In a heart-wrenching recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Harvey Weinstein is My Monster Too, Salma Hayek reveals the sordid underbelly of the life of a successful actress in La La Land. It tells how she was coerced into filming a gratuitous nude sex scene with another woman by Harvey Weinstein, who made this the condition of her bringing to fruition the labor of love she’d been doing for years to tell Frida Kahlo’s story on the big screen. In this contemporary Hollywood version of the age-old woman’s tale, Salma was forced to sell her sexuality to one of the most powerful men in town in order to do her work.
Since Weinstein’s outing as a violent sexual predator, our screen goddesses have thrown off their hidden shackles and declared “No more!” This cry of outrage has spread like a California wildfire to ordinary women in jobs and professions throughout the country—from the government, media, and hi tech spheres to the restaurant and hotel industries.
Every man has been put on warning: think twice before you whip out your dick.
I’m reminded of the heyday of the second wave of the feminist movement when women, in public ‘Speak-Outs,’ spoke for the first time about the prevalence of rape. (Decades before the advent of smart phones and social media, we had to actually use our voices in public). We spoke about being raped by strangers, co-workers, husbands, and fathers. We talked about how men are socially conditioned to be sexually entitled and expect women to service them, by force if necessary. And how women are socialized to expect to be sexually harassed and assaulted by men who (so the common wisdom went) couldn’t control themselves in the presence of female bodies.
In 1975, in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller argued that rape was a means of perpetuating male dominance by keeping all women in a state of fear. That same year, Lin Farley coined the term sexual harassment. Before then, it was not recognized as anything but normal ‘boys will be boys’ behavior. Catherine MacKinnon published “Sexual Harassment of Working Women” in 1977, defining it as a form of gender discrimination that reinforces women’s inequality. This paved the way for the legal prosecution of sexual harassment and made possible all this talk about it today.
For second-wave feminists, the idea of sexual harassment grew out of a social movement that fought against the subordination of women in patriarchy. Sexual violence was identified not as some random aberration but a systemic means of social control that kept women in their place as second class citizens in all spheres of life.
Today the most beautiful women in the world have been the frontrunners in a new phase of the women’s movement that has arisen as a twitter hash-tag: #MeToo. A-list actresses revealing Hollywood’s secret backstory of sexual harassment, assault, and rape have made it clear that no woman—no matter how powerful, rich, famous, and beautiful—is immune to male sexual violence.
Seemingly overnight, millions of women who blamed themselves and felt shamed for being violated, woke up. Back in the day, we called this ‘consciousness raising’—a term that has been relegated to the curio basket of women’s history.
Let’s hear it for Twitter as a means of social organizing! But the fact is that ‘MeToo’ goes back 10,000 years to the dawn of patriarchy. To the first time a woman was raped because men were stronger and women’s bodies were there for the taking. Here’s what hasn’t changed through the centuries: for the most part, men as a group are still stronger—physically, economically, and socially. Most men either still think they are entitled, one way or another, to the bodies of women; or, even if they wouldn’t act on their sexual harassment fantasies themselves, wouldn’t stop a co-worker or friend from doing so. While individual women have been allowed to rise to the top of certain professions (law, medicine, academia), women as a whole are still second-class citizens. And Woman as Body is still a reigning cultural archetype.
Patriarchy is being challenged once again, but it is a fortress that has withstood attack, and is likely to continue to do so as long as men who wouldn’t themselves rape and sexually assault women silently assent to the prerogatives of male power. And as long as women remain shackled inside their colonized minds.
With the #MeToo movement, will the edifice of patriarchy crack with the daily toppling of prominent men? Or will the system of gender dominance simply adjust itself a bit, so that some high-profile men have to be a little more cautious and a little less disgusting if they don’t want to lose their jobs, while men continue to rule the world? Will #MeToo be the harbinger of a new freedom for women in America? Or will it be just another blip on the panoramic screen of patriarchal history?
This moment of reckoning, as it is being called, may or may not result in something that truly changes the sexual subordination of women in virtually every society in the world. The cultural conversation we are now having about the subject of sexual harassment is long overdue. But, for the most part, it seems to be mostly a mile wide and an inch deep. Yes, some very powerful men have fallen, much to their surprise. But the enablers are legion and they are not being held accountable. The critical discussion of just what sexual harassment is, how it differs from men engaging in crude, flirtatious behavior or just being jerks, as well as the urgently needed discussion of how to actually change sex harassment/rape culture as a whole—these are hard to come by. What we have instead is an outpouring of female rage and suppressed stories of violation—which is all to the good. And a by and large unreflective response that includes various industries (newsmedia and filmmaking, in particular) picking off some conspicuous hi-profile targets to be ‘stand-ins’ for all the men who haven’t been caught in the act (yet).
My prediction is that at some point there will be a fierce backlash against the swinging of the pendulum that is now taking down men like Senator Al Franken without so much as a strand of investigation. Giving any woman absolute authority to call a man a sexual harasser or predator without identifying herself by name and without any expectation of investigating the allegation will only end up once again calling women’s credibility into question.
The movement started by Hollywood women will have social power beyond the toppling of a few men only if women’s collective rage for justice fuels cohesive social action beyond the Twittersphere. i.e. in courtrooms, in Congress, in the voting booth, in the halls and offices of male dominion, and in the streets.
In the meantime, as women’s stories continue to be told and men’s heads continue to roll, no conscious person can fail to notice that something exhilarating and long past due is happening that is tearing the cultural fabric of Woman as Body and Man as Predator.
Men have been put on notice: the next time you think about using your penis as a weapon, it just may get (symbolically) castrated.