Thursday, October 12, 2017

Yes, I guess, all women

A lot of the Weinstein coverage has taken a certain approach: all women have experienced this. Not from Weinstein, specifically - though granted his alleged harassment and assault ran the gamut - but from the Weinsteins in our lives. Every woman, goes the (generally woman-authored) thinking, has dealt with this. Accompanying this is the notion - which has its own issues - that every woman has this group of other women she shares stories about who to avoid, which is unfortunately not the case.

I don't know what to make of the it-happens-to-us-all interpretation. As in, I really don't. I keep swinging back and forth between doubting - doubting, that is, that this has happened to all women, but also and more to the point, that you even need to make the case of universality to explain how awful this story is... and thinking that yes, that does actually sound about right, all women probably have encountered this in one form or another.

Put another way: I don't think it helps, from a feminist perspective, to present the universal female experience as being one of constant unsolicited male attention. I know women for whom something like this is true, others for whom, nope, not really. I suppose I fall somewhere in between - as do, I suspect, most women.

In one sense, I am a woman who has - luckily - never dealt with anything quite like this. I have never been asked for sexual favors in exchange for professional advancement. The only workplace sexual (or just body-related, hard to explain succinctly) harassment I've ever experienced was from a (powerful) straight woman.

How much of my spared-ness from that universal can be attributed to the workplaces I've landed in (straight men were underrepresented in my early-mid 20s work environments), and how much to the fact that I'm... within normal limits, but not someone met by a horde of suitors upon leaving the house, not someone who could have one of those jobs where looks especially matter? I have no idea.

But when I think less strictly about the Weinstein narrative - and when I leave the moment, that is, being 34 and very wrapped up in work stuff that keeps me living very much in the present... sure. There were things with elements of this. There was a librarian where I was doing research who wouldn't leave me alone until my now-husband actually physically showed up at this library. I can piece together a Weinstein-ish picture from certain boss behavior (not all bosses, but not none, alas), a certain college classmate situation (which I sure hope that college's administration would be better about dealing with today but who knows), and the overall experience of having existed as a young woman. Not a young and beautiful actress, but a young woman, which is, for what I'm going to guess is the vast majority of young women, enough. (Other incidents I'm thinking of, now that I think of it, have been in the last year or so. Young-ish will do.)

There was also, though, a time I still think about more than I should, when some (male) profs suggested - to me as well as to another woman grad student - that we promote the department by putting a third female grad student - a strikingly beautiful one, not present - on our brochures. And you know what? I'm going to classify that in the same pile.

What "lucky" is in this context is its own question. It's both easy and appropriate to focus on the recipients of Weinstein and similar's unwanted advances. These are not stories of glamor and sex appeal (and - in cases like Paltrow, Jolie, extreme beauty, celebrity relatives, the hovering presence of Brad friggin' Pitt) helping anyone, but quite the contrary - they're stories of exploitation and abuse. But it is worth also keeping in mind all the women who - because they aren't beautiful 22-year-olds - are not part of the story, as it were, to begin with.

While writing this post, I came across Marie Le Conte's excellent post on just that angle:

Something I hadn’t seen discussed in light of recent events is how they treat the women they don’t seek to abuse. In so many cases, men who sexually harass women struggle to register the existence of those other women, the useless ones. .... There is absolutely no doubt that one of the scenarios here is far worse than the other, but escaping from the threat of being sexually assaulted doesn’t even mean that women will get to be treated as human beings.
Yes. Exactly.

The story of gorgeous young women being lunged at and worse is - in crude media terms - easy to illustrate. The story of ordinary-looking women in that same workplace situation, getting harassed not by a powerful movie exec who wants to show he can 'get' the world's most beautiful women, but by a boss in some less-glamorous situation exerting his power over the nearest young and vulnerable woman, a notch or ten less so. And that of the women not lunged at, but treated as invisible, this... I mean, from a journalistic perspective, how would you even illustrate that?

