One man’s downfall, #MeToo, and the rising up
When I was ten years old a man at least six times that number pulled me against him and pressed his hot, wet lips against mine. It was New Year’s Eve, a rare night on which us kids were allowed to join the revelry of the grown-ups downstairs, and the clock had just tipped us into 1992. Around me adults swirled, jovial and drunk, as I had seen them become so many times before while peering down at our living room from between the shadowed rungs of our upstairs bannister. Between exclamations of ‘Happy New Year!’ and ‘Can you believe it’s 1992?’ some of them were locked in their own embrace. No-one had seen the man kiss me, or if they did they didn’t think enough about it to feel uncomfortable. In the background ‘Auld Lang Syne’ began to play. Everyone around me started to sing, so I did too.
I was wearing a knee-length floral dress that night, with puffy sleeves and a full skirt. It was one half of a matching pair given to my sister and me, to be worn specially for the party. I adored it. I was a particularly frothy child, and I had coveted big, ostentatious dresses ever since I had seen Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah float into the snow globe ballroom in Labyrinth. The movie was on high rotation in our house, my sister and I both transfixed as much by the dangerous current of sexuality running between the adolescent Sarah and the much older Goblin King (played to spandex perfection by David Bowie) as we were by his ultimate defeat at her hands.
‘Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered,’ I would somberly recite in front of the mirror in my bedroom, ‘I have fought my way here to the castle, beyond the Goblin City, to take back the child that you have stolen.’
It was one of many games I played alone in my room that year, closing the door to the outside world as I felt my way along the tremulous passage from childhood to adolescence. The magic that allows a child to commit fully to a land of make-believe had faded by then, but I wrung what I could out of the dust that remained. I put oranges in my top to mimic the silhouette of the breasts some of my friends had already started to develop, and strutted around my room pretending to be Tess McGill from Working Girl. The innocently-crafted scenarios that had previously involved Barbie hanging out in her Dream House or going shopping for hours on end were now hurriedly rushed through the set-up and towards the new closing act: Barbie and Ken (or Barbie and one of her friends, or sometimes Barbie, Ken and one of her friends) mashing their bodies together in what I imagined frenetic, passionate sex-making was supposed to look like.
It was the season of John Hughes and Beverley Hills 90210, and my sister and I watched all of these and more on the video tapes we begged our parents to bring home from the store. Clearly unacquainted at this point with the feminism that would later become the focus of my work, I lived on a steady diet of teen romance, ugly duckling storylines and third act kisses at the high school dance. Even at ten I yearned one day to be transformed from a weird, awkward nerd into a beautiful prom queen, like the heavy-lidded, sugar-sandwich-eating goth Allison whose bathroom makeover leads to the school wrestling champion kissing her sweetly in the school parking lot at the end of The Breakfast Club. At the same time I had an inkling that I might want to lock myself in a cleaning closet with Judd Nelson and his smart mouth and fingerless gloves and find out what he could do with them.
At ten years old I had a sense of sex and how important it might one day become. I had watched it flicker at the edges of movie screens. Somewhere deep inside I had felt the sleeping beast begin to work its way awake. One day I wanted someone to take me in their arms and kiss me, to fall so hard into the moment that I became oblivious to the people moving around me. I wanted to come up for air feeling like I had learned a new language, one that only I and the person I had created it with could speak. I wanted to be wanted. I wanted to want in return.
But I didn’t want it to be with the ageing, grey-skinned friend of my parents who lived a few doors away from us on our street. I was a young girl in the first decade of her life; I didn’t imagine my first kiss would come from someone who was in the last decade of his. That his fat, slippery lips would open over mine and deposit a slick glaze before quickly closing and pulling back, unseen by the circling crowd. Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind.
When we were growing up, my parents had always urged us to tell them if an adult did something that made us uncomfortable in any way. But there’s a difference between understanding something theoretically and figuring out how to put it into practice when the hypotheticals become realities. I remember even at ten weighing up the circumstances. I had been open-mouth kissed (I think) by a man old enough to be my grandfather. I hadn’t liked it and I didn’t want to be around him in case it happened again.
