For the Ottawa Citizen on October 12, 2017
In the wake of allegations swirling around Harvey Weinstein, a powerful, dominant figure in Hollywood, where the emerging picture suggests decades of sexual predation, many women are finding their voice in this rare window for candid dialogue and raw confession.
The response from some of Hollywood’s leading men, however, has been a standard refrain, one that helps maintain the power dynamic which allows abuse to happen. When Matt Damon claims “as the father of four daughters,” Weinstein’s alleged behaviour is the sort of thing “that keeps me up at night,” he offers no hint of understanding the root of the problem.
On Wednesday, writing in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino explained how “one of the cruellest things about these acts is the way that they entangle, and attempt to contaminate, all of the best things about you … a powerful man sees you, a woman who is young and who thinks she might be talented, a person who conveniently exists in a female body, and he understands that he can tie your potential to your female body, and threaten the latter, and you will never be quite as sure of the former again.”
This is a familiar, abusive dynamic which exists far beyond Hollywood and touches every industry – though the menacing behaviour may not always be sexual in nature. No matter the method, abusing one’s power at the most personal level is about eroding the agency of women, ultimately assuming control and enforcing compliance by way of threats, coercion and humiliation.
When a woman’s talent resides in her physical abilities – the abuse some female athletes experience occurs on multiple, concurrent levels – that fallout, as noted above by Tolentino, is compounded. When a woman’s value and potential depends on a body that performs above all else, the relentless pursuit of a more-perfect – stronger, faster, leaner – physique inside a sport results in a body that doesn’t fit neatly outside of it, and the degradation met from either side of that divide ultimately ends in doubting and hating every aspect of oneself.
Anyone who understands the type and extent of damage done by deeply personal mistreatment will find the now-standard refrain when abuses comes to light – she’s someone’s sister/mother/daughter/wife – completely hollow.
It’s a line that reinforces the notion of a woman’s inherent worth being dependent on another’s evaluation: In this case, her importance centres around her direct relation to another. She can be more readily humanized and related to here because she fits squarely into some female box and afforded a basic value.
When Ben Affleck, in response to the allegations against Weinstein, (hypocritically) says he is “saddened and angry that a man who I worked with used his position of power to intimidate, sexually harass and manipulate many women over decades … we need to do better at protecting our sisters, friends, co-workers and daughters,” he is suggesting women are simply in urgent need of defending.
His response maintains the hierarchy and imbalance of power that fuels abuse, one where men reign supreme and women are always regarded as the lesser, weaker beings: easy prey.
The “she is someone’s” framing fails to recognize women as worthy of dignity and respect in their own right. Each woman is something apart from her body.
She is someone – period.
Women are doctors, lawyers, teachers and mentors. We are athletes and builders, academics and scholars. Yes, women are daughters and mothers and sisters; we are friends and partners, too. But we are fierce, capable individuals independent of any given familial, professional or intimate relationship.
Daughters don’t need a future of white-knight defending, they need an environment where their ideas, abilities and potential are allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. That requires effort from men in teaching their sons to do and be better than they were, while challenging fellow men, and toxic cultures, to change.
Rather than seeking ways to humanize women, men should ask why that effort is necessary at all, then determine their role in correcting that. This isn’t so much about your mothers, wives, sisters as it is about sons, brothers and fathers.