Why 2017 Will Be Remembered as the Year of Speaking Out Against Sexual Assault
A movement is undeniably underway.
It says something about the chaos of 2017 that the best summary of it is perhaps captured by Time’s choice for Person of the Year, an arbitrary honor that’s been widely derided ever since its choice in 2006 was simply “you.” Nevertheless, the award has remained of unexplained importance to Donald Trump, who was named last year’s Person of the Year, as is customary for presidential winners; who caused a minor scene earlier this year when he was busted for framing fake Time covers of himself in four of his golf clubs; and who, in a tweet somewhat buried over the Thanksgiving holidays, sent out a characteristically egotistical blast of fake news in tweeting that he’d in fact been offered the honor again this year, but declined it, a claim that the magazine naturally refuted.
Time‘s real pick, revealed Wednesday, was about as far from Trump as possible: the “silence breakers” of the #MeToo movement, which ended up engaging more than 500,000 people on Twitter alone in the space of 24 hours, the majority of them women sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and assault in a mass demonstration that men’s abuse of power is systemic, stretching to industries worlds away from Hollywood—which is, of course, the realm of the former mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose exposé as a villainous predator who targeted dozens of actresses, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Angelina Jolie, opened the floodgates for more men in power to finally be held accountable for their inexcusable actions.
While the predatory men are clearly the ones to blame here, unfortunately the onus has instead fallen entirely on their victims, who are most often women, to expose their abusers and take a stab at getting justice—an act that requires revisiting trauma (which has admittedly been pretty much unavoidable since October, as the news has remained flooded with story after story of predators since Weinstein’s outing). To quote Kris Jenner, in a much more serious use of her words about her daughters’s rumored pregnancies, “it’s like a faucet that we turned on that won’t turn off,” largely because many of these men abused a shocking number of victims—in the case of the director James Toback, more than 300 women have come forward with allegations of harassment—and those survivors are no longer staying silent.
A movement is undeniably underway, but still, as the women of Saturday Night Live reminded us this past weekend, none of this, particularly for women, is exactly news: “Cat’s out of the bag! Women get harassed all the time!” a crew including Ronan sing nonchalantly about “hundreds of years” of abuse in “Welcome to Hell.” As Jane Fonda pointed out in late October, a large part of the reason that women’s voices are suddenly beginning to be heard is that so many of them belong to women who are “famous and white”—and therefore, of course, much likelier to ignite the public’s interest and sympathy. “This has been going on for a long time to black women and other women of color, and it doesn’t get out quite the same,” Fonda told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.
To be fair, a notable portion of the 35 women who famously joined together to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault and harassment in 2015 were largely unknown and women of color—something quite reassuring given that they arguably sparked the reckoning we’re experiencing today. Their strength in numbers, and strength in recounting the most disturbing details about their assaults, which seem to be far and way the most effective form of driving home the horror of abuse, apparently made up for the fact that they didn’t have a glamorous white figurehead like Gretchen Carlson, who arguably took down the Fox News honcho Roger Ailes the next year by suing him for abuse, leading a cascade of other women, including Megyn Kelly, to come forward with their stories. All in all, they ultimately uncovered a multimillion-dollar operation at Fox to cover up abuse by prominent personalities like its former top host, Bill O’Reilly, whom they eventually fired, too.
It took quite a few months into 2017—the year that a man who has been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by no fewer than 13 women became president—for the dominoes to continue to fall, but now that they’ve started up again, they’re doing so faster than ever before. After Weinstein’s own company fired him, Amazon Studios forced the resignation of its chief, Roy Price; Netflix fired one of its biggest stars, Kevin Spacey, who took a magnificent tumble after the actor Anthony Rapp recalled an unwanted encounter with him when he was just 14; Terry Crews accused a WME agent of sexual assault, importantly adding more men and people of color into the conversation; and Louis C.K. fell from the top of the comedy kingdom after unabashedly admitting to systemically forcing women to watch him masturbate. At the same time, the news sources that have been reporting on these ever-growing developments have also had to fire some of their own directors and reporters, including prominent personalities at NPR, the New York Times, and Vox Media.
These men have only fallen because their victims risked their lives and those of those close to them, which predators like Weinstein explicitly threatened, not to mention facing legal action amounting to fees they could barely imagine paying off in the event that they broke the agreements of their hushed-up settlements and NDAs. For the first time ever, though, they aren’t facing repercussions for taking those risks—and, for the most part, barely even dealing with not being believed, as is usually the case for the victims who do manage to come forward, even if they have iron-clad evidence. Just last year, Lindsay Lohan and Amber Heard were widely decried for accusing their partners of abuse—never mind that they had actual video footage of it. And, of course, there’s no forgetting the infamous Access Hollywood tape that captures Trump bragging about grabbing women by the pussy, which certainly didn’t stop him from being elected, nor endorsing the now infamous pedophile Roy Moore for the Senate.
