WASHINGTON — Depending upon one’s distance from all things Twitter, recent revelations of sexual harassment in Hollywood are either the tipping point we’ve been waiting for — or just another shark attack until the next one.
If you’re former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose book, “Be Fierce,” was released just as Harvey Weinstein was falling from grace, we’re in the midst of a Malcolm Gladwell sequel.
And Carlson, who also is a former Miss America, is the female version of David, who ultimately brought down Goliath — Fox News creator and CEO Roger Ailes — with a sexual harassment lawsuit that resulted in a $20 million settlement. She also opened the floodgates with her witness and testament, prompting strangers to stop her on the street. In the past few days, thousands of other women have taken to social media to post their own experiences of sexual harassment using the hashtag #MeToo.
“Every woman has a story,” says Carlson.
If you’re a skeptical sort, on the other hand, you may lean toward the shark-attack line of thinking. This, too, shall pass softly into history, in other words, because inevitably something else will come along to demand our attention. Given the plethora of horrors, from the Las Vegas slaughter to the California fires, how does one sustain the necessary intensity to effect the sort of systemic cultural change that Carlson and others hope for?
The skeptics would have a valid point were it not for at least one statistically significant factor and one whale of a difference from all previous uprisings.
If true, as Carlson says, that every woman has a story, then, statistically, sexual harassment in the workplace is a plague, a disaster and a psychological assault weapon. Given that women constitute half the world’s population — and that successful women mean successful families and societies — then any word or action that undermines their ability to conduct life without fear of sex-based exploitation or retribution should be considered an epidemic of opioid proportions.
Coincidentally, Trump, whose presidential campaign recently was subpoenaed for records related to multiple sexual harassment allegations, is slated next week to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.
The big-fish difference, meanwhile, is the president. The man who famously boasted of grabbing women by their nethers sparked the Women’s March last January with his many crude, misogynistic comments. Trump’s lawyers have requested that they be allowed to postpone responding to the subpoena until his presidency ends, but feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who is representing some of the accusers, doesn’t appear to harbor patience in her armory of legal tactics. To be continued.
When I interviewed Carlson recently, I confessed that I had always been a “guy-girl,” raised by my father in a male-centric environment and, as a professional skeptic, had often assumed that most “victims” of sexual harassment were either not tough enough, lacked a sense of humor or were stupid about guy-tude.
It turns out I was also, according to Carlson, part of the problem. (You learn something new every day.) Next I told her that I had never been sexually harassed, then proceeded to relate at least two incidents in my adult working life that were textbook sexual harassment. I simply hadn’t recognized them as such.
Indeed, I did what most women do. I shrugged them off and stashed the experiences so deeply in my psyche’s Junk folder that I forgot about them — until now. #MeToo.
Cases such as Carlson’s — Ailes kept pushing her for sex so that she would “be good and better” — were more clear-cut than mine. One incident was hands-on, but the other, a series of episodes in the early 1990s, was environmental. Strippers were brought in to our intimate public-relations office to perform for executives’ birthday parties. I was told I could stay home those days, which I did, but then the CEO would call a meeting and show a video of the striptease on a large screen while my boss and a half-dozen male colleagues laughed.
It wasn’t fun or funny.
Sexual harassment doesn’t always mean a sexual advance, as Carlson pointed out. It’s about power through sexual intimidation. Surely, women have a right to live and work without this predatory threat. If enough fathers care about their daughters’ future success; if enough brothers care about their sisters’ safety; if enough women care enough about each other, #MeToo — or #BeFierce — won’t be just another hashtag.
And as long as Trump is considered one of the greatest offenders by so many women, this moment won’t likely be just another bad day at the beach.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post. Reach her at email@example.com.