Mayim Bialik and the trouble with #MeToo (opinion)

On Sunday night, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a suggestion. ”If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Within hours, the hashtag #metoo was trending. By Monday morning, hundreds of thousands of women had said “me too.” Me too.

Perhaps Milano’s plan has worked. If you are a man and you log on to Twitter today, perhaps you’ll now learn that sexual pestering, sexual blackmail, sexual assault — the full gamut — are everyday concerns for the women around you.

Although one wonders. Perhaps no woman in your life has felt comfortable telling you this in the past. Perhaps you’ve never noticed it for yourself. Are you going to have your mind changed by the latest trending hashtag?

Perversely, however, the #metoo hashtag also puts the onus on women to dispense with our own privacy. If we’ve learned anything from the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which kicked off this fortnight’s international introspection on gender and power, it should be that victims of sexual harassment have always had good reasons to keep quiet.

For most of us, that hasn’t changed since Weinstein’s fall. I’m a writer, and the men who have harassed me are still senior sources in politics, are still well-lawyered, and still hold established positions at newspapers where I freelance. When I mention harassment but decline to name names, I am bombarded with accusations that my silence is complicity.

It’s easier still not to speak, not to tweet.

Women, especially those of us with a media platform, will have to figure out over the next few months how to have this conversation. If we do strip off our Band-Aids and tell our stories in their own gruesome detail, we may need to build a new culture of personal journalism. Throughout international media, women are consistently pushed towards confessional first-person writing — sometimes under the guise of “lifestyle journalism.” And like all sectors dominated by women — nursing, teaching — personal journalism is often a low-status pathway that rarely leads to a high-profile career.

Since writing about Harvey Weinstein last week, I’ve been bombarded with requests to write about my experiences of sexual harassment. But I’d rather be known for my insights into Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, or the history of British nationalism. Perhaps I’m wrong to feel this way, but I do.

Harvey Weinstein is a symptom, but what is the deeper problem?
Meanwhile, those women who do speak out face being shouted down — including by other women. The actress Mayim Bialik wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this week, in which she described the discomfort of life in Hollywood as “a prominent-nosed, awkward, geeky, Jewish 11-year-old.” The backlash was immediate.
Like many readers, I also bridled at her suggestion that women who “dress modestly” are less likely to encounter sexual harassment. Women should never respond to culture’s sexualization of the female body by further fetishizing it, but nor should we shift the burden of responsibility from male predators to women’s clothing choices. (Are they even choices? Here in the UK, high heels are compulsory in some workplaces; airline hostess have strict, sexualizing dress codes.)

But it was depressing to see many women — hurt, angry and raw after a week of re-traumatizing headlines — turn their anger on another woman who had taken the risk of sharing her experience in public.

I wondered if the left would have been so vitriolic had such a piece been written by a woman of conservative Muslim birth in defense of the hijab, instead of from the perspective of an Orthodox Jew. Since the rise of anti-hijab legislation by rightwing governments in Europe, showing tolerance for the tradition of Islamic “modesty” dressing has become a point of pride for the European left.

Perhaps we all, whatever our backgrounds, need to talk more about the gulf between what our clothes say about us and what we’d like them to say about us. Can any woman always get it right?

Mayim Bialik’s piece was marked by a refusal to see herself as a victim — an instinct expressed by many of the women who have resisted the feminist mainstream’s talk of mass sexual harassment or dismissed them as scare stories. But we are most empowered by facing up to the scale of the problem and forcing change. If you’re lengthening your hemlines to stop your boss groping you — or if you don a hijab in order to be accepted as a good girl — you’re still a victim.

Victims of sexual harassment have always shared our experiences underground. If you’re a straight, powerful man, that’s probably why you haven’t heard them: This is a privilege exclusive to the networks of the powerless.

In theater, in which I also work, conversations are growing about big names in the West End and Broadway who abuse their power as Weinstein did his. I’d heard plenty of stories about a particular male artistic director who pressures female assistants for sex.

But a few months ago, I was surprised to learn that a large network of young men also whisper stories about a powerful gay artistic director who prefers to prey on men. I was introduced to a whole world of stories by a young male relative; otherwise, I never might have known. For the first time, I realized what it is to have been oblivious to a bubble of whispers. Powerless women talk to women; powerless men talk to men.

We are beginning to make these secret stories public. A number of outlets are publicizing new ways for employees to share their tips about powerful abusers in their industries, and more exposés are coming. But we will need to find ways to minimize the burden on individuals while also allowing those who do want to share individual stories to do so.

It will require empathy. It will require men and women to listen, not shout, to the Mayim Bialiks of the world whose analyses do not match our own. A hashtag will not solve any of this. But it may give us courage to take the next steps.

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