Control of our destinies

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Control of our destinies

On #MeToo & who is to blame

Sam Mills

In the aftermath of #MeToo, as famous men were falling and backlash gaining lash, Melanie Phillips denounced the movement in a piece for The Times: ‘Female emancipation was all about giving women control over their own destinies. Now they have that control, they are presenting themselves once again as powerless victims of male oppression, even whilst benefitting from being presented as sex objects.’1

It is a horrible, fascinating sentence; there is much to unpack. I disagree with many elements of Phillips’ argument, but the term that snags my interest is ‘control over their own destinies’ and the confident assumption, ‘Now they have that control…’. It implies that modern women live entirely by free will, without the fateful interferences of society, patriarchy, culture, politics, biology and so on.

When it comes to the old-age free will versus determinism debate, I am a compatibilist: I believe in both existing simultaneously. As we look at a history of gender, it is true that the average woman in 2021 (in parts of the West, at least) enjoys far greater freedoms than women have had in the past. In Ancient Rome, for example, a married woman who had an affair would be forced to wear a toga as a shameful punishment. Women’s dress signified both class and morality: a respectable married woman wore a stola (a long dress), while a prostitute wore a toga. During the Middle Ages, a woman who was eager to learn to write and read might have found herself thwarted by her father because men were hostile to the idea of female literacy. In the late Victorian era, a woman might have had an unfulfillable desire to vote in government elections, frustrated by the government’s refusal to respond to the demands of suffragists. A woman in 1928, attempting to enter the library at a male college in Cambridge might have found herself ushered away by a gentleman who would have advised her that ‘Ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College.’2 A woman in the 1930s who found herself falling pregnant outside marriage might well have ended up losing her child and being put into an asylum. A woman in the 1950 or 1960s might have found herself stirred by reading The Feminine Mystique, tired of being defined purely by the domestic, only to find that her doctor had prescribed her Valium to repress her restlessness. A woman in the 1970s might have worked in an office and put in zealous hours only to discover she was earning less than a male colleague doing the same job as her.

These examples – a scattering from history – illustrate that women born in previous decades, previous centuries, lacked control of their destiny. Their lives were controlled by society, and a woman’s ability to decide her future – in areas of work, education, voting, choice of partner, divorce and childcare – was corseted compared to the comparable freedoms that men had.

By contrast, today’s women have it all, apparently. The freedom to gain an education, to embark on a career, to marry whom they choose, to share childcare, to divorce, to gain custody of the children. One might imagine that, in the era before #MeToo, the strident modern woman that Phillips envisages should be able to handle a sexual-harassment scenario with a slap on the face and a shrug. After all, it’s easy, right? You put the man in his place, and you take control of your destiny. You go to HR. You lodge a complaint. You get the man fired. You carry on working as before. Easy.

The #MeToo movement illustrated that this ideal was a fantasy for many women, from those who worked with Weinstein in Hollywood, to the Ford factory in Chicago where women such as Christie Van and Miyoshi Morris had to endure men groping them, masturbating before them, propositioning them and subjecting them to racial abuse.

But if – prior to #MeToo and the revelations in the New York Times – women were unable to defeat Weinstein, was it because they positioned themselves as ‘victims’? Was it, to quote Camille Paglia, because they took us ‘back to the Victorian archetypes of early silent films, where twirling villains tied damsels in distress to railroad tracks’?3 Was it the case that the women involved committed the ‘sin’ of passivity and then whined about it when they could have steered their destinies in a different direction and actively dealt with his transgressions and assaults, transmogrifying the culture around them?

Lauren O’Connor is one example of a woman who attempted to fight back. O’Connor worked at The Weinstein Company as a literary scout. In 2015, after witnessing the distress of a young woman who had been assaulted by Weinstein, she wrote a searing memo reporting on the ‘toxic environment to women’ at Miramax. After she sent the memo to HR, she was asked not to come back to the office. She was offered an NDA for her exit and silence.

The actor Salma Hayek worked with Weinstein when his company produced a film, Frida, she had written and was starring in. She refused to give in to Weinstein’s demands for massages and sex, and the result was that Weinstein spent years cajoling her or flying into rages; on one occasion, he threatened to kill her. He also sought to crush her film project, and it was only her formidable willpower and dynamism that enabled her to push the project through – though not without being degraded from actress to porn star and forced to film an unnecessary lesbian sex scene which was not even in the script. Hayek, aware that she was filming purely for Weinstein’s private titillation, threw up beforehand. She found herself ‘convulsing and crying’ and had to take a tranquillizer to get through the scene.

