The fall of Har­vey We­in­stein should be a mo­ment to chal­lenge ex­treme mas­culin­ity

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Re­becca Sol­nit

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

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