How #MeToo is causing a profound change in public consciousness

by The Listener / 08 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - #MeToo Golden Globes

Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd attend the 75th Golden Globe Awards in black on January 8. Photo/Getty Images

History will record the period when women began dealing with the Jerk Problem as a sort of landslide. It began as a moving scree of isolated events, such as singer Taylor Swift’s successful action against a radio jock who groped her in 2013. Then came rockfall: the largest single-day march in American history to protest the election of Donald Trump, who in an historic tape had boasted about groping women’s genitals. And at last the ground under misogynistic creeps began truly collapsing: an avalanche was triggered by Rose McGowan giving the first of many accounts of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of bullying and sexually blackmailing women.

The #MeToo campaign – which has inspired the women of Hollywood to dress in black at this year’s Golden Globe Awards – began to give voice to long pent-up, painful realities. Time magazine went on to make McGowan and the other pioneering silence-breakers its Person of the Year. This is not a witch-hunt or a clickbait fest and these are not just a few sex scandals that will melt away. We’re witnessing a cathartic stock-take, a profound change in public consciousness.

In essence, as British writer Julie Burchill says, #MeToo has made abusers chillingly aware that their female victims are now empowered and unafraid to speak. The fear has been relocated to men, where it belongs. Many of those who offended sexually will now be experiencing sleepless nights, “waiting for the knock on the door and the police car in the street”.

A further difference: women who speak of sexual abuse or harassment are being believed. There’s no “what were you wearing/drinking?” or “can’t you take a joke/a bit of flirting?”. These women are not speaking out through spite or for attention. It has taken courage and self-sacrifice to turn this tide. And let’s not overlook that men, too, have spoken of suffering from abuse and sexual blackmail.

Lest people look at the grotesque behaviour of the Weinsteins of this world and say, “Not guilty!”, we should consider the welcome words of Sir Peter Jackson, who has recognised that, like many silent, unquestioning men, he was part of the problem. Jackson admits, and now regrets, that he capitulated to Weinstein’s alleged advice to rule out two supposedly “nightmare” actresses he’d wanted to employ. Men who did not abuse their power are starting to recognise their complicity in simply standing by while other men did.

We’ve had intimations before that society protects the famous and powerful who abuse underlings and fans. We now know entertainers Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile to be the tip of the iceberg. Repeated acts of molestation and paedophilia were knowingly overlooked, including by public institutions; vile and blatantly criminal behaviour was excused and these men were feted and honoured.

As American writer F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, the rich are different: their wealth, fame or glamour makes them more subject to moral hazard. It’s been #MeToo’s landmark achievement to sweep away the protection of such prestige. However, we mustn’t see this as simply a clean-out of Augean stables in showbiz or politics. Every reader will know where the everyday bullies and abusers, current and historical, lurk in their circles. And as the successful pre-Christmas prosecution of Dunedin’s Murray Kannewischer, 85, for the sexual violation of six schoolgirls between 1963 and 1983, reassures us, it may not be too late to go after the worst of them.

There will be prominent New Zealand men fearful right now that confidentiality agreements will be breached by angry victims of past workplace harassment. It’s true that behaviour at work has improved. Women need no longer tolerate unwelcome touching, Playboy calendars and crude abuse excused as “laddish” behaviour. Yet women still suffer insidious put-downs. Few females in leadership roles have not been publicly attacked, usually by insecure males, as unlikeable – “bossy” and “a bitch” while men are seen as“decisive”. The sniping extends even to our Prime Minister.

It is extraordinary that, even now, the writer the NZ Herald chose to interview Jacinda Ardern before Christmas is notorious for his deeply disparaging comments about women – including publicly using terms such as “bitches” and “c---”.

#MeToo is not about demonising all men. But it is about challenging and changing the course of human history. The acceptance in principle of female equality has been with us only since last century. In practice, it’s still a flickering flame. It needs much more oxygen – but not merely to fuel a righteous bonfire of such celebrities as Weinstein. We all need to speak out against creeps.

This is an edited version of an article first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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