Ambra Gutierrez was the closest any woman came to prosecuting Weinstein before his eventual prosecution on charges of third-degree rape and a first-degree criminal sex act in 2020. After Weinstein tried to force himself on her during an initial meeting in 2015, she took control of her destiny. She contacted the New York police, who persuaded her to work with them on a sting operation. Wearing a wire, she met with Weinstein, who apologized for his behaviour – while also trying to coax her into a room at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. The police did not prosecute, and Weinstein launched a vicious smear campaign against her, the media running pictures of her in lingerie alongside headlines such as ‘She tried to score a movie role with him, sources claim’ (New York Post, 2 April 2015). She was depicted as a model who was desperate for fame who had used Weinstein as a vehicle to get there; effectively, the media painted her as a prostitute. We’re back in the norms of Ancient Rome again, where the shamed ‘respectable’ woman is forced to wear a toga in public. Gutierrez was forced into exile; her career stalled for some years. Her attempts to take control of her destiny were derailed by more powerful forces beyond her control, and when she was finally redeemed, this was also the result of a cultural shift that took place, a new willingness to listen to her story.

In a 2018 public debate titled ‘Has the #MeToo Movement Gone Too Far?’, Melanie Phillips argued for the motion alongside Germaine Greer. She declared that many of the women who worked with Weinstein enjoyed stellar careers and only discovered their ‘consciences’ when he was no longer ‘useful’ to them. (At the end of the evening, a vote was taken where the audience voted against Phillips and Greer, favouring Baroness Helena Kennedy and Sophie Lewis). But far from gaining momentum in their career, numerous women suffered serious setbacks as a result of repulsing Weinstein’s advances. Rosanna Arquette rejected Weinstein in the early 1990s. He greeted her in bathrobe, penis erect, and demanded a massage; when she refused, he told her that she was making ‘a big mistake’. Arquette realized the price she’d have to pay: ‘Got down the elevator. By the time I got to the bottom, the lobby, I had a completely different career.’ The roles quickly dried up. The same fate hit Daryl Hannah and Annabella Sciorra after they resisted him. Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino were two women who ‘took control’ and said no to Weinstein. The result? Peter Jackson has reported that the two actresses fell out of the running for parts in The Lord of the Rings after Miramax subsequently smeared them, telling Jackson they were a nightmare to work with.

The ‘control of their destinies’ argument also fails to consider the well-documented prevalence of PTSD in women who suffer assault. In a simplistic, cinematic fantasy of a woman standing up to Weinstein, we might envisage the victim behaving like a heroine in a Tarantino flick: kicking him in the balls before storming out with an empowered swagger. But this fails to recognize that assault often evokes a biological response where the victim doesn’t fight or run but freezes up. It is a response beyond the victim’s control: in such situations, the amygdala, part of the limbic system, takes over the decision-making, causing a ‘frozen’ response that is instinctive rather than coolly rational. The question of why did ‘the women stay silent for so long’ can also be understood in the context of trauma. The part of the brain that forms words is known as Broca’s area. When someone is ‘triggered’, there is less blood flow to this area of the brain. This results in less ability to communicate and speak out.

Current attacks on women who failed to fight or speak up remind me of the way that men were treated when they came back from the First World War. Their shell shock was initially downplayed and derided because in the public imagination the men ought to have returned as jolly war heroes rather than wrecked and distraught souls suffering hallucinations and the shakes. As we come to understand more about trauma, however, we realize that for those who suffer PTSD – whether men on the battlefield or women suffering assault – the body keeps their score. Evan Rachel Wood, who recently spoke of her abuse at the hands of her ex, Marilyn Manson, reported that ‘So often we speak of these assaults as no more than a few minutes of awfulness, but the scars last a lifetime. … Even though these experiences happened a decade ago, I still struggle with the aftermath.’ She also reported that she was raped again, later in life, by another perpetrator: ‘Because of this abuse … when I was pushed onto the floor of a locked storage closet by another attacker after hours at a bar, my body instinctively knew what to do: Disappear, go numb, make it go away. Being abused and raped previously made it easier for me to be raped again, not the other way around.’

Those with PTSD, caged by grief and stress, may be unable to act freely and ‘take control’. But to suggest this makes them weak or whingeing demonstrates a considerable lack of wisdom and compassion.

