Shockwaves continue to ripple out over the entertainment industry this week in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, with multitudes of actresses, models and even showrunners coming forward to speak about how Harvey Weinstein, and his brother, Bob, have sexually assaulted them.
Indeed, the Weinstein scandal has opened up countless old wounds for millions of sexual assault survivors.
On Monday, actress Alyssa Milano began the “Me Too” campaign, asking women on social media to simply post “Me too” if they’d ever experienced sexual harassment. At press time, more than 12 million women – and not a few men – have posted the hashtag to their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts.
On Tuesday at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the highest paid and most powerful stars in the game, both spoke publicly about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault on the job.
After describing the events surrounding her assault at the age of 16, Witherspoon concluded by saying, “[I feel] true disgust at the director who assaulted me when I was 16 years old and anger at the agents and the producers who made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment.”
Lawrence ended her speech – about how she was forced to strip down for a role, and sexually harassed by her director – on a similar note, saying, “I let myself be treated a certain way because I felt like I had to for my career.”
These stories, the literal millions of them, are largely unsurprising to women. The surprise is that these stories are being told publicly, when they’re usually told tearfully, or anxiously, or drunkenly, if they’re told at all.
It has been men, generally speaking, who have been left shocked by these stories. And it’s in the shadow of the Weinstein scandal that ordinary, often privileged men, have caught a glimpse of what it is to be female.
Liz Meriwether, writing for New York magazine shortly after Donald Trump’s victims came forward last year, described it as thus, “Men who hear these stories, I’ve found, tend to interrogate you to get to the truth of what happened, then, if they believe you, they want retaliation or revenge. Men want rules to be enforced and authorities called. Women want those things, too, but we understand the complicated mental calculations that are forced on us.”
And so begins the crux of another, seemingly more pedestrian problem between men and women. How many times has this cliche complaint been brought up in couples counselling and TV shows and Oprah:
“When I’m upset, he goes straight to solution mode, when what I really want is empathy.”
For many men, the crying looks unproductive – it can even look like self-pity. Meanwhile, women just want a hug, or even a nod; a signal that they are understood.
For years, the reason given was that men don’t like feeling helpless, and this is certainly a factor. But perhaps the core reason so many men jump straight into problem solving is not just about testosterone or “boys don’t cry” social conditioning, but something far more simple: when (white) men speak, action is taken.
If we cry about our boss, our husband can’t understand it because he would tell the boss, and the boss would listen. If we wish out loud for a pay rise, the men we know will tell us to go ahead and ask, (because they’ve never been turned down, right Karl Stefanovic?).
If we wince over bad service at a restaurant, our male date might tell us to speak up, because the problem would be taken care of if he did. If we moan about our friend, our partner doesn’t get it, because if he told his friend, he’d be heard.
In fact, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that if a (white, middle class, heterosexual) man lodges a complaint, nobody is going to call him a bitch or a slut or a prude or an ungrateful whinger. Nobody is going to flip the facts back on him, and suggest he made it up or that he’s over-reacting.
The phrase, “male privilege” has received a lot of exposure of late. We understand it as a measure of unconscious power. But in simple terms, privilege might also be expressed as how credible you are as a witness to your own life. Men speak, and are believed. Women speak, and are told to sit back down.
But now this silent gap, of how women have to metabolise every day abuses of power, is finally being shown for the gaping chasm it is. Men, in general, are beginning to understand how we must navigate our lives.
When someone hurts us, abuses us, harasses us, we sit with it and weigh it up, because we know we have to walk through life not believed, not listened to, not respected. If we are seen, it’s through the male gaze, and we will be deemed sexual or ugly – either way, we will be reduced and objectified. Women don’t expect solutions; at least not without backlash, or blame.
And so, we vent, we sit, we drink, we “process,” because we know that in the end we will have to manage it. We just need to cry first.