The Year of (Finally) Listening to Women

Activist Tarana Burke created the “Me Too” campaign in 2006.

In the fall of 2013, Americana artist Neko Case released her sixth studio record, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. The album’s lead single is a song called “Man,” in which the golden-voiced Case sings, “I’m a man, You’ll have to deal with me, My proxy is mine, You’ll deal with me directly.” Case is, of course, a woman, but she often writes songs from different viewpoints, and the aforementioned lines from “Man” perfectly encapsulate the cultural zeitgeist of the current Age of Trump, an age defined in large part by the resurgence of chauvinistic male dominance. This is an age when America elected president a man with small, pussy-grabbing hands and a gargantuan maw who stood as the proxy for a potent army known as the “Alt-Right:” a group of internet-sulking, white-supremacy touting, man-child dipshits with massive chips on their shoulders towards women. And the civilized world just had to deal with Trump directly.

Thankfully, at the start of 2017, women in the U.S. and throughout the world immediately began to contest the Age of Trump. In January, following the Orange One’s sparsely attended inauguration, an estimated 470,000 to 680,000 women descended on Washington D.C. in the Women’s March, part of a global phenomenon during which women of all backgrounds rallied in public spaces around the declaration that “Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights.” This was the first shout in what became the year’s defining cultural theme: the absurd-that-it’s-still-radical-notion that women need to be listened to. By October, the social dam had burst, and a simple Twitter hashtag, #MeToo, embodied the seismic cultural shift that finally cracked the heretofore inviolable temple of societal male privilege. 2017 really was the year during which we (finally) started listening to women.

The phenomenon of actually listening to women’s voices has come a millenia too late, but hopefully the reckoning will be swift and effective. In addition to the ghastly sight of an admitted sex predator fouling up the Oval Office, it was another influential, paunchy white male with excessive media power who really functioned as the catalyst for the #MeToo campaign. I’m talking, of course, about Harvey Weinstein. The co-founder of Miramax pictures and co-chairman of the company that bears his name, Weinstein reigned for decades as one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers; a guy who could make or break film-industry talents.

The Women’s March on Washington in January, 2017 was a testament to a newly awakened feminism as a vital political force.

Then, in early October, 2017, the New York Times exposed Weinstein’s decades-long habit of, well, exposing himself to women. To cover up his sleazy acts, Weinstein used his massive clout to either pay off accusers or destroy their careers through targeted character assassinations with the help of honest-to-goodness FORMER SPIES. A few days after the Times story broke, The New Yorker ran an even more devastating piece detailing in gross detail the producer’s preferred acts of grossness, ranging from demands that actresses give him massages and/or join him in the shower, to fits of groping and whining like an entitled pervert, to outright rape. The list of Weinstein’s accusers (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Alyssa Milano, etc.) runs the gamut of entertainment industry talent, and for his alleged crimes, the disgraced mogul retreated to a posh rehab center to handle his alleged “sex addiction,” a disease that strangely seems to almost exclusively afflict wealthy and powerful white men.

Yet for all of Weinstein’s perennial pervitude, his massive public shaming opened up the proverbial floodgates for women of all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities to follow the Twitter advice of actress Alyssa Milano and describe their own #MeToo moments when they were sexually harassed or assaulted. The ensuing digital tornado of assault recollections left the world’s men shockedshocked — that women they had seen on the teevee and women they knew in real life had to endure being treated like slabs of meat or outright walking pincushions by entitled male pervs. For those of the male gender who were surprised to learn that social relations shouldn’t resemble old Benny Hill sketches, the revelations of 2017 will hopefully be the necessary smack in the face (or crotch) that they deserve. The Weinstein allegations and ensuing #MeToo campaign have already claimed the heads of a new rogues gallery of previously respected blokes in the fields of media and politics, including Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, Trent Franks, Al Franken, Louis C.K., and a host of other dudes you probably assumed weren’t massive dickheads.

