Challenging extreme masculinity
The fall of Harvey Weinstein should make us reflect the abuse of power and privilege that so many men resort to
he movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was described by the New York Times as a serial sexual harasser. Last 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. Weinstein denies any non-consensual sex.
Underlying all these attacks indeed 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.
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.
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 counterrevolution, 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. 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.
Dominating and harming
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 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 deity 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. 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.
Rebecca Solnit is a noted American writer. She has written on a variety of subjects, including environment, politics and art.