With the Weinstein sexual harassment headlines and #MeToo trending, the positive upside is awareness and discussion. The downside is that it’s easy to jump on a trendy bandwagon and say “Oh yeah! I am totally opposed to gender bias!” without bothering to do the actual WORK behind that statement – creating awareness, dialogue and speaking up against gender bias even when you’re the only one and it’s uncomfortable to do so. I was going to write a blog post about all the more egregious instances of sexual harassment I’ve experienced and witnessed, however, a tiny social media post last week changed my mind. I’m not going to tell stories of sexual violence. Instead, I’m going to start with something very small and very common. Something that is a consistent part of the fabric of many women’s daily lives – the micro aggressions that silence, demean and delegitimize us, sometimes with the best of intentions or, more commonly, without conscious awareness of bias.
Recently, I attended a film screening followed by a Q & A with the filmmaker. In the Q&A, a woman from the audience asked, "Where were the women [in the film]?" The filmmaker sighed and said "…gender..." in a very dramatic eye-rolling type of tone, after which he and the majority of the audience had a good laugh at the expense of the woman who asked the question. He then said, "They were on the sidelines. Did I answer the question?" The way in which he dismissed the woman and the way the audience laughed at her saddened me. It demonstrated for me how far we had to go, as a society, to achieve gender equality. I wrote a short social media post on my private page about the woman’s question and the filmmaker’s response to it. I did not name the filmmaker or the film festival the screening was in, choosing to focus only on the filmmaker’s response, the audience’s laughter and my resulting disappointment.
Almost immediately, a respected film blogger posted a long and emotional comment to my private post, saying I had not told the whole story. He proceeded to specifically name the filmmaker, the film and the festival at which the event had taken place, noting he had been there, and provided some compliments to the filmmaker’s style (writing that the filmmaker “immerse(s) the audience experientially”) and then defended the film for not including women (saying, basically, it was a story about men and not women) and then insinuated that, by expressing concern over an individual’s dismissiveness toward the woman who asked about female perspectives in his film, I had somehow maligned the entire film festival (“There's plenty of institutions worth condemning, but the […]fest is certainly not one of them”) – this despite the facts that (1) I never named any film festival and (2) my comment was solely about the action of one individual and the audience response to him.
The blogger admitted the filmmaker’s comments I had complained about were “flippant and dismissive” but reprimanded me for supposedly making it “seem” like the filmmaker’s comments went unchallenged (they did). He noted a female panelist, whose name he admitted forgetting, responded to the question. What actually happened was the sole female on that particular panel made a comment in response to the question, “Where are the women?” Her comment was that it was a situation like war and women stay home to make munitions while men fight, which didn't come off as a challenge to me at all, nor did it address the filmmaker’s dismissiveness, and that’s why I thought it unimportant to include in my small, private post that, again, simply expressed sadness over one filmmaker’s reaction to a woman asking a valid question. I didn’t demean or even so much as name the film festival (the blogger did that), nor did I write a critique of the film itself.
I go through this whole social media post because of the vehemence of the blogger’s response to it. He insisted the filmmaker’s behavior should not be referenced in conjunction with scandals the level of, for example, Weinstein and chided me, saying he was “surprised” I would post this. That my short expression of concern over a man dismissing a woman’s legitimate question about gender issues in a film received such a hostile response surprised me. Then, another male – one, who was not even at the Q&A – promptly “liked” the blogger’s remonstration.
Responses back and forth ensued between myself and the blogger. What became painfully clear to me was that this tiny social media disagreement reflected the bigger picture of the way our society commonly treats gender issues. I questioned a man for dismissing a woman’s valid question and was promptly reprimanded, with the implication being that I was trying to denigrate an entire film festival. This parallels, on a micro level, the woman who raises the issue of an inappropriate sexual comment in the workplace and is treated as though doing so means she is disloyal to the company they work for and/or experiences her colleagues complaining openly or passively that she is “emotional, “ “overly sensitive” woman and why is she making a big deal of one little thing and why can’t she just be quiet and get along? The company is a great company! Why is this woman raising issues?
