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#MeToo Backlash: The Triumph and Pitfalls of a Bold Movement

The new anti-sexual harassment fervor is fabulous, amazing, essential—but longtime feminist writer Sheila Weller says we should handle it with care. 

NEXTTRIBE FAVORITE Editor’s Note: On Feb. 15th, NextTribe marked its sixth anniversary. To celebrate this month, we are sharing our favorite articles from the 1,500 plus we’ve published so far. Sheila Weller has been an important and staunch supporter of NextTribe from the very beginning. But more than that, she has a great nose for news and always delivers powerful stories, like this clear-eyed assessment of #MeToo.


I’m a little nervous about what I am going to say—and the fact that I’m nervous maybe proves that I should say it after all. But there’s possibly some credence to the #MeToo backlash that has been going on. 

First of all, some bona fides: I’ve been a feminist writer for 40 years. I’ve written two books on women murdered by their husbands and a book on brutal rapes in an upscale community and on the preppy rapist who got away with them for years. I’ve written articles about heinously sexist custody case resolutions that stripped loving mothers of their children and on employment, medical, military, and legal-rights discrimination. I’ve told the stories of strippers and women in prostitution and in abusive cults who harrowingly slipped those bonds of oppression to help others out of the same dilemmas. And I’ve told many true stories of women and girls who were molested or harassed by powerful family members or friends.

The fact that I’m nervous [about writing this] maybe proves that I should say it after all.

So, of course, like everyone else, I was disgusted, outraged, riveted, and obsessed by the Harvey Weinstein saga, with his burgeoning number of victims—famous, beautiful women we assumed had power—coming out day by day by day; by the shouldn’t-be-startling-but-it-was truth that so, so many people knew about Weinstein’s revolting abuses and bullying; and by the details of how he got away with it for so long.

The new movement that has risen, phoenix-like, in the wake of this revolting and compelling story—#MeToo and the fresh, intense, righteous attention paid to sexual harassment—is more than heartening: it’s necessary. We’re seeing how many, many women have suffered sexual harassment and realizing how forcefully we must attack it as an issue now. Aligned with a feminism that’s been growing in Hollywood for several years, now, as well as the across-America “bad-ass feminism” that erupted gloriously in the post-Inaugural women’s marches, this movement seems here to stay. And here to make a difference.

So 300 cheers for this great new fervor. But . . . a few words of bitten-lip caution, too. When a movement gets rolling this hard so fast, especially in the (excuse the cliché) social media age, there can be a touch of unintended blindness and intolerance attached to it. Not to rain on its parade, but what follows are some cautionary thoughts. 

Read More: Minimizing #MeToo: Behind the She Said Oscar Snub

Let’s be careful that this cause sparked by glamorous movie stars is not unintentionally elitist, and let’s remember its roots.

Jacki Lyden, globe-traveling reporter and longtime NPR correspondent, wrote a long Facebook post that made a lot of sense. I quote from it with her permission.

I am somewhat on the fence about the #MeToo campaign. Yes, it highlights the ubiquity of female harassment, but aren’t we extending it mainly to people who HAVE social media accounts, . . . who hold high-profile jobs or write books or head agencies . . . ? I don’t hold that against people; I’ve been those things myself. [But] aren’t we overwhelmingly White and educated? What about all those who don’t have these accounts, who don’t speak English, who are chattel, who were sold into sex trafficking, etc.?

Excellent point. In answer to which it might be time to recall that the person who made workplace sexual harassment federal law was a woman named Mechelle Vinson, whose travails were far from a red carpet life. Vinson, a woman of color, had been physically and emotionally abused by her father throughout her childhood. She escaped him by marrying at 15, but the man who promised to protect her beat her regularly. When, in 1974, at 18, Vinson left him to become a teller at a Washington D.C. bank, the bank’s manager, an ex-Army sergeant in his 40s, took her to dinner and said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll destroy you.” Thus began four years of forced sex and terror.

The person who made workplace sexual harassment federal law was a woman named Mechelle Vinson, whose travails were far from a red carpet life.