But this man was also a friend of my parents. He and his wife were at our house a lot and nothing like this had happened before. I knew he’d been drinking, and didn’t that make people do funny things? How could I be sure that this was the sort of thing my parents meant when they talked about ‘feeling uncomfortable’?
It seemed easier not to rock the boat. Besides, I didn’t feel damaged in any way. I may have felt uneasy about what had happened, but the feeling existed somewhere outside myself—like an object I could pull out of a drawer and carefully examine, then return to its proper place once curiosity gave way to boredom. As I grew older and heard reports of more terrible encounters with men from friends who sectioned their memories off in darker, more hidden places, I began to feel embarrassed when I thought of my reaction. It was just a kiss, I told myself. It’s not like he raped you.
In recent months, I’ve returned to that drawer time and again to pull out the memory that lies within. Turning it over in my hands, I’ve looked long and hard at the things I didn’t consider interesting before. The sight of his wife standing nearby, laughing as he pulled me in close. The moment my jubilation at being allowed to stay up past midnight and play at being a grown-up gave way to confusion over what that apparently seemed to mean. But perhaps most instructive of all, the fact that this memory of mine is so commonplace among girls that I can barely comprehend why I held onto it at all. More to the point, it’s a G-rated version of inappropriate conduct that sits within an entire genre of M+ rated abuse. Holding on to it, even as an example of something that just plainly acknowledges how treacherous the terrain of girlhood is, seems a little over the top.
Downplaying the gravity of the things men choose to do to us is a lesson most of us learn in one way or another. After all, it wasn’t like this thing that happened to us was a big deal or anything. Not when you compare it to some other things we’ve heard. It was just a kiss, just a grope, just a few filthy words, just a hand up the skirt, just the brush of an erection against a thigh, just the offer to come sit on a lap, just a hug held a little too tightly for a little too long. Don’t cause a scene.
It wasn’t that big a deal, whatever it was that happened to you. You were just meant to forget about it and move on. So how come none of us did?
‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’ In October 2017 the actress Alyssa Milano retweeted this statement with the caption, ‘If you’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed, write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.’ Less than five months has passed between then and the time of writing, yet the tweet has so far garnered more than 62,000 replies. When I searched #MeToo on Twitter, I found the hashtag’s latest tweet had been posted only 26 seconds earlier. Three more appeared in the time it took me to write that sentence. A Google search for #MeToo returns almost 30 million entries, with the topic having evolved enough to include among its top three news stories the headline, ‘Is #MeToo backlash hurting women’s opportunities in finance?’
‘The problem’ was a reference to the circumstances that precipitated Milano’s tweet. I say circumstances, but it was more like an explosion that ripped through America’s entertainment industry, taking down some of its most protected men in its wake. Shortly before Milano posted her tweet calling for solidarity among the survivors of sexual assault and harassment, Harvey Weinstein—who until the end of 2017 had been arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood for at least three decades—was exposed as a serial sexual predator and abuser. In an exhaustive piece, New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey revealed the mogul had ‘undisclosed allegations … stretching over nearly three decades, documented through interviews with current and former employees and film industry workers, as well as legal records, emails and internal documents from the businesses he has run, Miramax and the Weinstein Company’.
From the more than 80 women who have alleged sexual assault against him over the last 30 years, Weinstein and his lawyers were reported to have reached financial settlements with at least eight. Weinstein amassed a dossier of alleged assaults whose patterns resembled each other so closely he may as well have been following a script himself. But where similar circumstances involving high-powered, predatory men typically involve unknown women whose stories have proved easy for a public to dismiss, Weinstein’s accusers include some of Hollywood’s most bankable stars—Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lupita Nyong’o, Salma Hayek, Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd to name just a few. A man has to be pretty assured of his untouchability to think he can get away with assaulting women who might stand a chance of being listened to, but I guess 30 years of invincibility can be pretty convincing. He must have been so confident none of them would ever speak out.