Similarly, when Weinstein victims openly complained about his conduct, many reported having those they told respond in a nonchalant fashion, “Oh, that’s just Harvey.” No big deal. Why are you making waves?
As Laurie Penny wrote, women who speak out “risk being iced out of your industry, called a liar and a lunatic, and being shamed and humiliated in public and punished in private. That’s how structures of oppression work – by excusing almost everyone involved from acknowledging what’s happening” … “On the scale of convenient self-delusion, ‘We didn’t know that every industry on earth was riddled with sexual violence’ falls somewhere between ‘That guy will never make it to the White House’ and ‘It’s just a rash.’” … “Really knowing requires everyone to act according to their consciences. So nobody knows.”
In my own wee little personal social media microcosm, two men tried – perhaps unconsciously and perhaps with good intentions – to silence my critique of another man by conflating the critique to an attack on an entire film festival, chiding me for supposedly not giving both sides of the story (man #1) and supporting the remonstration without any knowledge of the actual situation (man #2). Only one person – my husband, who also attended the Q&A – came to my defense, simply pointing out the obvious, that I was raising the issue of a woman being silenced and demeaned for raising a gender issue, not attacking a film festival. His point was to have a disagreement, sure, but disagree over the actual point, the actual comment. It reminded me of the time I posted (again, on a private social media page) about a male colleague who announced on a business call that I was a “6 out of 10.” Nobody touched that comment with a ten foot pole.
So why the anger over me using a personal platform to express a viewpoint? Our society doesn’t typically reward loud women. As actor Alyssa Milano explained, “To give women a platform enables us all to feel how enormous of an issue this kind of abuse [gender bias] is. We’ve been so silenced, we don’t realize there is a community out there that’s ready to embrace us.” Except, where IS that embrace over the daily micro indignities we endure every day? The micro aggressions that pave the path for the Weinsteins of the world?
In writing about the #MeToo tweets, Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote, “I’m sure some men recognize their own behavior in those tweets. Maybe they’re ashamed of their actions or their complicity. Maybe they learned something about what women go through” … “Clearly, we have a lot of cultural baggage.” She continues, “Is it possible for men to ask women if they’ve done something to make them uncomfortable or scared? And if they did, would we answer no when we meant yes so as not to offend? I’m not sure. But maybe more honesty is something we can salvage from this awful swamp. It’d be a start anyway.”
In the instance of my little post, complaining about the one man’s comment, I would have welcomed debate over his responses to the question, “Where are the women?”, however, I do not welcome being attacked for things I never did – like denigrating a film festival. So, maybe what Schrobsdorff is talking about happened here. Maybe the reflection is too much for some people, who see their own faces on the filmmaker and hear their own voices coming from his lips and, instead of using that to create awareness, feel the need to defend or deny? Maybe?
I love debate. I don’t mind conflict at all – I think it’s healthy – as long as it’s on point, informed and constructive. So by all means, debate me on whether or not the filmmaker’s response to the woman’s question showed gender bias. Debate me on whether his actions were objectionable. I welcome the discussion! Disagreement is fine. Debate is good. Emotional attacks and a refusal to look beyond dogma, however, are not.
Perhaps a lot of people see their own countenance on Dorian Gray and, instead of addressing personal biases head on, rush to throw a canvas over the painting and say everything is fine. Don’t critique the painting! If you do, you’ll be told you’re responsible for closing down the museum that houses it. Just be quiet. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make a scene. Be a good girl. Shhhhhh.
 Time, October 30, 2017. Women Will Be The Ones To Decide What Happens Next by Laurie Penny.
 Time, October 30, 2017. Why I Said #MeToo by Alyssa Milano.
 Time, October 30, 2017. When Men See Other Men Bahaving Badly by Susanna Schrobsdorff.
Picture: Ethics Unwrapped, the University of Texas at Austin