But the story is all of this. Any system that values extreme youth and physical attractiveness winds up being awful, in different ways, for all women. For the women (fleetingly) treated as if they matter (except not really; it's a ruse - see Jia Tolentino on that angle), there are doubts about whether anyone ever did, ever will, take you seriously professionally. For the women who had been in that situation, give or take, but have aged out of it, there's the nagging question of whether you're too old, not just for Under Age Whatever achievement lists, but for achievement, period, if your accomplishments aren't those of a woman young enough to count. (Thought processes such as, 'Why write a novel if it would, realistically, only ever be finished, let alone published, at age whatever?') And for the women never or less-frequently in that situation, at any age, it's a cap on professional options extending well beyond the tolerable unfairness that not all of us have the option of being Glossier brand ambassadors.


Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Aaaah, I wanted to like that so much more than I did.

Miss Self-Important said...

She has the same problems as you. Jewish, not a perfect 10. But she's Orthodox (ish?) on top of it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

She does and she doesn't come at this from where I do. We're both Jewish feminists, we're neither of us supermodels, but beyond that?

What put me off about her piece was a) the way she presents male lecherousness-and-worse as something individual women have control over, and b) her I think unrealistic assessment of the hopes, in Hollywood, for ordinary-looking women (who have not been made over to look extraordinary). Re: b), she's a rare exception.

As for a), well, that's sort of where-to-begin territory. While it has all the right disclaimers to avoid victim-blaming accusations, the piece conflates looking hot with trying to look hot, and trying looking hot *so as to be cast in movies where the star must look like so* (an unfair but existing job requirement in that field) and looking hot *so as to offer oneself up to the likes of Harvey Weinstein* (something it's hard to picture anyone doing, although he has I guess had wives).

But also, so much of the piece conflates things women choose and things they very often really, really don't. That a woman looks hot to a Harvey Weinstein, that she comes across as *flirting* with a Harvey Weinstein, will often enough have zilch to do with choices she's made and everything to do with what such a man wants to believe. I'm thinking of this passage: "I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy." The issue with Weinstein is, these were women who had *not* offered their sexual selves up *to him*. (Had he wanted sex from sexually available women, and been indifferent to the law in his pursuit of this, he'd have had another obvious option.) And flirtation is tough to pinpoint - it's not unheard-of for men to assume a woman was flirting with him simply because he found that woman attractive. Nor vice versa, I suppose, but there isn't quite the same issue of older, powerful women luring young, good-looking men to hotel rooms under false pretexts.

I do think it's good that Bialik wrote about this, in that I do think this topic *is* different for very beautiful women than for regular-looking or plain-looking ones. Not that only the stunning get harassed, let alone assaulted. It's just... different. And it's good that there are at least *some* women who look like she does (that is, not like supermodels) onscreen. But I'm not sure what her take, specifically, wound up adding. She made it seem like it's a choice whether or not to be harassed, as if there's some sort of opt-out path you can take if you dress modestly, as if, I mean, my goodness, as if there are never sexual abuse crises within religious communities.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, I linked this b/c it was about non-hot women in hot-woman contexts and I read it like 5 minutes after I read your post. I don't have a take on her take; sexual harassment is not a topic of sufficient interest to me and the indignities of celebrity are even less interesting. I guess one could ask, why can't it be both - sometimes you can "opt out" of sexual harassment, or at least certain kinds of harassment, by modifying behavior, while in other cases, you can't? The cases you can't prevent would likely be worse than the ones you can but don't, since the preventable ones result from ambiguous or misinterpreted social cues while the unpreventable come from more concerted intention. Of course, you could respond, I should never have to modify my own behavior to avoid an undesired response from someone, but it could remain true that modifying it does avert that response.

