I am a feminist. I also have conflicting thoughts about the account published on babe.net over the weekend, about a 23-year-old woman’s questionably consensual experience on a date with Aziz Ansari. To me, those two statements are not mutually exclusive. And yet, I’ve spent a large chunk of the last week grappling with the question of whether or not it’s an acceptable stance to hold in public.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published a controversial opinion piece headlined: “Publicly We Say #MeToo, Privately We Have Misgivings.” In it, Daphne Merkin argued that many women who consider themselves feminists have heeded the rallying cry of #MeToo in public, while expressing views that skirted away from the party line in private. Ultimately, the piece called attention to women who felt their voices were being silenced in a conversation that should include everyone, which is why I was disappointed to see it trashed on social media —even lumped in with takedowns of Woody Allen apologists. If we’re not willing to listen to each other as we figure out how to talk about these issues, then what is the potential for sparking real change?
This isn’t about absolving Ansari, or dragging Grace, or even questioning the journalistic integrity of babe.net. This isn’t about taking a side in a debate. In the same way that this story is being used as an entry point to expand the #MeToo conversation to the power imbalances in sex and dating culture, this is an opportunity for us to explore why we’ve been so quick shut down women who voice “wrong” opinions.
And what is a “wrong” take, anyway? Is it Caitlin Flanagan’s defense of Ansari in The Atlantic, that Twitter almost unanimously declared war against over the weekend? Or Bari Weiss’ essay in the Times, which explored the issue of female agency, and was decried as victim blaming? And if those are bad, what then, do we make of the vicious email sent by babe.net reporter Katie Way in response to HLN’s Ashleigh Banfield’s criticism of “Grace,” the anonymous name given to Ansari’s accuser? The email, available in full here, and read on air by Banfield on Wednesday, includes lines like: “I hope the 500 retweets on the single news write up made that burgundy lipstick, bad highlights, second wave feminist has-been really relevant for a little while.”
Jeering at one woman for slamming another woman isn’t the most productive way to get a point across, or even figure out what the point is. But cloaked inside jibes at Banfield’s appearance is an all-too-common dismissal that anyone who disagrees with the new order of things is too old-school to matter. As Amanda Hess of the Times tweeted in response to all this: “‘second wave feminist’ has become code for ‘woman i disagree with who is older than me.’”
Like many people who make a living thinking and writing about entertainment, I’ve had to cover the issues of sexual harassment and assault that have come to dominate the news cycle in the last several months. I am proud to work for a news organization that is committed to supporting women and telling their stories. But I’m still parsing through the many complicated thoughts that come with every new allegation. There hasn’t been a moment to stop and reflect.
Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen so many think pieces on Ansari. This story feels different. So many of the previous allegations have involved clear-cut cases of workplace harassment. No woman is going to defend Harvey Weinstein, or James Toback, or Matt Lauer, or Louis C.K. As Emma Gray pointed out over at HuffPost,those were the most obvious rotten apples in a barrel that’s been decaying from the bottom up. “If the #MeToo movement is going to amount to sustained culture change ― rather than simply a weeding out of the worst actors in a broken system ― we need to renegotiate the sexual narratives we’ve long accepted,” she wrote on Wednesday. “And that involves having complicated conversations about sex that is violating but not criminal.”
Having that kind of complicated conversation only works if we entertain multiple of the narrative. The sheer number of reactions from different women, arguing a wide spectrum of ideas, points to the fact that we don’t think as one big block. So, why is it so polarizing to just come out and say that?
I understand the reluctance to engage with ideas from women who appear to be setting things back — we face enough opposition from intractable men without having to fight backlash from our own. Judy Berman, writing about the question of female agency on Refinery29 earlier this week pointed out that some of this is perhaps due to a misunderstanding of social media. “Twitter thrives on the kind of hyperbole that says, ‘all men should die,’ but means, ‘a large number of men should reflect earnestly on their actions,’ she wrote. “I’m not convinced a hashtag is the same as a pitchfork, though.”
And to a certain extent, this collective awareness is a good thing. A lot of us should think twice before weighing in on such a sensitive issue. (Case in point: Matt Damon.) But that kind of hesitation on the part of more cautious parties also means that only a handful of people get the mic, and they, in turn, become the arbiters of good taste. For centuries, those people have been men. That is now changing, and I applaud the shift — yet I still don’t feel like I have much of a place in this debate. What if I say the wrong thing?
It’s a reaction that has been shared by many of my friends, peers and colleagues in conversations over text, on Slack and through hushed whispers. Usually, it’s prefaced with a “I can’t really say this on Twitter but…” and followed by hesitation, “ums,” and questions marks. What if I don’t agree with what’s currently being trashed as “the wrong take”? Am I allowed to think this way? Am I allowed to say it? Does that make me a bad feminist?
This uncertainty is in part due to a online culture that rewards uniformity of thought. Social media is the perfect venue for virtue signaling. We like to have a bandwagon to jump on; it makes things neat and tidy, and easy to soundbite. But it also neuters real debate, which requires living in those uncomfortable grey area, rather than on black and white sides of the spectrum, hurling personal attacks at one another. This could be an opportunity to move that conversation beyond black and white sexual harassment and into a more murky — but arguably more pervasive and harmful — grey area. It’s easy to condemn major Hollywood scandals — it’s the small, everyday traumas that are harder to pin down and closer to home.
So here we are. I’m calling for an armistice. We have to accept that some of us are going to have so-called bad opinions. That’s part of having a nuanced conversation. I believe in #MeToo. I believe in Time’s Up. I believe that we are long overdue for very messy and serious conversations about the rampant power imbalances that exist in too many aspects of our society. I think that, despite its flaws, the Babe.net story has brought a crucial, and overlooked injustice to the surface. We should be talking about the pervasive and systemic problems embedded within our current dating culture. We should be teaching men that they don’t deserve sex just for being a nice guy, or saying the right things; that sex isn’t just something to be received, but also something to be given. We should be teaching women that they’re allowed to make their voices heard, and not be accommodating or silently object in situations where they feel uncomfortable.
But it seems hypocritical to tell women that our voices have value in our interactions with men, and not hear each other out when we’re all grappling with questions that have no clear answers.
So, rather than being Team Real Feminists or Team New York Times, or Team Atlantic, can we acknowledge that we’re all experiencing this massive shift in different (sometimes clumsy) ways? Maybe we have conflicting feelings and thoughts that don’t always make coherent sense. Maybe we have a different reaction to the same story a day or two after sitting with it. This does not negate our commitment to the movement or its larger message or mean we’re bad feminists. It means we are human. And if we’re going to figure out what any of this means, we’re going to have to do it together.
Read These Stories Next