually surrounded me. In retrospect, my mental image of a harasser was so naive: a finance guy who smacked his secretary’s butt or a corporate middle manager with an inferiority complex or a ruthless dick like Harvey Weinstein. When I decided to become a journalist, I imagined that my peers — and certainly my superiors — of all genders would be progressive, high-minded people who cared about noble things like justice and truth and art. If I had to face sexism in the world at large, I wanted colleagues who valued me for my talent and ideas.
For the most part, I’ve been lucky. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t recognize elements of my own past workplaces in The Daily Beast’s recent exposé on sexual misconduct at Vice. Which is to say that when I take an honest look at the wider media landscape, I feel like the babysitter in the horror movie who takes too long to realize the call is coming from inside the house.
Now that we are almost two months into this revolution, while many of us have gotten bogged down in our own personal reckonings, decades-old feminist conflicts have prevented us from putting up a united front as the patriarchy has gone on the defensive. There are the usual impediments to exposing abusers: the defamation lawsuits, the well-oiled intimidation machines, the burden of finding witnesses who can corroborate stories about one-on-one encounters. Just last week, the right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe launched a ridiculous sting operation aimed at discrediting accusers of Roy Moore, a GOP Senate candidate in Alabama whose platform splits the difference between hatred and ignorance, despite multiple allegations that he sexually assaulted teenage girls and minors.
Less dramatic but more common is the way men who’ve crossed lines (or worry that they have) have started to demand emotional labor out of women from their past. Friends have told me about messages from dudes who claim they want to apologize but are actually begging to be assured that some woman isn’t about to ruin their lives. A frank, consensual conversation with a reformed aggressor may help some people heal; one of the most important pieces I’ve read since the Weinstein story broke is this interview between an anonymous woman and the man who assaulted her when she was a teenager. It just seems like a guy who waits to reach out until it’s open season on creeps probably doesn’t care about much besides his own reputation.
Meanwhile, over beers and in the comment sections of confessional essays and on endless threads in private Facebook groups, thousands of women are hashing out what separates true abuse behavior from garden-variety asshole behavior. Not only are we the ones who have to hold up the worst experiences of our lives for public scrutiny — it’s also become our responsibility. That’s more painful grunt work many of us don’t have the emotional bandwidth for, but are doing anyway, because it’s not like we can trust men to do it.
As these arguments rage on, feminist solidarity — which is fragile on a good day — is fracturing along familiar lines. White women have alienated our sisters of color with myopic Twitter “boycotts” and an infuriating disregard for intersectionality. Lena Dunham — who wrote a damn Times op-ed calling on men to denounce Weinstein — and her producing partner Jenni Konner issued a stunningly hypocritical statement defending Girls writer Murray Miller against biracial actress Aurora Perrineau’s sexual assault accusations, which resulted in the author Zinzi Clemmons’ call for women of color to “divest from Lena Dunham.”
Not that Dunham is the only progressive woman who’s employing some shady logic to protect her own interests. A vague group of “SNL women” sent out a statement protesting that Al Franken must be a good guy because he never touched any of them. Meanwhile, just as many prominent feminists once defended Bill Clinton for practical reasons, some are now arguing that Franken shouldn’t resign because we need his liberal vote in the Senate. It’s a tempting position. We all want people who’ll fight for our rights to wield as much power as possible—and there is a world of difference between Franken’s alleged behavior and that of Moore, who should also have to answer to the criminal justice system. But, as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb pointed out on Twitter, once we start putting political expediency before our values, we’re not so different from our most unscrupulous opponents.
The pragmatists are spot on about one thing: The greatest threat to this nascent revolution, and to women in general, is the misogynist right. As the left and Democrats work to clean their own houses, re-litigating past conflicts like whether or not Bill Clinton should have resigned, Moore, is leading in the polls. Alt-right figures like O’Keefe and this guy, who only seems to believe in rape when a Black man commits it, have already appropriated women’s revelations about abusive men for their ongoing war against the mainstream media. Along with hijacking our private conversations to petty, nihilistic ends, they’re trying to undermine our trust in each other. And I’m hardly the first to suggest that this movement is fueled by widespread frustration that a man who’s been accused of sexual assault by 16 women and admitted to it on tape is the most powerful person in the world. People are believing survivors like never before — except for the considerable segment of the population that apparently doesn’t care.
We’ve landed some unprecedented blows to the patriarchy in the past two months. After decades of watching mainstream culture ignore allegations against rich, famous, powerful men — and then years of slowly building cases that brought down egregious individuals like Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby — the floodgates are finally open. And we’ve survived the initial impact of all those ugly revelations. It hasn’t been as easy or uncomplicated as those of us who’ve dreamed of life in a feminist utopia, but never imagined how we’d weather the revolution it would take to get there, might’ve hoped.
Our victories are still limited. Wealthy financiers are still funding Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. A petition urging Sony to drop R. Kelly, after decades of ever-worsening allegations involving underage girls, has gone unanswered. Kesha’s legal battle to free herself from Dr. Luke, the producer she says raped her, grows more depressing by the week. And, of course, Donald Trump is still president. We haven’t convinced his voters that keeping alleged child molesters out of government is more important than scoring political points, either.
And we don’t know what the next phase of this war will look like, if we ever reach it. Who will fill the voids left by Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, and Jeffrey Tambor? Will corrupt industries change in permanent and meaningful ways, or just drop individual abusers when they’re outed and buy sexual harassment insurance? Are we going to push for boring, permanent policy solutions or do we just want to exact revenge on celebrities? Will we ever go after less glamorous but more exploitative sectors staffed by working-class women, from fast food to farm work? If the privileged among us don’t give voiceless survivors a platform to speak out, are we toppling the patriarchy or just protecting our own?
Yes, this is a revolution. But it’s not a triumph yet. Many revolutions fail miserably. We can’t let our successes blind us to the fact that taking down 60, 300, or even 1000 abusers isn’t the same thing as destroying a larger culture of abuse. The war to create that level of change will take years of pain and sacrifice to play out — in the public sphere, in our personal and professional lives, in the realm of feminist organizing, and against our own ugly prejudices. Even then, we might not win. The patriarchy is tenacious, and it is everywhere, including inside our heads. If we’re not ready to fight it on every front, we’ve already lost.