The Mag­ni­tude of the Prob­lem

Tak­ing stock of #MeToo

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Com­ment by Kate Holden

In the af­ter­math of last year’s mul­ti­ple al­le­ga­tions against Har­vey We­in­stein, and in the foot­steps of black ac­tivist Tarana Burke, ac­tor Alyssa Mi­lano tweeted a friend’s sug­ges­tion that women who’ve ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment all use the phrase “Me too” to “give peo­ple a sense of the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem”. It could be the most in­stant in­sur­gence in his­tory: the #MeToo hash­tag was used half a mil­lion times on Twit­ter over the fol­low­ing day, while on Face­book it gen­er­ated more than 12 mil­lion posts, com­ments and re­ac­tions within 24 hours. Then it got big. Fe­male ac­tors (and some male ones) sprang to add their voices and tes­ti­monies: the film in­dus­try was rot­ten, rot­ten with grop­ers, ex­tor­tion­ists, sleazes and damp-handed wankers. Rose McGowan an­nounced that We­in­stein hadn’t just jerked off in front of her, he had raped her; the move­ment paused, gath­ered, and surged, more elec­tri­fied than ever. Os­car win­ner Kevin Spacey, avun­cu­lar me­dia fig­ures Matt Lauer, Gar­ri­son Keil­lor and Char­lie Rose, co­me­dian Louis C.K. and as­sorted di­rec­tors, showrun­ners and jour­nal­ists were ac­cused, had their de­nials and con­fes­sions heard, were re­viled and in many cases sacked within days. It’s only been a few months, but the roar is so wide and loud and cease­less now, it’s be­gin­ning to sound like the sea. The most im­por­tant thing about #MeToo is that it has hap­pened. Just when the women’s move­ment was be­ing blind­sided by the re­tal­ia­tory power of anx­ious