But then they did. And the impact of their accusations led not just to #MeToo but also to #TimesUp, a legal defence fund created in the wake of Weinstein with the aim of providing subsidised legal support to the people who have been subjected to sexual harassment, assault and/or abuse in the workplace. Time magazine dedicated its 2017 Person of the Year issue to the ‘Silence Breakers’, paying tribute not just to those women who had spoken out against Weinstein but also to those who had broken silence on any issue to do with sexual harassment. At the 2018 Golden Globes, attendees dressed in all black to lend their support to the movement. A-list actresses walked the red carpet with community activists, and both groups used the time normally devoted to chatter about who’s wearing whom to discuss issues of sexual violence and harassment.
Present was Tarana Burke, a community leader and woman of colour from New York who has spent the last 12 years working with the young, mostly black and brown women in her community who are survivors of sexual violence. It was Burke who first coined the use of ‘me too’ in her work with these young women, and she has continued to front for her community despite the international recognition her name and the movement she founded now receives. In response to a backlash over what some see as the coopting by a white woman of a movement begun by a woman of colour, Burke described Milano as an ‘ally and friend’, and says the actress ‘acknowledges me as a founder and has often deferred to my vision and leadership’. However, she has also warned against the viewing of #metoo as a recent phenomenon because this framing erases not just the work of women of colour but also the suffering experienced by the girls of colour who are too often sublimated into a dialogue that places white women front and centre. It’s one of the many conflicts of #metoo and it speaks to the ongoing issue of whiteness, supremacy and social justice movements, a problem starkly displayed by the fact that instead of being featured on the cover of Time’s Person of the Year issue, Burke was relegated to the inside pages.
There are other frustrations too. There’s no denying that in the months since women worldwide began posting their own #MeToo stories, a much needed dialogue has begun about sexual assault, rape culture and the abuse of power. Given the startling, infuriating and often heartbreaking stories that have been shared since (not to mention the predatory and institutionally protected workplace and industry practices that have been exposed), it’s hard not to see that silence as being forever broken. Yet it feels in some ways like we have been here before. In 2014 Elliot Rodger massacred six people in downtown Santa Barbara before turning his gun on himself. In addition to a YouTube channel full of disturbing videos, Rodger left behind a novel-length manifesto detailing his hatred for the women who had refused to ‘give’ him love and sex throughout his life. He described his premeditated murder spree as ‘The Retribution’, a plan that, had he been able to carry it out as he wished, would have seen him break into a nearby college sorority and execute all of the women inside.
Following Rodger’s rampage, a slew of opinion pieces appeared discussing the connections between toxic masculinity, entitlement and misogyny. In response to the derailing response of ‘not all men’ that’s passionately put forward every time women suffer gendered violence (more passionately put than the male voices speaking out against the violence itself, it has to be said), a hashtag appeared. ‘Not all men’ may be guilty of sexual harassment or assault, but #YesAllWomen have certainly been subjected to it at some point.
For a while at least, #YesAllWomen was successful at prompting the same important and serious conversations about the reality of sexual and gendered violence that we’re having again now. Women spoke out not just to share their stories but also to critique the paternalistic response these stories so often prompt in people. The calls just to ignore it, as if that works. To report it to the police, not to Twitter, as if the judicial system and its agents have historically always been on the side of women when it comes to the invasion of our bodies. And, dangerously, the admonishment to stop criminalising male behaviour—he probably just wants to take you out on a date but doesn’t know how to ask. A website was launched to detail just how out of step this last message is with the reality of the world women live in. Called When Women Refuse, it continues today and details via personal and news-reported stories the terrible, sometimes homicidal, punishments men are capable of meting out against the women who reject their advances. (Indeed, only a month before Rodger staged ‘The Retribution’ a student named Christopher Plaskon fatally stabbed 16-year-old Maren Sanchez at the pair’s high school after Maren turned down his invitation to Junior Prom.)
