More of us seem to be declaring ourselves feminists. But what does feminism mean to us and what are we communicating to others about ourselves, our society and our view of the world? Are there areas, say politically, socially, privately where feminism is unnecessary?
It is safe to say, I thought I knew what feminism meant; women’s access to rights and opportunities on the ground of the equality of the sexes.
I now know my understanding has been limited at best and superficial at worst. An understanding merely supported by assumptions.
For example, my naïve view of feminism assumed those who declared themselves feminists shared the opinion that our environment is constructed to benefit men. To the direct detriment of women. I also assumed feminism is rooted from the desire for equality. Therefore, feminism is the active and overt advocation for equality for all women i.e. Black, Asian, lesbian, disabled, poor and all those in between women.
Why feminism and why now?
A friend challenged me to explain what has caused my ‘sudden’ interest in feminism. The best way I can explain it is that big things have happened in the last two years. Negative things that have alerted me to my naivety of the politics that shapes our lives. Things that have energised me to start paying attention.
Those things include the referendum for the UK to terminate its membership with the EU, Donald Trump winning the US elections, the volume of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Bill Crosby. To name a few. What these things exemplify is male leadership which, in my view, confirms loudly, the devastating impact of the male construct. These things reveal a fundamental problem. The response to them amplify the depth of this problem, a determination to protect the status quo.
Prior to these things I believed we were moving towards a more equal society. Barack Obama seemed a significant statement. As indication that race and racism were becoming a thing of the past in preventing access to opportunities. I also assumed we were on the verge of what promised to be the first female president in Hillary Clinton. This would have represented a significant breakthrough for women. Or so I assumed.
Weinstein, a devastating relationship of power and gender
The Weinstein allegations revealed to me that power is synonymous with men. A good indication of how normalised sexual exploitation of women is. There had been prior warning signs.
In 1972, a 19 year old actress Maria Schneider starred in Last Tango in Paris alongside Marlon Brando, then 48. Unbeknown to Schneider, her co-star and Director Bernardo Bertolucci planned to surprise her with an unscripted detail in the rape scene. With the use of “a stick of butter as lubricant”. Schneider spoke out in 2001 and 2007 but it appears she wasn’t taken seriously. Not until a recording surfaced in 2016 of Bertolucci confirming her claim. 5 years after her death from cancer. His motive, he explained, was artistic freedom. He wanted to capture real cries, real humiliation, from the young actress. As opposed to what she was hired to do, act it. He still doesn’t see what she was horrified about. And why would he, this is just how business is conducted.
Hearing that, Weinstein, a powerful man may have used his power against women wasn’t the biggest shock. It was the numbers, the decades of allegations. The absence of any criminal consequences. Still.
For that to have happened, for that long, it needed a strong support system. In my opinion. A system that allowed it and made it normal. Showing the problem went deeper than allegations against one man. For it would surely require others to behave similarly. A system that considers it reasonable to sexually exploit and attack women.
Sexual assaults happen out in the open
I believe the allegations came as a shock only to those of us not paying attention. As more and more women to came forward, Weinstein’s board members went from ridiculing the accusations to firing him. Stating their decision was made “in light of new information about misconduct”. This gave the impression the accusations were much a surprise to them as they were to us.
Except, the reports that followed told us it was unlikely the board did not have some knowledge of Weinstein’s ‘conduct’. It was reported that the company had a system in place to manage consequences of this conduct. A system to compensate his alleged victims, presumably for their silence. A system designed to protect the company’s interests, I assume, rather than prevent the behaviour.
In my opinion, this level of abuse would have required a buy in from them and the wider Hollywood community. A buy in that allowed the behaviour to go unchallenged, growing in confidence with time.
We saw this in other cases. Such as the allegations that spanned decades against Jimmy Savile, revealed in 2012. The sexual abuse scandal in football, revealed in 2016. I mention these also to show this practice of sexual coercion is not limited to women. In case there are those out there who still believe this is a woman’s issue.
“Patriarchy is fully stocked at defending itself.”
Sady Doyle, feminist author, recently she said this on the BBC. Meaning the male construct defends itself well when challenged. During the Weinstein allegations I observed three ways it does this.
It reframes the accuser as the suspect. It doesn’t ask, why did he do that? But instead, as it was for Weinstein’s accusers, why didn’t she report it earlier? Brett Kavanaugh provided another opportunity to see this again. Take the reported tweet from Trump saying that if Ford’s allegations were true, either she or her parents would have reported them at the time of the event.
The accusation here is that she is a liar. The expectation is then for her to defend herself. Demanding she proves herself “the perfect victim”.
It reminds the accuser she is unable to differentiate harmless fun from serious attacks. Take the response from Matt Damon for instance, one of the more respected actors. Damon, started by giving the impression he was supportive saying “it’s good that women are being empowered”. What he followed that with, however, reveals little depth in that support. Explaining “there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation”. This sort of explanation serves the purpose of telling the accuser, she overreacted to what happened. It wasn’t that serious and she should grow a thicker skin.
It excuses. Because as Damon went on to explain “None of us came here perfect.” This goes to defending the accused. It asks you feel sorry for him because he is humiliated. As Woody Allen demonstrated. While he also spoke of his support, he expressed his sadness “for Harvey that [his] life is so messed up”. The woman and the injury she’s suffered, is seen as less important. And thereby revealing the problem.
Countering an unshakeable defence
Minnie Driver provided a much needed counterto these defence lines. Calling Damon out as “utterly tone deaf and as a result, systemically part of the problem.” She outlined what these attempts to defend indefensible behaviour are. A demonstration of male supremacy. This assumption that it is for men to explain to women what their experiences are and how they should feel about them.
Which leaves us with a difficulty. How do you persuade men in these positions not only to stop and listen but actively change their position of power?
La la land reflects our reality
Seeing this playing out, I have started to question my assumptions. Testing them in my interactions with those around me.
During these, I have been surprised to learn that what happens in Hollywood is not completely unrelated to our normal lives. With the exception of a few people, both men and women, I have learned there is a fundamental problem. Not all agree, as I had assumed, that men and women are created equal.
Evidence outlined to support this view include, the proven fact that men have larger brains, the assumption being men are smarter. Women are nurturers, presumably due to their physiological differences. So women are better suited to child rearing. Men are physically stronger, so better suited to leadership. These primitive beliefs are presented by husbands, parents, managers, teachers and …voters.
Furthermore, interactions specific to sexual assault and harassment point to a deep seated belief that women are not to be trusted. A friend candidly explained he would find it easier to believe women who allege rape if there was a way to guarantee women do not lie. It would be unhelpful, in my view, to dismiss this as an individual remark. Ill-founded as it is. Note it conveniently carries the assumption that men do not lie.
I believe, Weinstein and the views that have followed are all symptoms of our society. And what society thinks is that women are suspicious at best and liars at worst.