Older feminists need to stop throwing millennials under the bus
I knew a backlash to #metoo was coming. But I didn’t think it would come from the kinds of women I’ve looked up to for my entire life.
Women are finally being heard when we complain about sexual harassment and misconduct at work and in our private lives. The powers that be are finally holding some of the perpetrators accountable.
But in the past few months and especially in the wake of allegations against Aziz Ansari that were made public earlier this week, it seems like some older feminists are uncomfortable with how far this movement is going. They’re accusing women my age and younger of being weak, because we’re speaking out against behavior we don’t want to tolerate. And it’s not only disappointing, but harmful to us all.
I’ve always had a deep reverence for the feminists who came before me. My mom raised me to be a feminist from birth. I idolized her and her sisters and her friends because they were tough and didn’t take shit from any man.
These women, mostly born in the 1950s and 1960s, had to develop a thick skin and fierce defense tactics if they ever wanted to lead a life outside the home. “Victim” was not in their vocabulary. If they faced any sort of abuse from guys in public life, they had to toughen up and get over it or quite literally go back to the kitchen.
I always think of one story my journalist mom and her former colleagues love to tell. Back in the 1970s, a woman started working the police beat at one Philadelphia paper for the first time ever. To intimidate her, the guys on the beat somehow got a severed head from a crime scene and hid it in her desk drawer. When she opened the drawer and found the head, she didn’t cry or scream. She held it up by the hair and calmly asked, “Did someone lose this?”
This might be a true story or it might be an urban legend. But the fact that the city’s female journalists passed it around and relished it, just to keep their morale up, should tell you all you need to know about their work environment.
Women back then had no choice but to cope with such shitty, sexist behavior by giving the men a dose of their own medicine. But what about the women who didn’t know how to fight fire with fire? How many of them missed out on careers or lives outside the home because they couldn’t respond to male taunts or unwanted advances with toughness? Is it fair that only the women with Teflon skin earned respect?
Today, thanks to the persistence of these older women, we don’t necessarily have to be ballbusters to advance in the world. Women my age are allowed to say, “Hey, that hurt,” or, “That wasn’t all right with me,” when men step out of line. We’re even allowed to say it publicly, sometimes. This should be cause for celebration, but instead, we’re being perceived as weak.
I’ve noticed it for months: the rumblings among older feminists that if we millennials were as strong as they were, this wouldn’t be a problem for us. Earlier this month, about a week after the New York Times published a story alleging widespread sexual harassment at Vice, the trend was given a public face when 63-year-old Daphne Merkin wrote an op-ed called “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings.”
In addition to mocking the participants of the Golden Globes’ Time’s Up protest and implying that the #metoo movement is an assault on flirting, she says women of my generation are weak for speaking up.
We’re “returning to a victimology paradigm for young women, in particular, in which they are perceived to be — and perceive themselves to be — as frail as Victorian housewives,” she writes. This thought process seems to be latent in many older feminists, and it’s disappointing.
The grim choice we’re being given boils down to this: if we find ourselves being harassed, assaulted or coerced, we can either leave the situation, or take it and shut up. If we fail to leave the situation for any reason, we’d better not speak out publicly after the fact unless we were raped. If our harasser was a coworker, we get a little more leeway. But to speak out against more commonplace forms of misconduct is to “hurt the movement.”
Of course, if we were all able to stop abusive or inappropriate actions as they’re happening, it would be better for all of us. It would stop bad situations from getting worse. But this isn’t realistic for all women, and it’s not fair to scold or demand silence from the women who didn’t leave an abusive situation the moment it began.
This brings us to the shit storm that has taken place since earlier this week, when the website Babe published an account of comedian Aziz Ansari allegedly behaving badly toward a woman on a date.
Critics are saying Babe should’ve made it clearer that they weren’t accusing Aziz of sexual assault or criminal activity. Instead, the piece’s main function should have been to highlight how men still would rather not take no for an answer, even when their (highly lucrative) public persona says otherwise.
Well, guess what? The piece mentioned that. And it was only the first of many to discuss this story and the issues it highlights. It accomplished its goal of opening up a dialogue about coercion — or at least, it would have if some people would stop attempting to drown out that conversation by loudly trashing Babe and the anonymous accuser, “Grace.”
The older women accusing Grace herself of sullying “their” movement and merely “regretting a bad date” should be ashamed of themselves. I have no doubt their words will intimidate other women into silence — women who aren’t the Teflon type like they seem to think they are.
The first negative reaction to Babe’s story came from Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, who is in her late 50s. Her piece was headlined, “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari.”