It should go without saying, however, that the need for the #MeToo campaign goes far deeper than Harvey Weinstein, or Donald Trump, or any other entitled oaf with busy hands and deep pockets. In fact, the new phenomenon of listening to women speaks to the truly staggering grip that white-male patriarchy has long maintained on Western societies. The ensuing volcano of discontent from women only erupted in 2017 after centuries of seeping through the cultural surface with ne’er a whiff of acknowledgement from those who’ve benefitted from patriarchy’s dominance.

Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. He’s a jerk.

In 2006, long before Alyssa Milano’s tweet, a Philadelphia activist and social worker named Tarana Burke founded the “Me Too” campaign. Burke, herself a survivor of sexual assault, started Me Too following a harrowing experience at a youth camp for marginalized girls. When one girl opened up to Burke about enduring horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Burke couldn’t bear to hear the rest of the girl’s story. The resulting shame Burke experienced (“I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.”), from sending the girl to another counselor led Burke to launch Me Too as a worldwide call to listen by the millions of women who have experienced male sexual predation but were met with silence. Burke’s efforts, which inspired Alyssa Milano and so many other women, led Time magazine to dub them the “Silence Breakers;” the Person of the Year for 2017.

Sexual abuse is an epidemic that affects all women, from white women to women of color, from the affluent to the marginalised. This abuse has flourished because, as scholar/activist bell hooks has eloquently explained, men have long maintained and perpetuated a patriarchal cultural hierarchy bolstered by a capitalist power structure that views women less as equal human beings (or professional colleagues, for that matter) and more as walking, talking leisure products that exist for the fulfilment of male desire. Or, to put it in less academic terms: a combination of money and power has allowed a whole bunch of good ‘ole boys to play grab-ass with near total impunity for too damn long.

Because they’re facing a form of hierarchical identity politics — one which is (usually white) male, and domineering — the Me Too campaign and the Women’s March movement are reacting with their own form of identity politics — one that is female-led but promotes gender equality and equal rights for all human beings.

Of course, the new trend-du-jour from within some circles (on both the Right and the Left) is to disparage or dismiss “identity politics” as counterproductive at best, destructive at worst. Liberal scholar Mark Lilla, for example, defines identity politics as “going out into the democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side.” The problem with identity politics, Lilla argues, is that is fetishizes difference and eschews a politics of shared stake in the democratic system. By focusing too much on disparate identities, identity politics neglects the need to build coalitions that actually win elections.

In contrast to Lilla, the National Review’s David French thinks that identity politics constitutes the Left’s “constantly making sweeping, stereotypical, and hateful arguments about those outside their own tribe…They’ll act as if ‘whiteness’ represents a malicious, cultural monolith — lumping together a senator’s child with a foster kid living in a double-wide.” In other words, identity politics creates a boogeyman out of whiteness by imbuing it with powers it either doesn’t inherently possess or which it long ago eschewed.

Actress Alyssa Milano turned #MeToo into a viral sensation that women from all backgrounds embraced.

What Lilla and French both miss, however, is that all politics is identity politics. Those who insist otherwise usually have the luxury of their identity (in the case of the aforementioned critics: white and male) being the culturally accepted default identity. Writing in Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, feminist activist Samhita Mukhopadhyay notes that, “identity politics seeks to recognize and organize around the complex and interwoven ways race, class, gender, immigration status, and sexuality, among other factors, impact how life is lived in America — and who has access to the American dream.”* Throughout the vast majority of American history, those who are white and male have delineated and controlled who has the “right” to access the American dream. Consequently, white males, as the default sociopolitical power brokers of American culture, have bristled at the notion that any movement — be it abolitionism, women’s suffrage, the American Indian Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, or the multiple waves of the Feminist movement — would have the gall to critique the historically limited boundaries of “American” identity, with all of the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

There are plenty of working definitions for the concept of politics. A standard textbook definition from political researcher Larry Johnston describes politics as “the formulation and execution of decisions that are binding upon the population of a community or society and the relationships between those who make or implement such decisions and those who are affected by them.”* Johnston’s definition describes the relationship between citizens and legislators in democratic systems, but dynamic, varied, and sometimes bloody cultural struggles underlay the relatively bloodless process that turns citizens’ opinions into votes for representation in the halls of power.

