We're into our second year of the #MeToo movement and gender relations in 2018 are just as confusing, challenging and disappointing. So what needs to change?
“It’s not that I don’t like the idea of Helen Clark at a breakfast,” some women told themselves, on the eve of March 8, the day that celebrates women worldwide. “I mean, who doesn’t love Helen Clark? Or breakfast? I just thought that once the global revolution against sexual harassment and abuse started, there would be more… flamethrowers in it.”
Some men were similarly perplexed. “I haven’t ever put my dick in a person without asking first,” they thought. “So why am I still having to hear women banging on about this shit?”
And that’s 2018 in gender relations: a confusing, challenging, and deeply dismaying time for many of us. As the dust settles following the revelations of sexual abuse and harassment that have come to prominence over the past several months, we look around to realise pretty much everyone except Harvey Weinstein and former US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar are still standing (and even then, it took dozens of women coming forward after decades of abuse, and Harvey Weinstein has not been charged with a crime).
What’s more, the conversations we’re having about the things we should not have been forced to live through, and the things we should not have done, are immensely painful for many. Some people believe that women like me love to speak about the ways we’ve been wronged, but in reality, speaking out can feel like a bottom-trawl of your worst experiences, dredging up every moment you felt humiliated, hurt, or small. It’s all so that, best case, someone who has never thought about it before can hopefully have a lightbulb moment that all of this isn’t great for women, and worst case, finds your email address on the internet to tell you you’re bitch. And so it goes.
I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t encourage me in writing and public speaking when I was a little girl at primary school because they dreamed of me one day using those skills to explain how I felt when a man in my office said he sometimes imagined me doing yoga. Such a small thing, but every time I sat next to him after that I thought about it, a little curl of shame to be beaten back even though I was not the one with anything to feel ashamed about. And that instance is such a small pebble. I am carrying boulders.
I want mine to be the last generation of women who have to wait until they can afford to fight back - for me, around the age of 30, for some women, older or younger or never - and then grieve that we want our 20s back. I want mine back as a time where all that was considered, when assigning the jobs or opportunities or respect I wanted, was whether I was good enough.
International Women’s Day is a moment to reflect on the point we’ve reached over the past year, and perhaps to refine our approach; steeling ourselves to face the parts of this societal reckoning that we have been trying to avoid. Because we have made some progress over the past year, and sometimes - when you and a friend are batting some idiot with a Bald Eagle profile picture back and forth between you on Twitter like two cats with a mouse that died several hours previously - it can feel like you’ve already won.
And yet: the launch of a #MeToo investigation by a New Zealand media outlet into sexual harassment and abuse in this country is met by accusations that the journalist responsible is doing it for clicks, as though it is too astonishing to believe that the generations of pain felt by powerless people is a legitimate motive for trying to end it.
And yet: a prominent cartoonist - in some kind of ambling confusion about the direction in which a witch-hunt goes - draws women as witches, hell-bent on revenge and fuelled by gossip and innuendo, rather than fact.
And yet: the very organisations mediating the global conversation about #MeToo, the media, seem reluctant to turn the probe on themselves, and the women journalists who know where the bodies are buried do not trust that the tide has turned enough to protect their careers if they come forward and name some of their own.
Amidst this resistance to change, there are a few problems we must address. One is the idea that women destroy men out of vengeance, leaving men to suffer consequences that could be lifelong, while the woman never gives the matter another thought. It seems odd that a man who can empathise when another man’s career stands to be ruined because he is accused of harassing or assaulting someone, can’t also empathise with a woman who lives with the burden of harassment or abuse.
For many women I know - for me - in stories that go beyond the scope of a single column, the consequences are a life sentence, one that keeps being added to when tiny rocks are piled daily into a basket that already contains heavier stones. And the woman is then instructed to carry it around, and to stay sweet and pleasant if she’s ever going to complain about it for fear of making men feel uncomfortable with her anger.
That’s why, although I do not believe most women want revenge, I could sort of understand it if they did. But I heard an interview with the Best Actress Oscar winner Frances McDormand in which, speaking about her character in the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she corrected an interviewer who said Mildred Hayes was bent on revenge.
“It’s not revenge, it’s justice,” McDormand said. “Justice is larger.”
She’s right. And while I’ll admit to the odd revenge fantasy (I watched the Oscars red carpet coverage while hissing, “Punch Ryan Seacrest. Do it, Allison Janney. Punch him. Tiffany Haddish? Anyone?” under my breath until my colleague looked at me sideways and I realised I was saying it out loud), it is true that only justice can destabilise the whole regime where women spend their lives being drained by a hundreds of thousands of tiny cuts.
Of course, consequences for those in power who have used that power to abuse must be part of that justice. But it cannot come about unless we also examine our own reactions and responses.
What are the lines we want to draw, in our discomfort, when the #MeToo campaign gets too close to home, when it touches people we like; people (unlike Harvey Weinstein, by the time of his ouster) who are still popular as well as powerful? How will we respond when #MeToo touches people we’ve enabled, or behaviours we ourselves have benefited from? Things we may even have said or done and are starting to feel conflicted about?
I’m not sick of consequences, especially since there have been very few of those yet. Some people misunderstand the usual lay of the land for those who are victims of sexual misconduct: traditionally, often the person speaking out was the only one to face consequences, and taking matters into their own hands has become the only way to have anyone take notice.
But we are expecting consequences for abusers out of systems that were not set up to penalise sexual misconduct - systems that have long enabled it, in fact, and are sometimes led and funded by those who perpetrate it. Those systems must change. That would be what justice looked like.
And so it seems that in this, the second year of The Reckoning, we are destined to sit a while longer in discomfort if we wish to get anything done. And I return to Frances McDormand for the challenge of what women can do this International Women’s Day, when she suggested in her acceptance speech that women who do have power make their acceptance of work conditional on bringing other women up with them.
For us in New Zealand - and for me, in the media, writing, and speaking circuits in which I work - that should always include sharing opportunities with women of colour, who have been marginalised by the culture of sexual misconduct and racism more deeply than we as white women have. Ignorance about whether other women are being paid the same or getting offered the same opportunities as us is no longer an excuse.
I am learning to do this, even if it means turning down work, pissing people off, or living in a state of flux and discomfort. It must mean finding fair but firm ways to question even the people and institutions and behaviours I have loved or grown accustomed to as normal.
It’s funny, isn’t it, that when men worry about an over-zealous thirst for revenge, they’re missing the real threat: that if we can mobilise, women and our allies, in this moment, then justice is coming. And that up-ending whirlwind, when we will be forced to reconsider every level of how we interact with each other as institutions and as people, is the part they should really be afraid of. It’s the part when we are able to put down the rocks we are carrying, without fear of more being added, and stand alongside them, unencumbered.
Charlotte Graham-McLay studied things audiences say in messages to women journalists for her Masters. You mostly don’t want to know. She is absolutely in favour of both breakfast and Helen Clark.