#YesAllWomen was without question empowering, but like #MeToo it also involved women having to bleed metaphorically before the world of men in order to have our trauma understood. There is strength in standing up and giving voice to your experiences, but the recipients of that information often confuse the line between being invited to listen and being invited to judge. We don’t share these stories as a means of asking permission to feel angry; we share them to claim our anger. In many ways, #MeToo the hashtag didn’t seem like an extension of that conversation—it felt like déjà vu. Just as with #YesAllWomen, men fell over themselves to offer their astonishment, shock, outrage that they just ‘had no idea’ how bad things were. Self-proclaimed allies shared long-winded statuses on social media that affirmed their support for the women in their lives and in response they were showered with praise, while those same women were met with abuse. (Never forget that in Australia all it takes for a man to be considered a feminist superhero is for him secretly to wear the same suit to work for a year.)
We have been here before. The men gaping open-mouthed at this new round of testimonies just let themselves forget about it, that’s all. Still, stripped of the frustration posed by the two movements’ similarities, the weight of #MeToo distributed itself differently to #YesAllWomen if only because it came at a unique point in political history. We were primed for an examination of the powerful men and the abuses they inflict, because less than a year earlier Donald Trump had been elected to the office of President of the United States. During his campaign, Trump behaved like an overgrown child with self-control issues. His campaign was punctuated by frequent moments of ostentatious braggadocio and rank misogyny; during the presidential debates he stalked his opponent Hillary Clinton around the stage, blatantly attempting to intimidate her in a manner most women were able to recognise as behaviour they too had experienced. Unhappy with the refusal of Megyn Kelly to pitch him soft balls during the Republican primary debates, he described the veteran journalist as having ‘blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever’. (Geddit? She’s angry cos she’s on her period! Bitches be crazy.)
Trump’s view of women appeared fairly clear in the lead-up to the election, but a month out from voting day something even more extraordinary happened. Audio from a 2005 tape was released in which Trump could be heard telling the entertainment reporter Billy Bush that he couldn’t resist beautiful women. ‘I just start kissing them,’ he said. ‘It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.’
You can do anything to women when you’re famous, says the man vying for the most powerful office in the world. Those of us who clearly hold onto too much optimism felt sure this was the thing that would bury Trump’s chance at the White House. But it turns out that a nation of people have no problem with a man sexually assaulting women as long as they respect both his race and his money.
As children, we learn that bullies never win in the end, that the underdog with the heart of gold and the upstanding morals always rises to the top. So when Trump won, some people felt an almost childlike sense of betrayal, because it shattered all of those formative lessons absorbed about goodness and basic decency being the keys to success. It wasn’t just that a man so rancid, racist and clearly misogynistic as Trump could become president—it was also that so many people cheered as he ascended to that position, cackling with glee at the realisation that they no longer had to hide their own similar proclivities. If the President of the United States can grab women by the pussy, why can’t we all?
But what Trump’s election also did was further galvanise the feminism that had been steadily reinvigorating itself over the last decade. By the time of Weinstein’s fall a year later, women had already organised globally to march in protest not just against the pussy-grabbing commander-in-chief but also against the litany of inequalities that are represented by the white, straight, cis, paternalistic men like him who see it as their right to tell women how to behave and remind us of our duty to defer to their authority. In the shadow of Trump’s oafish, crude success, the sight of a similarly powerful man meeting his destruction was just enough to turn those sparks into a roaring blaze.
It has always seemed as if power made a man indestructible. (And it’s worth noting that 16 women have come forward alleging sexual assault at the hands of Trump. While his popularity is low at 42 per cent at the time of writing, it has risen recently.) But as a sort of mirror image of Trump, Weinstein showed that it was possible to hold a man accountable for his actions. It might take time, but there was hope.
#MeToo might be the club that most women would rather not have been forced to join, but Weinstein ensured there was no better time for those women to announce their membership. Then, the backlash.
In examining the backlash against #MeToo, it’s helpful to look at a woman who has, for better or worse, emerged as a kind of blazing figurehead in the downfall of Weinstein. In 1997, Rose McGowan was celebrating the release of her film Going all the Way at the Sundance Film Festival when she met Weinstein for the first time. She was 23 years old and no doubt excited when the heavyweight producer invited her to meet him at a restaurant following the screening. Having Weinstein as a champion was the kind of thing that could launch a working actor’s career. What ambitious young performer wouldn’t have been thrilled to be noticed by him? But in a last-minute move that would later emerge as a favourite of the Weinstein playbook, the meeting was relocated from the restaurant to his hotel suite where, following 30 minutes of discussion about McGowan’s career, Weinstein allegedly held the young woman down on the edge of a jacuzzi and raped her.
