It’s been a remarkable and frustrating two weeks since the “official” revelations about Harvey Weinstein and a long history of harassment and abuse that’s festered just under Hollywood’s surface. We’ve seen women speak out about their experiences with Weinstein himself; watched as men elsewhere in the industry—like James Van Der Beek, Brooklyn 99’s Terry Crews, and Hamilton’s Javier Muñoz—shared their own stories; and witnessed America Ferarra and McKayla Maroney, among others, reveal abuse that happened in childhood. We’ve seen a rallying cry for young Black women appropriated as a hashtag campaign, a well-meaning call for a Twitter boycott, and—inevitably—as Instafeminist commerce.
We’ve also seen the “whisper network”—the time-honored tradition whereby communities, usually those marginalized within their larger environs, aim to protect one another by privately naming bad actors—dragged into the spotlight. As I write this, it’s been exactly a week since a document began circulating through media circles; titled “Shitty Media Men,” it comprised names of mostly white, mostly New York–based men—names you’ve seen on mastheads and bylines and book covers—whose behavior has covered the spectrum from inappropriate and manifestly creepy to predatory and criminal. The speed at which the list was shared, added to, and discussed, as its anonymous creator told The New Yorker, underscored “the pervasiveness of the problem.”
This is, obviously, not the first time social media has used hashtag campaigns for the dual purpose of naming prominent abusers and fomenting dialogue around abuse, exploitation, and harassment. #TheEmptyChair carved a path through Twitter on the heels of New York magazine’s haunting cover story about Bill Cosby’s many victims; #FastTailedGirls was inspired by years of R. Kelly apologia that has silenced the young Black women exploited by Kelly and others like him; #DeleteUber indicted not only Uber CEO Travis Kalanick but the larger techbro culture that prioritizes men’s career potential over the safety of everyone else.
So while it’s tempting to believe that this #MeToo moment can be the tipping point, the canned apologies, well-I-never media posturing, and performative allyship that have characterized it tell a more familiar story. The Motion Picture Academy, for instance, booted Weinstein from its ranks, but a back-patting public statement—“the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over”—is worth side-eyeing given that other well-known abusers (Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Mel Gibson are just three) retain their membership. And actor Rose McGowan, an early Weinstein whistleblower who has worked to highlight Hollywood exploitation, has managed to fuck up her intended message with tweets that center “women” as exclusively white, straight, and cisgender. #MeToo has been a powerful statement, but it’s also another example of in-plain-sight abuse portrayed as intolerable only when its most prominent or timely victims are white women.
But there’s another issue that complicates #MeToo, and I’m not sure if there’s ever a good time to bring it up. Without taking away from the primary issue—men need to stop abusing their position, and stop believing that institutional power entitles them to the bodies of those with less of it—it’s way past time to acknowledge that women, particularly those who are white and straight and cisgender, play a role in maintaining the status quo that facilitates all of it. They may not commit the abuse, and they almost certainly don’t condone it. But they—we—benefit from it, and we have to talk about it.
This week, my “women and feminism” Google alert (the gift that, in the year 2017, truly never stops giving) hipped me to a group that calls itself the Lovely Ladies of Men’s Issues. This summer, they crowdfunded a 2018 pinup calendar that “represents the wonderful women who are dedicated to addressing the inequalities faced by men that are largely ignored in society today,” and which was ultimately funded well beyond its goal. I’m not going to link to the LLMI, because you probably already know their whole thing: They’re young reactionaries whose internalized misogyny is topped with rainbow-hued hair and creative piercings; and their leader is a YouTuber who believes that “women have all their rights,” and echoes the likes of Milo Yiannopolous in calling feminism “cancer.”
I bring up the Lovely Ladies not because they are unique in any way, but because they are simply the newest versions of an old problem: Women who benefit from feminism even as they denounce it as whiny or outdated or irrelevant. We all know her, and some of us have probably once been her. She’s conjured up in compliments: the girl who “can hang” when her male friends are cracking sexist or transphobic jokes; the girl who “is down” to do whatever, even when she has no say in what “whatever” is; the girl who wears “wow, you’re more like a guy” as a badge of honor.
Ariel Levy, in 2005’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, called this person the “loophole woman,” noting that such a figure is “the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior.” Gillian Flynn, in an indelible passage from Gone Girl, called her the “cool girl” and ran down her attributes (never complains, loves chili dogs, etc.) with forensic accuracy. In a 2015 piece for Matter, Alana Massey identified the emotional asceticism demanded in an age of online dating as “chill,” naming the highly prized trait as “a sinister refashioning of ‘Calm down!’ from an enraging and highly gendered command into an admirable attitude.” And anyone who read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale can identify a Serena Joy, exalted as she does the patriarchy’s work of shrinking and silencing others, only realizing too late that her own shrinking and silencing is required as well.
As high-profile revelations about predatory men tumble out onto our timelines like clown-car passengers, the role of such women has come into focus. They are the collateral damage of a long-brewing disaster, a crucial bit of circuitry in a dangerous system. We can’t blame them, but we have to reckon with them.
