The fall of Harvey Weinstein should be a moment to challenge extreme masculinity
This past week was not a good week for women. In the United States, it was reported that a man who allegedly raped a 12-year-old girl was granted joint custody of the resultant eight-year-old boy being raised by his young mother. Earlier in the week, the severed head and legs of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, who disappeared after entering inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, were discovered near Copenhagen. A hard drive belonging to Madsen, Danish police said, was loaded with videos showing women being decapitated alive.
A Swedish model received rape threats for posing in an Adidas advertisement with unshaven legs. The University of Southern California’s dean of medicine was dumped after reports resurfaced that he had sexually harrassed a young medical researcher in 2003. A number of men at liberal publications were revealed to have contacted Milo Yiannopoulos, urging him to attack women – “Please mock this fat feminist,” wrote a senior male staff writer at Vice’s women’s channel, since fired. And, of course, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was described by the New York Times as a serial sexual harasser; his alleged offences, according to a TV journalist, including trapping her in a hallway, where he masturbated until he ejaculated into a potted plant.
This week, the New Yorker ran a follow-up story by Ronan Farrow (the biological son of Woody Allen, who has repudiated his father for his treatment of his sisters), expanding the charges women have made against Weinstein to include sexual assault. He quotes one young woman who said “he forced me to perform oral sex on him” after she showed up for a meeting. She added, “I have nightmares about him to this day.” Weinstein denies any nonconsensual sex.
Saturday 7 October was the first anniversary of the release of the tape in which the United States president boasted about sexually assaulting women; 11 women then came forward to accuse Donald Trump. And last week began with the biggest mass shooting in modern US history, carried out by a man reported to have routinely verbally abused his girlfriend: domestic violence is common in the past of mass shooters.
Underlying all these attacks is a lack of empathy, a will to dominate, and an entitlement to control, harm and even take the lives of others. Though there is a good argument that mental illness is not a sufficient explanation – and most mentally ill people are nonviolent – mass shooters and rapists seem to have a lack of empathy so extreme it constitutes a psychological disorder. At this point in history, it seems to be not just a defect from birth, but a characteristic many men are instilled with by the culture around them. It seems to be the precondition for causing horrific suffering and taking pleasure in it as a sign of one’s own power and superiority, in regarding others as worthless, as yours to harm or eliminate.
Or perhaps it’s an extreme version of masculinity that has always been with us in a culture that gives men more power and privilege than women; perhaps these acts are the result of taking that to its logical conclusion. There must be terrible loneliness in that failure to perceive or value the humanity of others, the failure of empathy and imagination, to consider oneself the only person who matters. Caring about others, empathising, loving them, liberates each of us; these bereft figures seem to be prisoners of their selfishness before they are punishers of others.
Much has also been written to explain why the mass shootings are not terrorism (except when the shooter is, as he is rarely, Muslim), but perhaps terrorism can be imagined as a cultural as well as political phenomenon, a desire to instil fear, assert dominance, devalue the rights and freedoms of others, assert the power of the violent and of violence. There is an ideology behind it, even if not an overtly political ideology, of self-aggrandisement, cruelty, the embrace of violence, and hate.
This is also a week in which white supremacists marched in Charlottesville again, where activist Heather Heyer was mowed down in August, and where black, Jewish, and Asian friends of mine have been menaced by violence and hate. This ideology of dominance and idealisation of violence has its racial dimensions too. And it has its president now, in the racist misogynist in the White House.
It’s the authoritarianism of violence that seems too often overlooked, the acts that are the opposite of the democratic ideal that all people are created equal, with certain inalienable rights. There is no greater authoritarianism than that of someone who violates the will, the body, the wellbeing, or takes the life of another. The crimes in question, from sexual assault to mass killings, seem designed specifically as assertions that the perpetrator has the power of a god, the victims are powerless.
That powerlessness of others seems to be desired and relished in these cases. It’s time to talk about the fact that many men seem erotically excited by their ability to punish, humiliate, inflict pain on women – the subject of a lot of porn. When you jerk off while cornering an unwilling woman, you’re presumably excited by her powerlessness and misery or repulsion. Another of Weinstein’s victims told the New Yorker, “The fear turns him on.” Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes took pleasure, according to his victims, in degrading the employees he sexually exploited and harassed. Journalist Gabriel Sherman reported in 2016, “The culture of fear at Fox was such that no one would dare come forward” until Gretchen Carlsson broke the silence with a lawsuit. This year several black employees sued the network for racial discrimination.
We’ve also recently had a host of obituaries for Hugh Hefner. Some included the arguments that Hefner and his magazine were harmless or liberating. But they insisted that women were for men to use if they met a narrow definition of attractiveness, and to mock or ignore if they were not. While often portrayed as part of the sexual revolution, the magazine and Hefner were instead part of the counter-revolution, figuring out how to perpetuate women’s subordination and men’s power in a changing era.
The young women who lived in – and sometimes described feeling trapped in – the Playboy mansion were there to please the old goat at the centre of it and his friends, and not the other way around. Some of the playmates ended up dead – Dorothy Stratten’s face blown off by an estranged ex-husband at 20, Paula Sladewski’s body found “burned beyond recognition” in a Miami dumpster, and so forth. News anchor – and Roger Ailes victim – Andrea Tantaros said of the Fox network, “behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fuelled, Playboy mansion– like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny,” which is not an endorsement of the Playboy mansion.
There is a solution, but I don’t know how we reach it, except in a plethora of small acts that accrete into a different world view and different values. It’s in how we raise boys, in what we define as erotic, in how men can discourage each
other from the idea that dominating and harming women enhances their status. Perhaps it’s in young men in power learning from the fall of Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, and now Harvey Weinstein – and myriad Silicon Valley executives and more than a handful of academics – that women have voices and, sometimes, people who listen believe them, and the era of impunity might be fading from view. Though the change that really matters will consist of eliminating the desire to do these things, not merely the fear of getting caught.
In Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother!, Jennifer Lawrence plays a young earth goddess of a woman restoring her poet husband’s house to the best of her ability, alone, while he ignores her requests to have some say in what does and doesn’t happen, who does and does not enter their home. You can interpret the story, as Aronofsky intended, as an environmental allegory in which the house is the earth, the destruction is environmental destruction, the recklessness that accompanies selfishness. Or you can just see it as a film about things going increasingly wrong in an unequal marriage between an egomaniac without empathy and a woman who is all too giving and not respected, by her husband or by the increasingly destructive guests. It works either way.
It’s a film for our time and one I can only hope captures a moment that will pass, because I want the ideals of democracy to be at last fulfilled, because it’s past time to talk seriously about the poisonous lack of empathy and imagination that lies behind the corpses and the nightmares and the everyday fears.
Illustration by Noma Bar
Hugh Hefner at the Playboy club, London, in 1969. Photograph: AP