But unrelated to Bialik in particular, your post anticipated a meme! If you'd just shortened the title, you could've invented the meme.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The meme! I'm ahead of and behind the curve on this one. Am still not sure if "me too" refers to the time a man told me, when I had skinned my knees rollerblading (I was 12 or so) in a lascivious way, that I'd been spending too much time on my knees, or whether it means announcing your membership in more specific categories (a rape victim, a victim of theoretically prosecutable workplace sexual harassment). There's value in both, I think - that is, it's useful to be aware that basically all women have dealt with some version of the former, and indeed that women of all looks-levels, modesty-levels, etc., can be abuse victims. But the imprecision of "me too" - like the expression "rape culture" conflates more than maybe it should. Maybe. Not sure on this. I do think it's all connected and all worth bringing up. What it definitely does is, it leaves out the experience of being ignored b/c *not* deemed worthy of (inappropriate) attentions in the first place.

Which gets at where I think Bialik's piece enters into this, or might have if it hadn't tried to be both a personal account and general advice. (Where op-eds often go wrong, which is another story.) There's been this odd sort of flattening of female experience in the past week or so, as if the problems (and they're real problems!) of beautiful young actresses are The Female Experience. This has gotten intersectional pushback (i.e. the controversy, which I've half-followed, about a Twitter boycott I'd barely heard about when the controversy itself began - something to do with a celebrity even I had never heard of prior to all this), but... ultimately not that much pushback in general. (Must we pretend that "hey gorgeous" gets yelled at all women in equal measure?)

Which, look, it's *not* exactly that it goes this way for the hot, that way for the less-hot. There are other factors (perceived vulnerability, age...). There are women less conventionally attractive than Bialik who've been harassed more. And goodness knows women more pious than she who've been assaulted. But the specific situation of being someone hired *under the best of circumstances* in large part for your looks and perceived sexiness, who is then also assaulted or harassed, I mean, there's a way to explain the specificity here that doesn't veer off into victim-blaming.

Very definitively *not* all women choose careers where looks and, in a sense, objectification (but *not* rape, harassment, etc.) is part of the job, for so many reasons. (Inclinations, but also opportunities in vs outside such professions...) So the bar for inappropriate is going to be different, not always, but sometimes. What was tricky about Bialik's take was, she was advising women who more or less can't opt out of a certain type objectification *while also doing their jobs* to somehow care less about what they look like, which... which brings me back to her exceptionality here. If she were someone who'd been a child actress, then moved on to something else because of the objectification, fine. But hers was an odd sort of having-it-all take, when the exact way she has it all is not especially replicable.

Miss Self-Important said...

"Me too" refers to anything you want it to refer to, I guess. No one's asking to independently verify what "counts." But I agree that the imprecision in the name of inclusion and universality may perversely dilute the urgency: if literally every woman we know, the vast majority of whom are doing just fine psychologically and professionally, can claim to have been sexually harassed, how urgent is the problem? In one sense (the sense that the meme is going for, obviously), it's VERY URGENT b/c EVERYONE is a victim of this crime. On the other hand, how bad can the crime be if everyone can be a victim of it with no significant repercussions?

Isn't it kind of like how almost everyone can honestly claim to have been bullied in some way at some point in childhood? That it's a universal experience certainly doesn't make it a good one for anyone, but it also makes it by definition a pretty minor injustice in the scheme of things, since its consequences to victims are usually so insubstantial. But then, in certain instances, childhood bullying can be really severe and really destructive, and those are the instances that we focus our moral and policy energies on preventing and punishing, while accepting the small indignities children inflict on one another as more or less a fact of life. In this case, universality mostly undermines urgency.

Although to be fair, the amount of solidarity-emoting (or just intense posturing) I've seen today on social media suggests otherwise, but I doubt it can amount to anything much simply because the thing everyone is so exercised about is so amorphous and indefinite. All these men posting mea culpas and promising to "do better" and offering to hug all the victimized women in their lives, while women get indignant at insufficiently self-implicating or incorrectly worded responses, it all looks like cathartic release to me.

About Bialik, yes, I guess that's true for actresses, they can't all opt to get PhDs in neuroscience or be orthodox Jews to avoid sexual harassment. (Although if they really all did these things, then the collective action problem would be solved...) I just meant more generally, there is some harassment that is avoidable, some that isn't.