Referring to the alleged rape in her memoir Brave, McGowan writes, ‘I felt so dirty. I had been so violated and I was sad to the core of my being. I kept thinking about how he’d been sitting behind me in the theatre the night before it happened. Which made it not my responsibility exactly, but as if I had had a hand in tempting him. Which made it even sicker and made me feel dirtier.’
McGowan’s status as a silence breaker is an interesting one, and in many ways it represents a depressing reality for sexual assault survivors and the difficulty they can have being taken seriously by the public. For as many supporters as she has (on Twitter, McGowan has amassed what she calls #RoseArmy, not only speaking out against sexual assault but also calling out the people she sees as being complicit in silencing victims), she can also be volatile and unpredictable. She has reason to be. In November 2017, shortly after the Weinstein story broke, the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow published a piece claiming Weinstein had hired private security agencies—including ex-Mossad agents—to gather information on the women and journalists seeking to expose his abuse. McGowan was one of the targets. She explained her ‘growing sense of paranoia’ to Farrow, telling him, ‘It was like the movie Gaslight. Everyone lied to me all the time. For the past year, I’ve lived inside a mirrored fun house.’
An already traumatised and disbelieved woman is not made more believable by her claims of being tailed by spies, no matter how many receipts she has to prove it. Presenting women as ‘crazy’ and ‘unreliable’ has always proved effective for the people invested in maintaining power structures such as the ones Weinstein exploited, and this is no less true for the #MeToo movement than it was in the late nineteenth century, when abused and traumatised women were forcibly committed to mental asylums by fathers and husbands eager to rid themselves of their inconvenience. To be believed about abuse (or if not believed, at least humoured), a woman has to be well behaved.
But McGowan behaves for nobody, even when it’s to her detriment. She’s been accused of focusing her anger on the wrong people, after publicly flaying both Meryl Streep and Alyssa Milano (her former Charmed co-star). In February she was filmed launching a tirade against a trans woman during an appearance to promote Brave at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble bookshop. The audience member had asked McGowan to explain some comments she had made on a podcast hosted by the drag queen RuPaul, in which McGowan said ‘trans women are not like regular women’. McGowan was apoplectic in response, and the woman was removed by security. Later, McGowan accused the woman of being a spy sent by Weinstein.
She has been accused of hypocrisy for working on a movie in 2011 with director Victor Salva, who served time in the late 1980s for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old boy who had worked on one of his films. In an interview with the Advocate recorded just prior to the start of production, McGowan said of Salva, ‘Yeah, I still don’t really understand the whole story or history there, and I’d rather not, because it’s not really my business. But he’s an incredibly sweet and gentle man, lovely to his crew, and a very hard worker.’ It’s a cringe-worthy comment to read, especially in light of recent comments McGowan has made condemning Justin Timberlake for daring to wear a Time’s Up pin despite having worked on Woody Allen’s latest film.
Herein lies another tricky aspect of the #MeToo movement: all of the people, from the most famous of actresses to the most invisible of domestic labourers, who have been empowered to break their silence on abuse are also messy, imperfect humans. The supporters of rape culture (which is to say, the people who help maintain its power by pretending rape is something that women not only provoke but also lie about in exchange for fame and/or money) demand nothing short of purity from its victims. If you claimed to be assaulted by Harvey Weinstein (or Brett Ratner, or Matt Lauer, or Garrison Keillor, or Charlie Rose, or Don Burke, or Craig McLachlan, or Louis C.K., or any one of the dozens of men named since October 2017 as alleged predators—and that’s just the ones working in entertainment) but opted to stay silent and keep working with him, then you apparently have no credibility when it comes to standing before the world and pointing your finger at the man who hurt you.