They’re the female assistants who, as Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker exposé pointed out, have for years provided king-sized cover for Weinstein. They blocked out “meeting” times in his schedule; they knew that he was buying the silence of multiple Hollywood starlets; in some cases, they were the ones sending young actresses up to the hotel rooms where their boss was dropping trou and demanding massages on an apparently constant basis.
They are the women like Donna Karan, who, when asked about her friendship with Weinstein and soon-to-be-ex-wife Georgina Chapman, pulled a stock response from Victim Blaming for Dummies, saying “How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?…. You look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and what they are asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.” (Karan has since apologized for her remarks.)
They are the women whose responses don’t outright blame victims, but whose stated feminism belies a shopworn, Taylor Swift–caliber good-girl/bad-girl binary. Mayim Bialik’s much-discussed New York Times op-ed about her own experiences in Hollywood, for instance, likely had the best intentions. But her poor-little-big-nosed-me tone pressed a facile conclusion: Weinstein’s targets had, by virtue of being normatively beautiful and outwardly sexual, invited harassment; by extension, the amount of unwanted attention you attract is directly proportional to your outward desirability.
They are the woman who got wind of the Shitty Media Men list and promptly wrote a piece for Buzzfeed that not only exposed the fact that there was a list, but complained that the men on it (a few of whom are fellow Buzzfeed contributors) were not given “a chance to respond.” Treating a document that existed so that women could warn their colleagues and peers about predators and dick-pic senders in their media orbit as though it were a police report or a reported, both-sides journalistic account only ensured that the list was quickly pulled from circulation, and that many people who might benefit from it—for instance, those just starting out in media, who tend to be especially vulnerable—never got a look.
They are the klatsch of Fox News blonds who have staked their careers on deriding feminists for being unreasonable and unfeminine; tacitly cosigning racist, sexist insults lobbed oh-so-casually by their male colleagues at Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others. We know now that, almost to a woman, they were themselves subject to harassment, predation, and retaliation that started at the very top with the revolting slab of rancid bigotry Roger Ailes. We also know that it didn’t stop more than a few of them from demonizing women who wanted to call other men to account for such behavior.
With a possible few exceptions (looking at you, DeVos and Conway) these women aren’t intentionally perpetuating harm. They have not set out with a dastardly plan to compromise the safety and autonomy and well-being of other women. Their will-to-loophole-womanhood is a bargain they strike in order to find a seemingly secure place within an unbalanced system of power that they don’t want to call by its name. But their complicity is important. They are gatekeepers, and their actions—and maybe more to the point, their inaction—can determine whose lives and careers matter and whose are expendable. They can be the difference between being heard and being erased.
What all these women have in common is a willful certainty that they are safe, that they are exceptions, that there is something inherently stronger or more bulletproof or, yes, more chill than other women. Like Naomi Wolf, who memorably coined the phrase “Victim feminism” to brush aside those with the temerity to not shut up about systemic inequality; and like the young, white women who, several years back, began proclaiming via magic-markered signs that “I Don’t Need Feminism,” these are women who have internalized a deeply privileged notion: All you need to not be a victim is a belief that you are better than actual victims.
It’s notable, for instance, that Doree Shafrir, who wrote the Buzzfeed piece outing the Shitty Media Men list, acknowledged how lucky she felt to have never experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. She then went on to describe incidents—“the editor who Gchatted me late at night, seemingly drunk, and propositioned me, or the art director who was way too interested in my intern experience and put his hand on my thigh at a party”—that readers promptly recognized as sexual harassment.
Then there’s Bialik, whose ruminations on flying below Hollywood’s harassment radar—“I dress modestly, I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a rule”—are indistinguishable from helpful litanies of Things You Shouldn’t Do (drink! be alone! wear skirts! jog! flirt! exist in a female body in public at any given time!) that have been passed down for generations and have somehow not yet prevented men from raping or harassing or exploiting power imbalances.
My mother once relayed with offhand laughter a story from her youth about a “bad date” that ended in what was clearly either an attempted or a completed rape. The story put into perspective the times I came home from school nauseated by a guy rubbing his junk on me in the subway or a man trying to pull me into a doorway as I walked past; and her first question, the one that hasn’t stopped breaking my heart since, was “What were you wearing?” Loophole womanhood is being able to reframe your experience just that fast. Because if all the bad things that happen to women happen because they invited those things, in one way or another—their clothing, their friendliness, their past sexual experience—then the things that happen to you, the loophole woman, can’t be truly bad.
And that’s the ongoing tragedy of #MeToo. In a half-changed world where men still hold a disproportionate amount of social, institutional, and political power, the narrative that women can devise a magic combination of self-presentation and public behavior and all-around respectability that exempts them from unwanted attention, creepy propositions, or outright violence won’t end no matter how many times it is disproven. It persists because it’s hard, and deeply depressing, to admit that female-identified people across cultural and social and class strata, of every age and race and political stripe and sexual orientation, participate in upholding it. We have to. There are jobs to keep, degrees to get, networks to develop, candidates to elect. There is a future to secure, one where maybe this will all stop happening. But to get there, we have to start talking.