I interviewed Vinson about 12 years ago, and she was lovely and gracious enough to be a Miramax actress, but her life had been hell. “I came to believe it was my fate to be abused,” she told me. With herculean strength and two outstanding female lawyers, Patricia Barry and the renowned Catharine MacKinnon, she battled her truth all the way up to the Supreme Court, and on an early summer day in 1986, she prevailed, winning a unanimous 9-to-0 (you heard that right) decision after eight years of court battles. “I’m so grateful I was part of the change, but it’s just beginning,” Vinson told me. “We still have a lot to do, teaching our sons to respect women, and teaching our daughters: ‘Let no one treat you that way.’”

I’ll tag #MeToo (even though I have been lucky, or weird, enough to have experienced very little sexual harassment). But I’d rather have a T-shirt with Vinson’s lovely face and inspiring words on it.

Let’s be sisterly with women who dare deviate from the party line.

#MeToo Backlash: The Triumph and Pitfalls of a Bold Movement | NextTribe

What is Gwyneth thinking here? We have an idea now.

Lisa Bloom signed on as Weinstein’s “counselor”—OK, let’s be honest, spin doctor—and she was immediately ripped a new one by feminist professionals. How could a lawyer who defended abused women defend a serial abuser? My immediate feeling was that the complaint wasn’t fair. When I did a piece last year on feminist attorney Susan Estrich’s defending Roger Ailes, I talked to female defense attorneys who were furious at the sexist double standard. Male defense attorneys could defend anyone needy of defense, even if they personally disagreed with them; women had to stay in their gender or sympathy lanes. How patronizing!

But when it turned out that Bloom advocated showing photos of Weinstein with his victims looking friendly with him, I changed course and stopped feeling bad that she was dumped upon. Still, my sympathy shot back up when she immediately resigned from Weinstein’s team and then said, two or three or four times, what a mistake it had been for her to have worked for him in the first place. I felt she had been hurt by the constant attacks on her integrity—most of them from women.

When Donna Karan made an unfortunate remark that Weinstein’s victims may have dressed too provocatively, I made a shame-on-Donna! Facebook post, and more than 100 incensed friends, mostly female, furiously agreed as they did on many other critical posts as well. Well, it turns out that Karan had been questioned after an exhausting, 14-hour plane trip, did not know what had come out about Weinstein (accusations she had not heard about before), and, instead of wisely saying she was in no position to comment, apparently mainly called him “wonderful” in regard to his philanthropy. Does a poor choice of words undo 40 years of empowering women through a wildly popular clothing line that addressed their needs, as well as major philanthropy for AIDS, ovarian cancer, and complementary medicine for the very ill?

It turns out that Karan had been questioned after an exhausting, 14-hour plane trip and did not know what had come out about Weinstein.

Finally, Mayim Bialik, an actress I had never heard of, wrote a New York Times Op Ed opining that her conservative dress—she was raised as a religious Jew—may have helped her escape the harassment so prevalent in her field. The essay was leapt upon as prissy and “blame-the-victim!” even though Bialik said in it that women should be able to dress however they want. “Why are we the ones who have to police our behavior?” she asked.

Still, the outcry against her was so deafening that she posted a Twitter apology profuse enough to have been on bended knee: “I am truly sorry for causing so much pain, and I hope you can all forgive me.”  She had the right to her opinion, and the opinion could have been a valuable door-opener to a frank, pragmatic conversation about avoiding sexual harassment. Instead, it sounded to me like she was berated into humiliation and retreat.

Sisterhood is powerful (sorry for that old saw) when women are given wide berth for unorthodox opinions, employment choices, and mistakes. Let’s keep an open-opinion door policy regarding sexual harassment—it’s a fuzzy area to begin with. Is every cretinous male who comes on to you a harasser equal in trauma-rendering potential to a near rapist—or, as with the famous banana line, isn’t sometimes a creep just a creep?

Let’s cut the ingratiating and confessing guys a little slack.

What seems to be happening in this movement is the bar keeps getting higher. So a few guys like Matt Damon wrote Twitter posts that “as a father of daughters,” they were especially upset or newly enlightened on the issue. “Stop Mentioning Your Daughters When Denouncing Harvey Weinstein,” wrote The Cut’s Hunter Harris. Harris had a good—and wittily stated—point: “Having a daughter shouldn’t be a requirement for internalizing the problems of working within a sexist industry. Your wives gave birth to a baby girl, not a moral compass.”

The opinions of men and women are affected by their children (and their mates, and their friends, and their colleagues).