The people most likely to be victimised by a power imbalance are also commonly expected to be the ones to stand up against it. In the wake of #MeToo, some people have wasted no time in pointing the finger not at the structural systems of inequality that allow for such abuses of power to occur but at the women who somehow ‘failed’ either to avoid it entirely or to respond according to an approved script. Public sentiment has been full of classic victim-blaming tropes. Why didn’t she say something at the time? Why didn’t she stop him? Why was she dressed like that? Why had she been drinking? More reprehensible than even these spiteful offerings are the ones that suggest women victimised in the workplace were made somehow complicit in their attacks by their own ambition. Even as I wrote this essay, Monty Python director Terry Gilliam joined the not-so-illustrious ranks of those who claim to be worried that #MeToo has gone #TooFar.
‘Harvey opened the door for a few people, a night with Harvey—that’s the price you pay,’ he said in an interview with Agence France-Presse. ‘I think some people did very well out of meeting with Harvey and others didn’t. The ones who did, knew what they were doing. These are adults; we are talking about adults with a lot of ambitions.’
Tell me, why is it that it seems women are the ones required to let their boss or potential boss fuck them in order to fulfil their career ambitions?
But Gilliam isn’t alone. #MeToo had barely been breathed into the ether before opponents lined up to discredit it, condemning it as a ‘witch hunt’ and the even more ludicrous ‘war on flirting’. A group of French women comprising academics, performers and writers (including the famous actress Catherine Deneuve) published an open letter decrying what they saw as a kind of ‘American puritanism’ over relations between men and women.
Even now, when months have passed and literally hundreds of thousands of words have been written and spoken worldwide about #MeToo, when numerous (although by no means all) prominent men named as perpetrators of sexual harassment (and sometimes violence) have acknowledged their behaviour and accepted some of the consequences that come with that, we still have to contend with the tedious and disingenuous fear that a global wake-up call on sexual abuse will somehow lead to men being too afraid to talk to women and women so drunk on their newfound power that they’ll think nothing of using it to ‘destroy’ the life of an innocent man.
In January the Australian’s Angela Shanahan called it ‘Hollywood virtue signalling’ and a ‘campaign of intimidation and vengeful finger-pointing’ that reached ‘bizarre heights of hysteria’. (Speaking of all those things, remember how the Australian dedicated 90,000 words of copy to hounding Yassmin Abdel-Magied after she made the simple observation that war is bad?) In February the Oscar-winning director Michael Haneke condemned what he saw as a movement of ‘man-hating’. In March New Zealand’s the Press published a cartoon by Al Nisbett featuring four witches riding on brooms; the first announces, ‘I’m goin’ on a witch-hunt after men!’ and the three witches behind her all echo, ‘Me too!’
Between these warnings there are piles and piles of public opinions that issue the same dog whistles—that women are liars, women are vengeful and women should not be trusted with the power to dictate to the society around them. In March the South Korean actor Jo Min-Ki hanged himself after admitting to molesting eight students at Cheongiu University. His suicide led to a wave of abuse for the student silence breakers, not to mention the repeated accusations that #MeToo was ‘going too far’.
Let’s be very clear about this. #MeToo is not and has never been a witch hunt. To suggest so is to spit on the memory of the thousands and thousands of women who were burned at the stake, executed by patriarchal orders because they challenged authority and protocol and in some cases, ironically, embodied a sexual expression that these men considered demonic.
In her manifesto Women and Power, British historian Mary Beard explores how women’s voices have been silenced throughout cultural history going right back to Homer’s The Odyssey, written around 3000 years ago. In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s wife Penelope awaits the return of her husband for decades, fending off a parade of suitors in the interim. When Penelope instructs a bard to play more upbeat music, her son Telemachus directs her to ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and me most of all; for mine is the power in this household’. Beard explores how the attempts of women to take up political expression in the era of the Greeks and the Romans were often rewarded with ridicule, their femininity stripped away and replaced by what was seen as grotesque androgyny or freakishness.