Flanagan almost wistfully recalls a time when magazine articles encouraged women to bolt from uncomfortable sexual situations and carry cab money so they could get away from predators.
“They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want,” she writes, “and under no circumstances to go down without a fight.”
Good girls know how to get away from predators, weak and bad girls succumb to them. Imagine how this mindset made women feel if they were unable to flee from a creepy guy’s home in time to stop him. Imagine how ashamed a woman who failed to get away would feel, and how much criticism would be heaped on her if she publicly complained.
Well, actually, you don’t have to imagine that, because we’re watching it happen right now. Grace is being put through the ringer because she found herself in a bad situation and failed to leave immediately.
Instead of immediately assuming she was a victim who had to either fight or flee, Grace endured a few sloppy hookups. She seemingly hoped that if she stayed and politely asked Aziz to slow down, he’d turn into the guy she originally thought he was. He apparently did for a few minutes, but then he started trying to coerce her into sex again.
Her failure to leave at the right time makes Grace weaker and less worthy of empathy — and less entitled to speak out about the mistreatment, if I’m reading Caitlin Flanagan’s argument correctly. Grace apparently does not deserve the protection of this moment. Only girls who leave at the right time do. It’s exactly like how some people think only girls who dress modestly and don’t drink are truly capable of being rape victims, because everyone else is asking for it.
Flanagan ends her piece with this:
“Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
Flanagan seems angry that young women who have the gall to “pick out pretty outfits for dates” could be “temporarily powerful.” How condescending. (She also seems confused about my generation’s relationship with cabs. Sweetie, we invented Uber. But that’s beside the point.)
In the Aziz situation, the man’s mistake was that he didn’t treat his date like an equal. The woman’s mistake was that she assumed he would. This happens a lot. It’s deeply ingrained in our dating rituals. Caitlin Flanagan is implying that we should just deal with it, because it’s the way things are. Does she realize this is exactly how men defend themselves when their patriarchal views are challenged?
HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield was even more glib when addressing the story. Incredibly, she called Aziz’s alleged actions — which included repeatedly sticking his hand down Grace’s throat and pointing to his penis to ask for oral — “overly amorous.”
“You had a bad date,” she said. “Your date got overly amorous. After protesting his moves, you did not get up and leave. You continued to engage in the sexual encounter.”
She went on to scold Grace, calling her outing of Aziz “appalling.”
“You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades, a movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I, too, have struggled through at times over the last 30 years,” she said.
I don’t understand how broadening the conversation around men’s sexual entitlement equates to chiseling away at a movement. Grace’s account adds nuance and a new layer to the discussion of what is appropriate sexual behavior between men and women. To silence her would be to leave out an important part of the debate.
Ashleigh also blamed Grace for what happened to her, which will sound familiar to any woman — except that it doesn’t usually come from the mouth of someone who’s supposed to be on our side.
“You had an unpleasant date,” she said. “And you didn’t leave. That is on you. And all the gains that have been achieved on your behalf and mine are now being compromised by allegations that are reckless and hollow.”
Babe has since responded to a request for on-air comment with an epically shady letter, and Ashleigh decided to make it public so she could get the last word and more headlines. Who’s chiseling away at the movement now?
It’s sad that some women of this older generation were apparently so bullied by the patriarchy, they have Stockholm syndrome. The women I’ve quoted here are literally resisting progress as it’s happening. Millennial women don’t want to put an end to flirting or kinky sex or workplace romance. We want to be treated like human beings by the men we respect and consider to be equals.
And men don’t want to seem like predators, either. Why don’t we teach them that hitting on their underlings is creepy at best and harassment at worst? Why don’t we teach them that sex isn’t something you acquire through persistence and coercion, but a mutual connection that all parties should enjoy?
I’m lucky. I was raised to give men hell and laugh in their face if they tried to harass or intimidate or coerce me. I can’t thank the older feminists in my life for that enough.
But not everyone was brought up that way. Some women are raised to do the exact opposite: to assume the best in others and bend to powerful people’s will and never, ever make a scene. They might be more likely to fall victim to men who are older or stronger or more powerful — or just more persistent.
Should these women accept the abuse, like those imaginary girls who don’t know how to call a cab, and keep their trauma to themselves? Or should they use their trauma to start a bigger conversation about the shit men have gotten away with for centuries? Do those women not deserve to be part of this movement, because they didn’t leave some guy’s apartment at precisely the right time?
It isn’t weak to demand that men stop treating us like something other than human when it comes to matters of sex. It’s brave. And we young feminists realize we wouldn’t be having this conversation without the women who came before us. I just wish they’d realize we’re picking up exactly where they left off.