But men and women are affected by their children (and their mates, and their friends, and their colleagues). Damon—and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who referred to his three daughters in saying he would turn back Weinstein campaign donations—“meant well,” as our mothers would say of someone who gave us a corny present.

Others—like Quentin Tarantino, with his I-knew-then-but-didn’t-tell-and-I’m sorry: not so much. Is he truly remorseful now for keeping a secret about apparent abuse of a woman, even though such convenient secret-keeping was the rule of the game back then? Or might he be pre-empting another potentially damaging article? Hard to tell—but better late than never.

The dude who told it most powerfully—and his post went viral—is screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, who admitted of the perks of working for Weinstein: “[W]e really, really, really, really LIKED them eggs” [the awards, the status]. “So we were willing to overlook what the Golden Goose was up to, in the murky shadows behind the barn . . . And for that, I am eternally sorry. To all of the women that had to suffer this . . . I am eternally sorry.”

No other ‘rights’ cause—except gay marriage and transgenderism—has been heightened as much over the past several decades as what constitutes sexual abuse.

For perspective: No other “rights” cause—except gay marriage and transgenderism—has been heightened as much over the past several decades as what constitutes sexual abuse. In 1997, a virginal girl who was violently raped by a schoolmate who drove her home from a party could only be considered a credible witness-stand victim if she hadn’t had a single sip of beer at the preceding party and hadn’t called her father first to try to get him to pick her up. Today, a young woman can have several hook-ups with a guy but if, during a mutual session of physical affection, even if she had been drinking, she said “no” and he refused to or didn’t hear it, he is deemed a rapist, pure and simple. In exchange for this higher credibility of the rights of women, let’s cut the guys a little slack—not too much, and not where it counts (i.e., power, lying, complicity). But with ham-handed expressions of sympathy and guilt for silence—yes.

If it’s true—and it sure feels true—that Weinstein was get-able now (but never before) because his success and power have been eroded, then let’s make a vow to go after the still-powerful perpetrators, too.

It seems pretty much the case that Hollywood, like other realms (surprise!), has a lot of people who are motivated by self-interest and who aren’t interested in being dispensable martyrs who will “never work again” because they tried to bring a bad guy to justice and failed miserably against his expensive team of lawyers and his deep connections.

If we only go after those who are safely slipping from their pinnacles, we will never lance this epidemic hiding in clear sight.  

Well, just as the bar for talking about sexual harassment is being raised, the standards for bravery in the face of it should be raised as well. There are other bad guys out there—powerful, intimidating ones in all fields. If we only go after those who are safely slipping from their pinnacles, we will never lance this epidemic hiding in clear sight.  

Harmony Grillo spent sad, humiliating years as a stripper and then got her MSW from UCLA. She later founded an organization, Treasures, that has gently and effectively helped thousands of trafficked girls and women get out of the “life,” achieve self-esteem, and disempower their abusers. I once did a bus ride-along with Grillo as she and her fellow ex-strippers visited tawdry clubs all over L.A. and left “You are worthy!” presents in the dressing rooms of women so ravaged by defeat and self-deprecation that they were used to having coins thrown at them while they pole-danced and vomiting after lap dances with revolting men. All of this to support their children.

Harmony and her colleagues have nurtured these wounded women enough for them to leave or fight back against their powerful “clients” and pimps. She says, “It is endlessly inspiring to see how empowered a ’powerless’ woman can be when she has a revelation of her true worth and value. This, coupled with a healthy support system, has enabled countless women to walk away from their abusers and exploiters and break the chains of sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse.”

‘It is endlessly inspiring to see how empowered a “powerless” woman can be when she has a revelation of her true worth and value.’

I love that major female movie stars/producers like Reese Witherspoon are feeling “unalone” for the first time by sharing their secrets. I am not being the slightest bit sarcastic: Their heartfelt confessions unburdened them and lifted all ships.

But Grillo’s words about the despondent, resourceless women she’s helped rescue (many of them kicking violent men to the curb in the process) sends a stronger message: With enough determination and bravery, a supposedly low-on-the-totem-pole person in any industry, legitimate or maligned, can defeat the abuse of a powerful man—or bring it from shadow to light. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And that’s a worthy—and now necessary—goal.

Read More: Assault, #MeToo, and Despicable Men: We Talk with E. Jean Carroll

A version of this article was originally published in October 2017.

By Sheila Weller


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