penises, we were given a proudly pussy-grab­bing pres­i­dent of the United States, the yelp­ings of Milo Yiannopou­los and then the gross min­is­tra­tions of We­in­stein to fo­cus minds. Women who had been tot­ter­ing, in­cred­u­lous, be­tween one howl of misog­yny and an­other rose to their feet, dusted off their hands, and said, That is fuck­ing it. Rats are be­ing prised from their holes, and be­hav­iours are be­ing in­spected. The world of fem­i­nist dis­course hasn’t been so chirpy for years, and dudes across the world are non­cha­lantly want­ing friends’ rec­om­men­da­tions for lawyers and be­ing ex­tra sweet to their wives in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a name-check on Twit­ter. Mean­while, women are tak­ing deep breaths as they un­earth re­pressed ag­o­nies and em­bark on mak­ing se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions. And what about pay dis­par­ity? In­ter­sec­tional op­pres­sion? What about male dom­i­nance in gen­eral? The United States, des­per­ately in need of love and cathar­sis, is blis­ter­ing with Women Get­ting Shit To­gether, and all over the world peo­ple are march­ing while the men­da­cious fall from their in­sti­tu­tional pomp. The mute are be­ing heard, and be­lieved. Shame is fall­ing away like rain. There is no doubt that the move­ment is enor­mous, res­o­nant and work­ing. The sec­ond thing about #MeToo is that it’s co­her­ing, ad­he­sive. The phrase it­self a nod: me too. And yet it can be aw­fully awk­ward. Satur­day Night Live re­cently in­cluded a skit in which friends at din­ner try to dis­cuss the topic. One af­ter the other, male and fe­male guests palely be­gin a sen­tence be­fore they are anx­iously shooshed – “Care­ful!” – and fall silent. There must be a Ger­man word for the kind of gri­mace shared be­tween women – per­haps women of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion, or sec­tor of fem­i­nism, or his­tory of ac­tivism – when the topic arises. The look that com­bines guarded ap­pre­ci­a­tion, rav­ished glee and rue­ful ir­ri­ta­tion. Oh, the things we can’t say, we joke. Don’t start me! There is wari­ness, of course. And cyn­i­cism. No one wants to si­lence women, or dis­count their tes­ti­mony, or heart­lessly cal­i­brate an­guish. But full, un­ques­tion­ing sup­port is dif­fi­cult, be­cause we’ve been here be­fore, and surely mind­less hol­ler­ing en masse is a lit­tle bit to­tal­i­tar­ian. And who was more an­noy­ing: Matt Da­mon for com­ment­ing on women’s trauma or Min­nie Driver for smash­ing him in re­sponse? Mean­while, bac­cha­ntes are or­gias­ti­cally rend­ing male flesh. Some hope this is the be­gin­ning of the Great Purge. Oth­ers hes­i­tate: what of sweet Or­pheus, torn to shreds? Care­ful, girls! Don’t tempt the back­lash! The con­ver­sa­tions con­tinue and even the ex­as­per­ated are lured in. Can sym­pa­thetic men be in­cluded in the de­bates or is that fur­ther­ing the ac­com­mo­da­tion of pa­tri­archy? Must we pa­tiently ex­plain the ba­sics to the op­pres­sor? Can a white, mid­dle-aged man even be­gin to un­der­stand why a smart, spunky young woman might freeze when a kiss on the cheek “ac­ci­den­tally” slimes into a tongue in her mouth? Why she doesn’t say any­thing after­wards? Can a smart, spunky white woman be­gin to com­pre­hend the an­noy­ance of a black woman be­ing lec­tured? Is there re­ally a gen­er­a­tional gap be­tween bat­tle-vet­eran/sub­sumed older fem­i­nists and alert/brat­tish young ’uns, or is that a bit of pa­tri­ar­chal di­vide-and-con­quer mis­chief? Ev­ery­one wants a con­struc­tive conversation, but re­peated in­to­na­tions of “yes in­deed, though at the same time …” start to sound waffly. Or is this the dawn of a newly nu­anced dili­gence of dis­course? On it goes. Still, the reve­la­tion – is there a Ger­man word for the awak­en­ing of a se­dated in­tu­ition? – of “the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem” and the range of ways in which men have been shits to women is gal­vanis­ing, even ec­static: it is, af­ter all, very sat­is­fy­ing to roar. The force of kind­ness and care for other women, es­pe­cially, is mag­nif­i­cent. And yet. And yet. The an­cient Ro­mans had a term, damna­tio memo­riae, for the era­sure of a purged iden­tity, usu­ally a failed em­peror. All in­scrip­tions, de­pic­tions and men­tions of his name would be gouged from the stone. So too have evap­o­rated the hon­ours, chair­man­ships, act­ing roles, rep­u­ta­tions and even phys­i­cal like­nesses (via hastily edited film footage) of #MeToo mis­cre­ants. Gone, in mo­ments. It is star­tling, tri­umphant and dis­qui­et­ing. One is also re­minded of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, when des­per­ate lead­ers leg­is­lated the Law of 22 Prairial. Law­mak­ers dis­pensed with wit­nesses and de­fence coun­sel, need­ing only the de­nun­ci­a­tion. Surely, they ar­gued, only an un­vir­tu­ous man would ever be ac­cused? And once ac­cused, a vir­tu­ous man could never be un­justly con­demned. It is true that some of the #MeToo de­fen­dants have ad­mit­ted their guilt, if not apol­o­gised, and for oth­ers, po­lice pros­e­cu­tions will duly en­sue. First the ac­cu­sa­tion, then a proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion, right? What could pos­si­bly go wrong? Po­lice pros­e­cu­tions, of course, do not have a won­der­ful record as re­course for vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault. In Aus­tralia, only an es­ti­mated 15 per cent of sex­ual as­saults are re­ported to po­lice, and a dis­may­ing frac­tion of them re­sult in con­vic­tion. The rates of abuse are ris­ing while jus­tice is not. And the most vul­ner­a­ble or sta­tis­ti­cally com­mon vic­tims, such as pris­on­ers, the dis­abled, chil­dren and Indige­nous women, are the least likely to re­port, and the least likely to see a con­vic­tion. Defama­tion laws in this coun­try also make ac­cu­sa­tion a vis­cous ex­pe­ri­ence. Some­times hol­ler­ing – anony­mously, if nec­es­sary – is not the best way but the only way.

In Aus­tralia, only an es­ti­mated 15 per cent of sex­ual as­saults are re­ported to po­lice, and a dis­may­ing frac­tion of them re­sult in con­vic­tion. The rates of abuse are ris­ing while jus­tice is not.

