If there ever was a movement that defined 2017, it was the Me Too movement. Thousands of women who had previously been silent victims of sexual harassment came our of the shadows and told their story. And now that Bill Cosby, one of the most iconic Me Too suspects, had finally been convicted of sexual assault, it is finally time to to talk about the other side of the Me Too movement. Congratulations to all the participants and supporters of the Me Too movement. You have won a long, hard, difficult battle and came out with – let’s face it – an improbable victory.
Lecherous men had been abusing subordinate women for sex since the beginning of time. Voices of objection were raised and silenced for centuries. The Me Too movement of 2017 has marked a turning point in this age old abuse. But what made this possible? And why did it begin with Hollywood?
The short answer is that times had changed, and the men who lost their jobs to #metoo were caught in the lurch. But more specifically, the role of actresses in movies had significantly changed. After decades of actresses demanding more character driven roles, fewer parts became damsel-in-distress roles. Granted great female characters had been played by talented actresses since the beginning of theater, in Hollywood, the money from women had historically had more to do with boobs and legs than talent or – God forbid – actual work. But as Andromedas were replaced with Lora Crofts, and money shifted from the former to the latter, women who played actual characters increased in importance.
All the while, movie production had become a much more sophisticated effort. It was not just a few talented people colliding in a vacuum anymore. It had become a collaborative effort of tens of thousands of people with an ever more decentralized input of creativity. Within this landscape, actresses were contributing more than just showing their bodily assets. It was their work and effort that was bringing in the money and not just their looks. Producers still hold great power over the careers of performers, but actresses were increasingly influencing the careers of producers. This is why it became possible to topple behemoths like Harvey Weinstein.
If you are just a member of the audience, a lowly anonymous spectator who bought a ticket to a movie, you might think it is just innocent fun to watch a rated-PG movie with a cardboard female character in a sexploitational role. You might even find the nagging protests against helpless women in fictional stories irritating and petty. It certainly does not make you a sex offender for enjoying a harmless movie. But the shift from casting women in damsels-in-distress roles to protagonists who dare to change the world in the make-believe world of films did in fact have real world consequences. Even in the world of movies, women are not just standing around looking pretty any more. They are working to bring in the money.
The #metoo movement worked, not just because it was hip to be “woke”, but because the new economics of the movie business backed it up.
The flip side of this seismic shift is that you can no longer sleep your way to the top. Since much more is demanded of actresses than just being a piece of landscape, courting favor counts for less. This increasingly applies to other professions as well. When you have a bigger role to play, your boobs will not get you as far. So here is the inevitable “other side” of the Me Too movement: People are going to take women seriously.
Being taken seriously is a life long effort. People suffer mid-life crises for not being taken seriously and realize that they are already fifty-five. After decades of relentless campaigning, women have finally earned the right to be told “Call me back when you’ve put in twenty years of work.” There will no doubt be some women who will be caught in the lurch when time tested methods that worked for their mothers do not work for them any more.
Like so many progressive social movements that succeed, the Me Too movement will one day be seen as lacking. Thomas Jefferson put his life at risk to build the foundation of democratic freedom, and in fact contributed to the eventual abolishing of slavery, but he is reviled for having been a slave owner. Mark Twain often spoke out against racial prejudice, but is now considered a racist for using the word “nigger”, even though in his time an author was putting himself in peril for speaking out about the plight of Negros in print. Kurt Vonnegut was the dean of liberals for a generation, but is now criticized because he made funny remarks about transvestites, even though it was progress for his generation just to mention them at all. Progress is a moving target. What is dangerously progressive today is backwards tomorrow. We should take note and remember that many of the victims who “came out” for the Me Too movement were risking their jobs. But they too, will one day be “backwards”.
Out of the over seventy powerful men who were accused of sexual misconduct in 2017 that resulted in resignations and firings, most of whom were white, only one was convicted, and he was a black man. We should also revisit Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The main plot revolves around a black man who is falsely accused because a white woman, after attempting consensual sex, tries to protect her honor by claiming that she was raped. Yes, there was a time in America when it was less dishonor for a white woman to be raped by a black man than to have had consensual sex with one. Bill Cosby straddled those times. Up until 1967, miscegenation was illegal in 30 US states. As late as the 1970s, starlets could have lost their careers if they were exposed as having had consensual sex with a black man. Joanna Shimkus married Sidney Poitier in 1976 and never appeared in a movie again. Many of Bill Cosby’s alleged assaults date back to that time. This does not mean that Bill Cosby was falsely accused, but it does help explain why it took so long for the accusers to come forward. It may also help explain why such a famous star, and seemingly upright man, resorted to such modus operandi. It will take time before it is revealed just how much injustice was involved in crucifying only one black man.
Although sexual misconduct is shameful enough, there are still shades to the Me Too movement that will not be openly discussed for decades to come. We the lowly anonymous “innocent” spectators are also, for better and for worse, shaping the course of events.