Laura Nixon, Contributor.
This year’s Golden Globes ceremony pressed a single, strong message: Hollywood is no longer going to ignore sexual harassment. Harvey Weinstein’s name was left unmentioned, but the allegations facing him guided the focus of the event. There were clear echoes of the #MeToo movement, which saw thousands sharing their own stories of sexual harassment on social media in a collective bid to diminish the stigma that surrounds victims. Speech after speech drew attention to the corrupt inner workings of the Hollywood film industry, which has long enabled the wealthy and powerful to manipulate and abuse others with impunity. Those whose careers and livelihoods depend on these predatory figures are left powerless and voiceless, and yet, as Oprah Winfrey noted in her acceptance speech, this is a problem that extends far beyond Hollywood. Victims of sexual assault work in every industry; as factory workers and as engineers and in hospitality and in the military. It is these women, the non-famous, “the women whose names we’ll never know,” who will suffer the most. And to this issue, the Hollywood chorus has declared: “Time is up.”
But outside of movies, it is rare to find tidy, happy solutions. As if to compound Hollywood’s insularity, an open letter signed by over 100 influential French women emerged in response to #MeToo. While making clear that rape and violent sexual assault are rightfully criminal, and that allegations of such should be taken seriously, the authors of the letter maintain that gallantry or flirting (however misguided) do not warrant the “puritanical witch-hunt” they have induced in mainstream feminist discourse. After all, sexual freedom and consent, two cornerstones of feminism, hinge upon the rights to make and to reject sexual advances. The letter’s authors go on to criticise the “hasty justice” of publicly condemning figures for touching a colleague’s knee or making unwanted advances via text message. They worry that this may encroach upon free speech and the right to offend (which are both valuable to feminism). The letter, spearheaded by French actress Catherine Deneuve, inevitably provoked accusations of its authors’ internalised misogyny. Yet while the letter displays a defiantly laissez-faire approach to sexual conduct, it nevertheless makes valid points that shouldn’t be drowned out amidst the mass hysteria.Firstly, that criminalisation of non-violent sexual misdemeanours, while ostensibly promoting “the liberation and protection of women,’ only serves to “chain them to the status of eternal victims.” Is it not patronising, Deneuve argues, to presume that women are defenceless against all micro-aggressions? Doesn’t this reinforce the same damsel in distress narrative which in recent decades we have worked to deconstruct? Outrage against minor indiscretions is not empowering to women. It does, however, bolster the perception of women as “children with adult faces who demand to be protected,” fuelling misogynists, religious extremists and reactionaries in their delusion of women as inferior.
Secondly, they take issue with how allegations are handled. The historically low conviction rates for rape attest to an endemic problem that needs urgent attention, however in recent months we have witnessed waves of public accusations channelled through media outlets instead of the police. The accused have their reputation ruined before a judicial enquiry can even be proposed. They face public scorn and, if confidentiality agreements are involved, are unable to defend themselves. In high-profile or publicly-visible professions, job loss is a distinct possibility even if the claims prove to be false. If sexual crimes are to be investigated with greater diligence, and if sentencing is to become less lenient on the convicted, then it is necessary for the investigation process to be as strictly regulated as that of other crimes. While we need to foster a culture in which victims feel able and safe to report cases of rape or assault, and confident that their allegations will be taken seriously, we should be wary of encouraging the substitution of social media outlets for the police and a mob mentality for judge and jury. Ultimately, this threatens to create a crying-wolf effect, where victims of the most serious sexual crimes could be denied justice. The vitriol that characterises much of the debate around gender issues, and the failure to host discussions in a frank and uninhibited manner, reveals a fundamental discord within modern feminism. As well as combatting pernicious external forces, like the Red Pill ideology, it is engaged in vindictive internal disputes. Starved of unity and suffering from a terrible PR problem, feminism seems destined to implode.
Even amongst women, the term “feminist” is still commonly used as a pejorative. It can imply a self-reflective bitterness, or worse, a hatred of men. It is accused of generating a totalitarian climate in which proclamations of tolerance only go so far as to admit certain “correct” opinions, while dictating that others must be silenced. This hypocrisy betrays the central feminist tenet that women should support each other. Even Margaret Atwood has recently been the target of a feminist backlash. The author of The Handmaid’s Tale (a novel that could only have been written by someone who values the progress made by feminism) was labelled online this week as a “bad feminist” after she called for due process in the case of a university professor facing charges of sexual misconduct. Atwood’s response was to offer a diagnosis of her critics; they were enacting a form of “vigilante justice” that has potential to “morph into a culturally solidified lynch-mob habit.” This is especially true in an era where social media holds ever-increasing cultural currency. Despite social media’s many positive attributes, its tendency to harbour echo chambers of opinion results in a culture where it is deemed acceptable to label outspoken women such as Deneuve or Atwood as “traitors” and “accomplices of the patriarchy”.
Contemporary feminism seems to be more interested in offering shallow gestures than in furthering substantial change. Increasingly, feminism is being reduced to a marketable slogan campaign stamped on overpriced t-shirts. Meryl Streep’s call for attendees of the Golden Globes to wear black as a show of solidarity was, although well-intentioned, characteristic of a Hollywood which functions on hollow promises. Rose McGowan, amongst the first to speak out against Weinstein, accordingly dismissed the protest as merely “fancy people wearing black.” In a similar vein, there are social-media outcries at the chivalric symbolism in a man holding a door open for a woman, yet relative silence regarding the serious oppression that is occurring throughout the world in the form of FGM, child marriage, the inaccessibility of education and birth control, the denial of women’s right to work and live independent of male guardianship. Gender equality is essential to democracy and the erosion of poverty. We need people of influence to collaborate with grassroots feminist movements in elevating the status of women where they face resistance from reactionary forces. What we don’t need is half-hearted sloganeering or hyperbolic campaigns, which only fuel arguments of feminism’s irrelevancy.
The lessons learned from #MeToo and its critics are twofold: firstly, that sexual abuse is widespread and anyone can be a target; and, secondly, that public understandings of terms like ‘harassment’ are neither precise nor consistent. Possibly the most telling message contained in Deneuve’s letter is this: “As women, we don’t recognise ourselves in this feminism”. This is a major setback. If fairness and equality in the workplace and beyond are to be achieved, we need a strong and committed movement that can absorb a diversity of opinion, and which can demonstrate its capacity to tolerate dissent. Especially when that dissent comes from within.