*

Memoir is currently in vogue. The fake-news era of Trump has created an appetite for authentic stories: for windows into other worlds, for a range of voices, for learning about the experiences of people of different sexes, sexuality, races, cultures, classes, religions. #MeToo was a movement of memoir. It was a spontaneous gathering of first-person stories, each like a patchwork square that knitted together to form a pattern of experience. Memoir booms may emerge as the result of shifts in cultural consciousness. During the 1990s, following the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings, memoir dealing with themes of trauma became a hugely popular genre. (Indeed, Hill and Thomas both published memoirs themselves about the hearings.) But, as Leigh Gilmour notes, the genre has evolved towards self-help. The type of memoir that has recently become popular is the redemptive one: the rags-to-riches protagonist who survives abuse and/or difficulties to succeed against the odds or who finds fulfilment through their own efforts. She cites books such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as books where:

Unlike testimonials that bear witness to human rights abuses and are more directly political in their aims, the neo-confessional genre primarily bears witness to personal pain that can be overcome and redeemed. By locating the cause, experience, and the end of suffering within the framework of the individual rather than in the histories of violence that require political critique and legal and social remedies, and that compel readers to negotiate acts of witnessing, neoliberal life narratives displace the analysis of wrongdoing away from questions of justice.4

Such stories are about beating the odds, the system, instead of considering that the system might be flawed and in need of reform. As a result, the emphasis narrows down to individual agency. Such stories may confirm the capitalist fairy tale of the American Dream, whereby anyone can succeed against the odds despite all obstacles and hindrances. We love such feel-good stories because we love the idea of free will, of someone seizing control of their destiny, giving us the inspiration to feel that we can transcend anything holding us back.

Some recent studies in neuroscience suggest that free will may be an illusion. The genes we are born with dictate our futures; thus, human beings seem to be trapped in behavioural algorithms, leopards who cannot change their spots. This is another argument that has been used to justify the impossibility of #MeToo ever making an impact. It is the antithesis of Phillips’ argument, and it tends to be applied to men. While women are being berated for not having sufficient control, free will, and agency, some men, on the other hand, are furiously quick to declare that male behaviour cannot suddenly change or adapt to the movement. I spotted it in a response to a New York Times article about men changing in response to #MeToo, where one man, who seemed genuinely regretful of male behaviour, stated in the comments below that it would involve undoing thousands of years of biological tendencies. Men are hardwired, the argument goes, to hunt, to court, to seize and grab. They are even hardwired to rape, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer declared in 2000, when they published A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. Rape evolved as an ‘alternative dating strategy’, they argued, concluding that, ‘We fervently believe that, just as the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck are the result of aeons of past Darwinian selection’5 (like I said, leopard’s spots can’t be changed…) Therefore, contemporary rape-prevention policies were doomed to fail, and women needed to adapt to men’s original sin by dressing demurely and not going out in the dark.

However, numerous scientists have pointed out the flaws in this. After all, if rape has evolutionary advantages, then why do men rape children, or other men? Such tendencies would surely have been eliminated in the course of evolution as they didn’t confer reproductive advantage on our ancestors. Furthermore, studies have shown that rapists are not commonly motivated by sexual deprivation; they tend to have more consensual partners than other men; and married rapists are just as likely to have active sex lives with their wives.

The subtext of these sexist science arguments is often that women can’t expect any better from men so we’ve just got to put up with bad behaviour, or – as Thornhill and Palmer argue – that, because it is innate, women are the ones who have to adapt by dressing more modestly. Equally, it is offensive to men, suggesting they are animalistic beasts who cannot control their hardwired lustful instincts. Cordelia Fine defines this fallacy as the pseudoscience of neurosexism. Our gender wiring is soft, not hard: ‘it is flexible, malleable and changeable.’ Scientist Lise Eliot also explains that ‘All such skills are learned and neuro-plasticity – the modifications of neurons and their connections in response to experience – trumps hard-wiring every time.’ Therefore, what science does tell us is that we do not have to shrug our shoulders and put up with a society in which assault or abuse are inevitable. Biology is malleable, and culture is ever-changing.

*

Let us take look at the second argument in Phillips’ claim: that women ‘are presenting themselves once again as powerless victims of male oppression, even whilst benefitting from being presented as sex objects’. This is another point that is bandied about a lot in the backlash against #MeToo. Phillips is (presumably) referring to Hollywood stars, to the tradition of the casting couch, to the glitter and glamour of Cannes where actresses sport glamorous dresses (and men, too, let us note, wear gorgeous tuxedos).

