The real revolutions are the ones that you never see coming. Just ask Czar Nicholas II or Marie Antoinette.
Or Harvey Weinstein.
Our October Revolution of 2017 is rapidly becoming the greatest social upheaval of the young 21st century: We are witnessing an all-out assault on the Bastille-like fortress of male domination, patriarchy, and the sexual reign of terror that has come with that. The proverbial heads are rolling from Hollywood to Washington to Madison Avenue faster than a French guillotine, circa 1793.
The realization that we’ve crossed an epic tipping point came on a chilly Friday afternoon when – just minutes apart – the Washington Post reported that Bible-and-pistol-toting Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore once had a warped proclivity for hitting on girls as young as 14 (when he was 32) and the New York Times revealed comedian Louis C.K.’s forced sexual perversions on unwilling women and, as has been the case in almost all of these stories, C.K.’s use of clout to enforce silence from both those who experienced it and the media.
The bombshell revelations are coming not daily but hourly. They are big names from the movies, the news media, Silicon Valley, and electoral politics. The men are liberal … and conservative; invariably, some are celebrities that you loved and some are celebrities that you loved to hate. The allegations vary dramatically, as well, from verbal harassment to allegations of flat-out rape, and there’s now an offshoot of men accused of using their position and power to sexually abuse or to silence other men. Some have confessed their sins, but others deny the allegations, and it’s important to note that the accused are fully entitled to a day in court – either a real courtroom or at least the court of public opinion.
But what is striking about the fall of 2017 and maybe the looming fall – long overdue and yet also hard to believe it’s happening – of several millenniums of male supremacy are what all of these stories have in common. It’s all about power, frankly, much, much more than it is about sexual desire. The shared element in each of these divergent downfalls is not only that men abused positions of authority and, often, trust to make unwelcome sexual advances, but that when things went wrong, society had their back – the wall of support from others in their male-dominated universes, media that too often craved access over truth, and the knowledge from both female and male bystanders who knew better that “speaking truth to power” would cost them their career and their source of income.
The amazing thing we are now witnessing is a sudden, radical shift in the power equation. That is the very definition of a revolution, when a long-oppressed majority – be it the French peasantry in 1789, or 51 percent of the U.S. population in 2017 – finds first its voice and then the weaponry it needs, whether that is the armaments inside the Bastille or the 280 characters (sigh) of Twitter. With powerful men dropping around us like bombs, let’s pause for a minute and ask two questions: How did we get here? And where on earth is this thing going?
This didn’t start overnight, of course. In recent years, there has been a handful of what you might call “John the Baptist moments” – none more powerful than the flood of women willing to tell the truth about disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, whose problems with sexual assault and Quaaludes had been hiding in plain sight for a decade before a comedian in a Philadelphia nightclub finally asked: “What’s up with that?” Months later, the army of women with the courage to answer that question filled the entire cover of a magazine, and Cosby would be indicted.
Social media – which have played a critical role in all the great political and cultural uprisings of the 21st century, from the Arab Spring to #BlackLivesMatter – clearly helped to connect women and inspire the bravery in telling their stories. And it helped that today’s more outspoken women are largely the first generations to grow up after the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, which brought gains in the workplace, on college campuses and elsewhere – yet has clearly fallen well short of the dream of full equality between the sexes.
But there were two key dates in the road to revolution. The first was Nov. 8, 2016, when the election of a president who not only drew accusations from more than a dozen women of predatory sexual behavior but also had been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s private parts led, for millions, to both existential despair over what that said about American society, but also to aggrieved calls for fighting back. That led to the second and arguably more important date of Jan. 21, 2017 – the amazing turnout of four million women and male allies for the Women’s March not just in Washington, but in cities and towns across the nation and around the globe.
The massive crowd inspired awe but also questions. Trump had been president for less than 24 hours, and critics said the goals of the Women’s March were vague and unfocused. In fact, the simple vision of the march, and what it inspired, was earth-shattering: a new spirit of female empowerment. There is incredible strength in numbers, and the sea change is that women who were cowed and intimidated are now imbued with the strength to speak out. Despite the failings of the media, a few intrepid reporters over the years had gone after the epic tales of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse, only to be blocked by a wall of intimidation and fear. In 2017, two New York Times reporters found that the women who’d suffered Weinstein’s abuse were now ready to tear down that wall.
The most powerful weapon in patriarchy’s arsenal had been shaming – the shared understanding among women that telling their story would end up damaging their reputation or their career, while the men in authority who harmed them would skate free. But today, with solidarity, that sense of shame has been all but obliterated. A couple of weeks ago, a Twitter hashtag called #MeToo prompted thousands of women to share their stories of predatory and abusive men, with a candor that can only be called … revolutionary.
“I find this recent eruption of truths being told is disruptive of all our polite repressions,” a woman recently told a Chicago Tribune columnist writing about the assault on male supremacy. “And most of that disruption seems healthy and necessary, and if we pay a price for some of it, then to hell with that, too. It’s time to be paying a price for opposing patriarchy instead of paying the price of buckling under.”
Indeed. So where next? No doubt, a part of the solution is political, which is why a third date – last Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 – also looms large. Women not only flexed their muscles at the ballot box, tipping the scales in favor of the Democrats in unexpected places such as Pennsylvania’s Delaware County, but scores of first-time female candidates energized by the Women’s March won their races last week. The long-term goals of this movement include not just policy changes such as equal pay for women and stopping the nationwide rollback of reproductive rights, but also eventually undoing the patriarchal restorations of the Trump administration – appalling things such as appointing 42 consecutive men as new U.S. attorneys.
But it won’t be a true revolution unless it goes beyond politics, and beyond the peccadilloes of just the rich and famous. As one article noted this weekend, the abuses of Hollywood’s casting couch pale in scope to the sexual assaults and degradation heaped upon the least-powerful hotel and cleaning workers. It’s a reminder that patriarchy and its sins are deeply embedded in ways both obvious and subtle.
True, the dream of electing a woman to the White House stands unfulfilled, but it’s worth celebrating small victories, such as when a funny woman of color with an unconventional backstory such as Tiffany Haddish chips away at the glass ceiling by hosting Saturday Night Live, an iconic liberal institution that has long skewed too male and too white. In Hollywood, real change won’t come when men stop behaving badly – although that would be helpful – but when more women are writing the scripts, sitting in the director’s chair, and running the studios. Ditto for Washington and Harrisburg. The flowers of revolution are starting to bloom, but to paraphrase the famous cigarette ad from the last era of women’s liberation: You’ve got a long way to go, baby.
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