The cheering of liberals, progressives, well-mannered, morally decent, and socially conscious people of every stripe over the ousting of Fox News megastar Bill O’Reilly has been raucous and widespread. The reality that this seemingly indestructible Goliath of right-wing cable news could be toppled by women attesting to his predatory and assaultive behaviors inspired many a Tweet, post, article, treatise on the topic of sexual harassment. The sheen of schadenfreude has been layered thick and gooey, and even the most noble of social commentators is likely feeling some measure of “he had it comin’!” (though apparently not the man in the White house, whose own pedigree of sexually assaultive behaviors compelled an “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong” defense of his buddy.)
Perhaps it is that reality — that Trump wrangled his new job despite spewing some of the most sexually denigrating tripe about women — that’s caused many on both sides of the moral divide to presume O’Reilly was indestructible. Untouchable. And why wouldn’t we think that when one of the most repugnant, self-admitted sexual abusers has been allowed into the damn White House!
On top of that, we’ve watched countless women of merit and substance attest to sexual assault and harassment involving these slippery titans only to see those same women dismissed, belittled, and disbelieved, the clear message being: “In a he-say/she-say scenario, the she-say will never trump the he.” We have a long history of that patriarchal response in America, so much so that rape and sexual harassment are grievously under-reported. But, certainly with rape, where the “majority of perpetrators will not go to jail,” and in harassment cases where famous, powerful men are generally believed over their victims, it’s only the strongest woman who will put herself through the double-jeopardy of first being victimized by an abuser, then by those who refuse to believe her.
Given those odds, much will be made of the fact that O’Reilly was toppled by a bevy of strong women stepping forward despite cultural pushback, but the reality is likely less noble. According to a piece in The Atlantic, Why Was Bill O’Reilly Really Fired?, the rationale is a heady mix of, yes, a morality assessment (“The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”), but also an economic one:
21st Century Fox’s pending takeover of Sky TV, the European pay-TV company, in a deal said to be worth $14 billion. “On May 16,” New York magazine reported, “the British media regulator Ofcom is set to judge whether the Murdochs are ‘fit and proper’ to own such a large media property.” And “removing O’Reilly could appease critics and help close the Sky deal.” You know what’s worth more than $446 million? [The Factor’s advertising revenues] $14 billion.
“Morality via math,” as The Atlantic put it, but you know what? WE’LL TAKE IT.
Whatever financial concerns powered what is ultimately the right move morally, the fact is: a rich, famous, powerful man was fired because he abused women. No matter how it’s parsed, spun, twisted, or minimized, that’s big. His very public and humiliating termination can’t help but send a powerful message, one desperately needed as a matter of course, but certainly needed after Trump’s election: that abuse of women will not be tolerated, even by those with wealth and power.
But will that message get across? Will it sustain; make a dent? Does it mean culture-at-large is becoming less tolerant, less willing to look away, less forgiving of sexual violence and abuse? Will it have an impact in a society where men in the military illegally hack nude photos of both male and female compatriots to expose online; where teenage boys in Steubenville claimed to not know that digitally assaulting an unconscious girl is considered rape; where a privileged Stanford swimmer got only a wrist-slap for his horrific act of violence against an inebriated woman, and where rape in the military continues to be an egregious and pervasive problem?
In every one of those scenarios, the caustic, violent, and predatory behaviors of largely young men are the common threads, men who have somehow become inured to the repugnance of their actions; men who have learned, assimilated, or been taught that abusing, harassing, or raping women is (unfathomably) excusable in certain circumstances: when a woman is drunk, passive, incapable of self-protecting behaviors. When a woman is serving in a system of powerful, gender-based patriarchy. When a woman is in private possession of images not meant for public consumption. When a woman is building a career and looking for honest sponsorship from men who can offer it. When a woman is... a woman.
Somehow, legions of young men have grown up either not being taught and mentored in moral, ethical, respectful conduct toward women, or they’re picking up negative attitudes embodied by the men in their lives: fathers, family members, coaches, peers, bosses, older opinion leaders. Whatever the components, the resulting equation turns boys into men like Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and yes, Donald Trump. And that needs to change. Desperately.
In an example of art mirroring culture, the truth of how we adults raise our boys and girls to comport themselves on this issue came into high relief as I watched the new Netflix series, Thirteen Reasons Why. Adapted from a book by the same name, it tells the deeply painful story of a high school girl’s suicide brought on by a critical mass of bullying, sexual harassment, and, terrifyingly, two different rapes. As savvy as I am about modern culture, and having a son who was, not all that long ago, in high school, I was stunned by the depiction of both the gauntlet girls are forced to walk as they make their way through school, as well as the seemingly acceptable bullying by privileged males whose disproportionate power renders them untouchable, their value as athletes vaunted above their value as human beings of integrity. In that scenario, the girls become invisible victims, while the shiny exteriors of aggrandized boys blinds the adults from recognizing and intervening effectively. If this series, by any measure, accurately illustrates high school in America, we’ve got some serious work to do. It’s learned behavior, and we’ve got to preempt it:
Men, women, mothers, fathers, teachers, mentors, and coaches: When it comes to the boys, we’ve got to teach, exemplify and demand respectful, courteous, ethical behaviors toward women. ALL women. Young, old, pretty, homely; lovely or hell on wheels. That goes for what we say, how we act, the way we treat their mothers (and, for us mothers, the way we treat ourselves); the way we respond to the other females in their lives, both young and old. We must banish any tendency to say things like: “boys will be boys,” “it’s just locker room talk,” or “she was asking for it” or “he’s just being a guy.” If you think any of the behaviors I’ve enumerated above are even remotely acceptable, you need to enlighten yourself. Maybe sit down and watch Thirteen Reasons Why and educate yourself about what those kinds of acts can lead to, both in terms of destroying lives and turning out boys who remain predators.
When it comes to the girls in our care, we’ve not only got to treat them with the respect and courtesy they deserve, we’ve got to teach them how to demand it for themselves. How to enjoy feeling attractive, desirable, and appealing without becoming passive, overly-needy, and self-negating. For me as a woman, one of the most troubling aspects of Thirteen Reasons Why was watching the passivity and acquiescence of the young women involved, girls who were doing and allowing things they didn’t actually want, didn’t honestly believe in, but somehow didn’t have the wherewithal, the tools, the inner strength or sense of self to push back as needed. In their desire to feel wanted, be seen as popular, likable, as “not a problem,” they succumbed to pressures that left them vulnerable, often in dangerous situations in which they were ultimately victimized.
So while we teach our boys to be good men, we’ve got to set our girls up to be strong and self-loving, armed with coping skills to withstand sexual bullying and peer pressure; offering perspective that allows them to see themselves as valuable and worthy without needing the approval of those who might abuse, negate, denigrate, or violate them. We’ve got to come at it from all sides; it’s that big a problem.
I may be an optimist, but I hope O’Reilly’s firing is the start of, or maybe an expansion of, a new cultural meme on the topic of sexual assault and harassment. That he will be held as an example of what happens to callous boys who become men who abuse women. That the women who stood up to him will be seen as beacons of female power for those young girls finding their way through the politics of being women. That we are making an essential turn in the march toward gender equality and integrity, one that will ultimately lead to a society that could never excuse the repugnant behaviors of men like O’Reilly, Ailes, Cosby, and, sadly, the current man in the White House.
We’ll know when we get there. For now, let’s celebrate; this event is a small but a worthy victory on the road to decency.