The only exceptions made were when women spoke out to defend their menfolk or to protect what was seen as their sectioned interests (a truth that continues today—think of the enthusiastic support given to anti-feminist women by anti-feminist men who normally demand that women ‘shut the fuck up’, or the rousing endorsement these men suddenly make for the autonomy of women who affirm their desire to stay at home with children). Conversely, speaking out against sexual assault resulted in terrible punishments for the women in classical mythology and canonical literature. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a young princess named Philomela is raped. To prevent her denouncing him publicly, her rapist cuts out her tongue. Philomela ultimately makes herself heard by weaving a tapestry that depicts the rape committed against her, a plot twist that’s no doubt responsible for the tedious trope of millennia of male writers exploring conflict in their female characters by first raping them and then deciding how they respond. (No such luck for Shakespeare’s Lavinia though—no doubt aware of Philomela’s revenge, in Titus Andronicus Lavinia’s rapist cuts her hands off in addition to ripping out her tongue.)
Thousands of years after Ovid traumatised Philomela, Australian writer Charlotte Wood published her allegorical novel The Natural Way of Things. Wood’s frightening vision begins with the imprisonment of a group of unrelated women on an abandoned station somewhere in the Australian outback. Under the watchful eye of two male wardens (who respectively represent misogyny wielded for pleasure and misogyny ignored for opportunism), they’re forced to perform manual labour day after day under the harsh sun. There is seemingly no purpose to the activity; they’re building nothing, and their enquiries about what they’re waiting for are met with only a vague reference to the arrival of ‘Hardings’. Early on we figure out that the women have something in common: they have all, in their own way, been responsible for the exposure of inappropriate or criminal sexual behaviour in a powerful man (or men) on the outside. As the dual protagonist Verla is first becoming aware of her surroundings, she says to the menacing guard Boncer, ‘I need to know where I am.’ ‘Oh sweetie,’ Boncer replies. ‘You need to learn what you are.’ Later, Verla recalls Boncer’s words:
In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.
In Wood’s (only half) dystopian setting, these women provide a terrifying insight into modern society, built as it has been on classical ideals of public speech and authority and to whom these things supposedly belong—indeed, who is even capable of properly wielding these things.
For what are women? We are the silent, the claimed, the taken and the conquered. We are the spoils of war over whom victorious men have dominion. We are the cunts, the sluts, the fat pigs, the bitches, the whores, the slags and the crazies who lie about rape, who change our minds after the fact and cry rape, who are too ugly to even be raped in the first place. We are not protagonists. We exist on the sidelines, as supporting characters in the sweeping saga of human history. We are not the writers, and we are never allowed to tell our stories.
We were never, are never, meant to speak out against the system that created us.
In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, the philosopher Kate Manne observes that misogyny is the system that enforces patriarchal social order, while sexism is the justification. Even prior to the explosion of #MeToo, it wasn’t uncommon for feminists to hear that sexual violence could never be eradicated because the ‘human nature’ that accounted for it couldn’t be governed by an artificial system of moral governance. If misogyny exists at all, the argument went, it is a system created and maintained by biological impulse. To fight against it is to fight against human nature, and such a battle can never be won.
This is the justification for people—and here I mean mainly the class of men—throwing up their hands and declaring that nothing can be done. To pursue a movement like #MeToo in the face of such obvious and unavoidable defeat must therefore only be about pursuing a vendetta against men and ushering in the long-feared rule of the vengeful matriarchy.
Interestingly, and yet in keeping with the social conditioning that dictates who gets to write the stories, the fight against men’s violence is never seen as futile when it is incorporated into the narrative of men. I have often observed the difference with which people respond to women indulging violent revenge fantasies against the men who have wronged them and how men are treated when they engage in those same thought exercises. The women will invariably be berated for ‘resorting to violence’ for which there is, as we know, ‘never any excuse’. And men are allowed—encouraged even—to pursue retaliation against men who they feel have harmed ‘their’ women. When the father of a woman sexually abused by Larry Nassur launched at the disgraced former doctor in a courtroom prior to his sentencing, people cheered.
It’s a long-standing joke for fathers to wait on porches with shotguns when their daughters begin to date the young men whose minds these same fathers claim to know all too well. It’s seen as culturally acceptable for men to defend their property—which, in this case, is considered to be the women around them—from the intrusion or violation of men. Men who behave this way pose no threat to the power structure itself; they merely reassert the hierarchy that is part of it.