Second-wave Feminist Carol Hanisch famously articulated that “personal problems are political problems,” and how could they not be? The injustices that marginalized groups (including women) face don’t originate in the halls of Congress, they originate in the most personal of spaces — living rooms, kitchens, the articulated spaces between powerful male employers and subjugated female employees, and even, in the case of reproductive rights, within women’s literal bodies. When patriarchy-defending men in power try to legislate what women can do with their bodies, or when they create hostile work environments through incessant sexual harassment, they’re making the political profoundly, deeply, personal. Thus, a more general, but far more visceral definition of politics comes from political scientist Harold Lasswell, who wrote that politics is “who gets what, when, how.” Politics is more primal than merely casting votes. Politics involves finding your identity, understanding how your identity shapes your lived experience, recognizing that others will try to deprive you of your basic rights because they deem your identity to be inferior, and finally, fighting back.

Future President Donald Trump, minutes after he bragged about sexual assault to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush.

The struggle against what authors Joe Feagin and‎ Kimberley Ducey term the “elite-white-male-dominance system” pits one form of identity politics against another. The identity politics of privileged white guys dates back to the era of European colonization, which created “a social system with a hierarchical and racialized division of status and labor where European American (soon self-named ‘white’) men were at the top, with European American women well below, and indigenous and African American men and women even lower at the bottom of this imposed hierarchy.”* Because white guys placed themselves at the top of the pyramid of socioeconomic power, they came to assume that their identity didn’t constitute identity at all. Instead, that which was white, male, and socially constructed became “natural,” “expected,” and even divinely sanctioned. The alleged inevitability of white male domination has long rendered it invisible in the eyes of those who have benefitted the most from it. They therefore go to excruciating lengths to claim that such privilege doesn’t exist.

The hierarchy built by elite white men does exist, however, and examples of the latter always fight tooth and nail to protect the former. The women behind the #MeToo campaign and the Women’s March are mobilizing their own form of identity politics to speak out against the kind of elite male patriarchy that festers in every major industry in America. This patriarchal system allows men like Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and a host of other named-and-shamed perverts to exert vast power over the women who work in those respective industries.

2017 marked the year that women demanded to be heard…again. This year, however, people actually started listening to them.

Of course, there are limits to any sort of collective action. Women, just like all human beings, are individuals first, members of a group second. During the 2016 election, for example, Donald Trump, he of “grab them by the pussy” infamy, still won 53 percent of white female voters, topping Hillary Clinton in that demographic. Like any voting group, women support candidates for a myriad of reasons, and even when faced with the chance to elect the first woman president, white women chose racial, as opposed to gender, solidarity. Moreover, female Trump supporters were far more concerned with the Apocalypse that a Hillary Clinton presidency would supposedly unleash than they were with Trump’s sexual “indiscretions.” This fear, deranged is it was, led them to dismiss other women’s allegations that Trump has assaulted them. As one Trump voter in New Hampshire stated, “What I always say to the guys is, ‘I dare you to go and do it. And if a female does let a guy grope her—that’s permission.”

The story of 2017, however, belongs to the millions of women who’ve had enough of bearing the burden of “permission,” who’ve had enough of being blamed for the lasciviousness of powerful men. Their calls to be listened to after being silenced for so long have forever altered the social dynamic in ways that will profoundly reshape workplace relations, sociopolitical networks, and the gendered organization of households for decades to come. Even as a resurgent — and myopically repugnant — patriarchy continues to ooze with alarming frequency from the darkest, saddest corners of contemporary mass culture, the parallel resurgence of the new feminism stands as a countervailing force for equality and justice in an otherwise frighteningly chaotic world.

* See Samhita Mukhopadhyay, “I’m a Woman, Vote for Me: Why We Need Identity Politics,” in Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America (New York: Picador, 2017), 2.

* See Larry Johnston, Politics (Canadian Edition): An Introduction to the Modern Democratic State, Fourth Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 18.

* See Joe R. Feagin and‎ Kimberley Ducey, Elite White Men Ruling: Who, What, When, Where, and How (New York: Routledge, 2017). 10.

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