Douglas Murray presents a similar argument in The Madness of Crowds, which kicks off with an epigraph that quotes the sexy lyrics of the Nicki Minaj song ‘Anaconda’. He highlights the hypocrisy of a society that glorifies a pop star singing a come-and-get-it song one minute and then vilifies men for attempting to come and get it the next. It is true that society does tend to give females growing up two contradictory messages: on the one hand, be sexy, flaunt it, be thin (but not too thin), buy this expensive mascara, do all you can to look as gorgeous as this airbrushed model in this glossy women’s magazine; and, on the other, be frightened of men, learn self-defence, carry a rape alarm, never risk going out after dark. These two messages echo an ancient whore/virgin mentality, and we can look back and find it in Roman society, in the toga/stola division, where prostitutes and married women dressed in these outfits for the benefit of men – so that they knew how to classify them.

But where are these messages coming from? Who is controlling the narrative? Murray and Phillips fail to acknowledge that Hollywood and the music industry are largely run by male power and shaped by their fantasies; as Rose McGowan sums up, Hollywood is a ‘white male’s playground’. Keira Knightley recently declared that she would no longer film sex scenes unless the director was female, tired of shooting scenes where everyone is ‘greased and grunting’ and portraying ‘the male gaze’. She also makes the key point: ‘We all empathize with men hugely because, culturally, their experience is so explored. We know so many aspects of even male sexuality. But we don’t feel like men can say, “Yes, I understand what you’re talking about because I’ve got this wealth of art and film and theatre and TV from your point of view.”’ Back to Douglas Murray and Nicki Minaj. If one reversed the sexes in his argument, I’m sure he would realize how absurd it sounds and suddenly find himself sympathetic to those harassed. The entertainment and music industries do not just sexualize women, they also thrive on capitalizing on female desire for attractive men, whether the lusts of teenage girls for boy bands such as One Direction or female filmgoers for charismatic Hollywood heartthrobs such as Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John David Washington, Chris Pine and so on who draw in audiences to the box office. Around 17 per cent of harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are made by men. If a man working in an office is subject to harassment by a female boss, his claim cannot be undermined by the argument that, because Aidan Turner strips off and looks delicious when he plays Ross Poldark, creating immense confusion in women watching, this means that women must therefore demean, assault and rape men, and therefore it is ‘society’s fault’ for sending out such contradictory messages. Women do not deserve to suffer assault simply because Nicki Minaj sings songs that include lyrics such as ‘look at her butt’. Otherwise, we are back in the arena of suggesting that it is men who lack free will or the ability to control their destinies, that they are helpless devourers of sexual images in the media and cannot resist acting on them, that they are not discerning enough to separate art/fantasy from life.

The subject being debated here is really one of responsibility. Most of these arguments are about placing blame: on the extreme right, there is victim-blaming and slut-shaming; and on the extreme left, men are vilified as toxic to the core. Neither is satisfactory, and both tend to ignore the nuances and complexities of #MeToo in favour of sweeping generalizations and a lack of research, which might make for good newspaper copy but only serves to turn the movement into a polarized black-and-white, for/against, he said/she said debate. Clearly, both men and women have a responsibility to communicate well on a date as to what they want and where their boundaries lie. The #MeToo scandals at The Weinstein Company and Ford, however, demonstrate that within the workplace female voices were ignored or vilified, whether they were women who complained to HR, whether they were women who said ‘No’ to Weinstein but found he wilfully interpreted this a ‘Yes’, whether they were women who ended up silenced by signing NDAs or women who were demonized for standing up for themselves, such as Christie Van being sneered at as a ‘black snitch bitch’. Taking control of your destiny – and stopping harassment from happening – also requires a cultural backdrop of support, respect and recognition, a shift in social attitudes. And that is why #MeToo had to happen.

1 Melanie Phillips, ‘MeToo Feminism Is Victim Culture, Not Courage’, The Times, 5 February 2018 Available at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/metoo-feminism-is-victim-culture-not-courage-lh0gmd3pn

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf (Hogarth Press, 1929)

3 Camille Paglia, “Camille Paglia on Movies, #MeToo and Modern Sexuality: Endless, Bitter Rancor Lies Ahead”, Hollywood Reporter, 27 February 2018. Available at https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/camille-paglia-movies-metoo-modern-sexuality-endless-bitter-rancor-lies-1088450

4 Leigh Gilmour, Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about their Lives, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p.101.

5 R. Thornhill and C.T.Palmer, ‘Why Men Rape’, New York Academy of Sciences(January/February 2000), https://www.csus.edu/indiv/m/merlinos/thornhill.html

About the author

Sam Mills studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University and worked as a journalist and publicist before becoming a full-time writer.

Her debut novel for adults, The Quiddity of Will Self, was described by The Sunday Times as ‘an ingenious, energetic read’ and by the Guardian as ‘extraordinary’. Her literary memoir of caring for her father, Fragments of My Father, was published by Fourth Estate in May 2020.

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