Moore’s controversy has garnered far more attention than the female politicians, including Senator Claire McCaskill, who have come forward with enough stories of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill that the Times now describes it as an “occupational hazard for those operating in Washington,” showing just how little progress has been made since Anita Hill was subjected to a smear campaign in 1991 for speaking out against Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas. (Even if Joe Biden has now teamed up with Lady Gaga as something of an apology).
And this, whether we like or not, is why it’s so important that at least at first, more popular and photo-friendly public figures use their platform to its fullest. Nicole Kidman, for one, has dedicated herself to bringing attention to domestic violence ever since starring in Big Little Lies, devoting part of her Emmy Awards speech to reminding viewers that such abuse is all too common, but “filled with shame and secrecy” and therefore rarely discussed.
As more have attempted to make like Kidman in acting as allies or simply giving their two cents on sexual assault, however, it’s become increasingly clear just how foreign, and therefore dangerous, that territory is, for men and women alike—to the point that some stars have started skipping red carpets to circumvent giving on-the-spot responses to unwelcome questions. For some, the designer Donna Karan suddenly undid her decades of credit in championing women when, asked about Weinstein, who is or was her friend, said that women these days were “asking for” trouble. The same goes for Lena Dunham, who, along with Jenni Konner, stood by the former Girls writer Murray Miller when the actress Aurora Perrineau accused him of rape, underlining just how difficult it is to realize that those whom we love, admire, and even worship are also capable of doing terrible, and at times inexcusable, things. As Sarah Silverman said about Louis C.K., “It’s a real mindf–k, you know, because I love Louis. But Louis did these things. Both of those statements are true, so I just keep asking myself, ‘Can you love someone who did bad things?’”
Those who really need to speak up and ask those questions, though, are men, and particularly men in power, who are now finding themselves in a state that many women have found themselves in their entire lives: that of constant fear, primarily of being targeted or not being believed. And, try as they might, the few who have attempted to be supportive of their own volition, without their own experience of assault to tell, have fumbled, misunderstanding the full extent of harassment or even what constitutes harassment in the first place. In once again apologizing for an incident he doesn’t remember—when he grabbed Hilarie Burton’s breast on TV—Ben Affleck recently explained a concept that seemed to be entirely new to him, but has enveloped him and his peers for their entire lives: male privilege. “It’s just the kind of thing that we have to as men, I think—as we become more aware of this—be really, really mindful of our behavior and hold ourselves accountable and say, ‘If I was ever part of the problem, I want to change,” he clumsily told Stephen Colbert. “‘I want to be part of the solution,’ and to not shy away from these uncomfortable or awkward or strange encounters that we might’ve had where we were sort of navigating and not knowing.”
In Affleck’s defense, in many ways, it makes perfect sense that he and his peers don’t get it: The system, which is to say patriarchy, is all they have ever known, and has always been weighted to support them. Many have asked how agents and managers could repeatedly send their clients to men like Weinstein, but the fact of the matter is that to this day, men with their own interests chiefly in mind dominate Hollywood—just like they did when Reese Witherspoon was sexually assaulted by a director when she was 16, as she recently recalled with “true disgust” and “anger at the agents and producers who made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment,” many of whom are still operating similarly today.
The emotion Witherspoon mentioned—anger—is a new one for many women, who are only just now realizing it’s one they’re allowed to embrace. There’s a reason that Uma Thurman’s red carpet interview where you can feel the waves of rage emanating off of her when asked about Weinstein, spacing out her words painstakingly carefully, went viral: “I don’t have a tidy sound bite for you. Because I have learned, I am not a child, and I have learned that when I’ve spoken in anger I usually regret the way I express myself. So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry. And when I’m less angry, I’ll say what I have to say.”
Thurman’s continued silence only increased attention to the issue, as thousands pondered what Thurman—and the rest of those who haven’t yet been asked for a response—could have possibly gone through to make her so visibly seethe. Which, in fact, brings us full circle to Time’s Person of the Year. While the cover features celebrities as big as Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift, it also includes a a woman’s disembodied arm, whose face and body remain out of sight. The crop was intentional—a gesture to New York magazine’s award-winning cover which featured not only Cosby’s 35 accusers, but also an empty chair. Both symbolize those who haven’t yet or will never be able to come forward with their own stories of abuse. Thankfully, more of those seats than ever have been filled in 2017. We can only hope that next year, they’ll be getting even more company.
Related: Ranking the Absolute Worst Apologies by Men Accused of Sexual Assault in Post-Harvey Weinstein 2017
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