Ex­tra­ju­di­cial, van­quish­ing con­dem­na­tions of un­tried de­fen­dants set a hor­ri­ble prece­dent: yes, in­deed, so will at­test the thou­sands of vic­tims who’ve been pil­lo­ried in courts for their ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity in be­ing raped. And yet. No one yet knows what to think about Ge­of­frey Rush. Nor do we know what we shall do when the le­gal world de­clines to con­vict some­one al­ready con­demned by the me­dia, their rep­u­ta­tion de­stroyed. Or how we might con­tinue to cel­e­brate the work of a mon­ster. And what about Aziz An­sari, the Amer­i­can co­me­dian whose al­leged pushy sex­u­al­ity on a date is ei­ther the thin end of the wedge of sys­temic sex­ual pre­da­tion or merely a case of bad com­mu­ni­ca­tion – “bad sex”? The An­sari case asks how much re­spon­si­bil­ity women have for their own plea­sure and bound­aries; “bad sex” of­ten sig­ni­fies bor­ing sex for men and ac­tual pain for women, nor­malised and en­dured with­out com­plaint. Women are trained to rate male sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion above their own. “No” is not lis­tened to, and leav­ing a room is harder than it sounds. But many called over­re­ac­tion. The An­sari case shifted the cho­rus from ex­plicit as­sault to quo­tid­ian sex­ism: in the bed­room, at the bus stop, of­fice and night­club, be­tween women and “nice guys”… Or be­tween or­di­nary guys and hy­per-sen­si­tive, at­ten­tion-seek­ing fe­male mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Out­rage. Fem­i­nist de­bate was di­vided. Foes trum­peted the back­lash. Was the whole move­ment dis­cred­ited by one sulky miss? Ev­ery­one re­mem­bered their own oozy mo­ments with men, and a mil­lion more women sud­denly felt in­volved. Wade in and you are tread­ing quick­sand; step back, and watch the tide lift the boats to sail with­out you. The phe­nom­e­non cer­tainly likes to be in­clu­sive. So far we have heard from Cather­ine Deneuve and Craig McLach­lan, Don Burke and Lady Gaga, Ger­maine Greer and Brigitte Bar­dot and Salma Hayek, the fi­nance chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, and Scott “Chachi from Happy Days” Baio. Fa­mous, tal­ented and beau­ti­ful women in satin shoes were re­vealed to be as vul­ner­a­ble to dick headry as the rest of us. An ini­tially Amer­i­can move­ment has flowed to In­dia, China, Aus­tralia and be­yond. Black has been help­fully worn at the Golden Globes, white roses at the Gram­mys; the mu­sic, pub­lish­ing, per­for­mance, le­gal, aca­demic, me­dia, cinema and tele­vi­sion, fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy and mod­el­ling, sport­ing and po­lit­i­cal worlds – worlds dom­i­nated by male author­ity – have all been found, amaz­ingly, to be in­fested to some de­gree with sex­ual abuse. Part of the mes­meri­sa­tion of these rev­e­la­tions is that kindly gents and sen­si­tive-mouthed young hunks – even the left wing! – are ca­pa­ble of wicked­ness. It would be nice if it were only dread­ful Amer­i­can moguls at fault, preda­tory wolves we can shud­der at and warn against. But #MeToo in­vokes the si­lence in our­selves, here, the si­lence held by our sis­ters, friends, moth­ers, daugh­ters, col­leagues; it lets out a moan of pain close by our ear; it wants to lift the sheep’s cloth­ing of the hus­band and brother and best mate. Like all true rev­e­la­tions, it comes home. Ac­count­abil­ity has al­ways been most elu­sive when most keenly re­quired: scoundrels are smug­glers, work­ing in made dark­ness. #MeToo has the moral pre­rog­a­tives, and the equal dark perquisites, of scale. Moral panic or moral con­science, cleans­ing of the Augean sta­bles or mob jus­tice, such move­ments re­mind us that light cre­ates its own fugi­tive, shadow – and the deeper the shadow, the brighter the light ap­pears. There are so many bas­tards out there still, other kinds of abuse. We may yet be see­ing the be­gin­ning of a new mo­ment in our so­ci­ety, when there is no hid­ing, not from wicked­ness, not from our­selves.

Part of the mes­meri­sa­tion of these rev­e­la­tions is that kindly gents and sen­si­tive mouthed young hunks – even the left wing! – are ca­pa­ble of wicked­ness.

© Owen Hoff­mann / Pa­trick McMullan via Getty Im­ages

Uma Thur­man and Har­vey We­in­stein.

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