But there’s no formal code of conduct in play when women defend ourselves against men. Our ability to fight back against this particular kind of oppression and to do it on our terms, as our own leaders, doesn’t just threaten the hierarchy within a power structure, it poses a risk to the power structure itself. For patriarchy to be maintained, the actions and voices of women cannot be allowed to have the same power as those of men. This helps explain why #MeToo is considered so threatening by so many people. If women realise the power we have as individuals and as a collective, we might be able to topple the whole damn house of cards. What began as the fall of one man has evolved in rapid time to a global call-out on the behaviours of men as they are conditioned by patriarchy. That’s a terrifying prospect for those people who are invested in keeping that system invisible and very much alive.
What does this mean for those women with the least amount of privilege? Are #MeToo and the feminist fury that comes with it just another thing that will create change for mostly white, mostly wealthy and mostly already privileged women while forgetting all the others? It’s a fair question and it’s a real possibility. You cannot dismantle patriarchy without also dismantling class oppression, white supremacy and capitalism. Weinstein might no longer be welcome in Hollywood, but exploitative, abusive men exist all over the world and they more often than not have power over women who rely on them for a wage.
But feminists have always been charged with providing all-or-nothing solutions to the problems we agitate against. It isn’t enough that millions of women around the world are making visible a structural system that has worked for thousands of years against them; what are they doing to fix it?
As far as #MeToo is concerned, I’m more interested at this point in knowing what it is men choose to do to create lasting change. I keep hearing about these ‘male allies’ (to whom I’m also supposed to be nice in order to keep them on side), yet I see very little evidence of this allegiance beyond a few supportive statements and maybe the odd well-worded tweet.
#MeToo has blasted its way through our global society, and it has left a bloody mess in its wake. It isn’t the job of women to clean that mess up, to figure out once again how our various traumas must be best folded up and put away out of sight, the house in which we all live clean once more. Women do not need men to protect us; we need men to stop protecting each other.
And yet despite the truth of this, we are still doing something. We’re organising. The launch of the Time’s Up fund was a meaningful commitment to providing economic and legal support to women who so frequently have neither. Journalists such as Tracey Spicer and Kate McClymont are ensuring that Australia’s #MeToo stories are given a national platform. Along with Spicer, prominent Australian feminists have also recently launched NOW, an organisation similar to Time’s Up that will connect women here with a range of services to help them take action on sexual harassment and abuse. Contrary to the suggestion this is just a movement for white and/or Western women, women in Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico and South Korea have all used international news platforms recently to speak out about #MeToo, changing their own communities in the process.
In Hollywood, a group of women led by Maria Contreras-Sweet recently negotiated to purchase the Weinstein Company with the plan to include a $90 million victims compensation fund. The deal fell through when an additional $50 million of company debt was revealed, but the women are committed to making the production company happen. Having women in charge of creative projects does have an impact. A recent study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media found that one in nine women globally (and one in four in Brazil) affirmed that ‘positive female role models had given them the courage to leave an abusive relationship’.
If we are allowed to write the stories, we can have more control over the way they end.
As a ten-year-old girl, I was given my first taste of what #MeToo means. I had spent my days sitting in my room, using my dolls and toys and imagination to build worlds around me, worlds I imagined I might one day inhabit. In crafting these fantasies, I didn’t think to myself, ‘I wonder what my first sexual assault will look like? I hope it’s not that bad.’ When it came, I buttoned my lips and remained silent because I had learned even by then that women were not rewarded for pointing fingers.
What you are now seeing is women reclaiming control over the stories told about our lives. It is not just about the women who are saying #MeToo in the twenty-first century. It’s about all of us, stretching right back through history. We are the hands that Lavinia did not have. Together, we are weaving Philomela’s tapestry and telling that story, and we will be heard.
Clementine Ford is a Melbourne-based writer, speaker and author of the bestselling book Fight like a Girl. Her follow up, Boys Will Be Boys, will be published in October.