You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
– ‘Daddy’, Sylvia Plath (1981)
Fun fact: It was International No Bra Day yesterday.
If you already knew that, more power to you, sistah (or brutha!) Until I caught it from the airwaves yesterday morning on my bus ride to work, I wasn’t aware that we had a commemorative day for bralessness, so it was with a tad bit of wistfulness that I missed out on a chance to legitimately unbound myself from the lady diaphragm wall, albeit for just a day.
What I have been aware of, though, is the Harvey Weinstein expose that’s been at the top of my BBC reader for the past week.
Following from the Roman Polanski case in the 1970s, the Bill Cosby accusations a few years ago, and recent speculations of Oliver Stone also being a creep, it seems that sexual preying is endemic in Hollywood and the film industry at large, even in Asian regions like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China or South Korea, where they call the unspoken agreement between directors and actresses to exchange sex for casting opportunities “潛規則”, which literally means “latent rule”.
Jay-Z bein like ‘You WOT, mate?!’
I find such news to be both saddening and intriguing; saddening because these men’s actions show how power pollutes, and intriguing because of how absolutely power pollutes. While I definitely think predators like Weinstein et al should get their just desserts, I don’t believe that these men, or anyone for that matter, are born ‘bad’. I’m sure they’re not stupid either, being super rich multi-award winning producers and directors, so the burning question for me is this –
Why do some men treat women with such criminal disrespect, even when they clearly know it’s against their better judgment?
This overpowering force, I believe, is fear.
In fact, it’s never not about fear. Even when there’s no ostensible thing to be fearful of, people – men or women alike, fundamentally act out of fear.
Why do parents give their kids a hard time about not doing well at school? Because of fear they will grow up to be a ‘failure’.
Why do people stay in jobs they don’t like? Because of fear they won’t be able to find another job.
Why do couples hold on to unhappy relationships? Because of fear they will never find someone else, or that their ‘investment’ in the other person will all go to waste.
Weinstein and Cosby may be rich and powerful, but they are also human – mortal men who battle the same feelings of insecurity and inadequacy like their fellow non-Hollywoodians (oh, and who can forget about Woody Allen, Mr ‘The Heart Want What It Wants’?) Perhaps as directors and producers used to overseeing massive, multi-million projects, they fear the loss of control, from the ownership of their production company to the editing of the movie down to the bodies of actresses on the set.
Perhaps, as men whose incredible professional success has convinced them they are deserving of more-than-average adulation, they require validation from every woman they see possible to victimise. After all, if he can ‘control’ their fates simply by deciding whether or not he wants them in a potential blockbuster, surely he’s entitled to controlling their bodies as well, goes Weinstein’s line of thinking.
This is why sexual abuse is almost always about the ego of the perpetrator, not so much the actions or the appearance of the victim.
Sure, a lot of the women whom Weinstein preyed on were physically attractive, but he preyed on them not because their beauty was too arousing for him to bear, but because his ginormous ego couldn’t stand the idea of beautiful women not wanting to throw themselves at him and be in awe of his masculinity and power.
From left to right: Lea Seydoux, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose McGowan
Monstrous? No, just all too human.
What to do (and not do) when encountering misogyny
So far, I’m lucky to not have encountered sexual predators in the workplace, but I’ve had my fair share of misogynistic experiences, be it in a social, professional, or personal setting.
It doesn’t matter if it was the time when a casual hand travelled up my thigh at a club in Beijing, when an ex-colleague told me I should just ‘sit there and not speak’ in a meeting, or when a guy made awful comments after I adamantly refused to give him what he wanted, the point is to understand that such men do and say disrespectful things out of fear: fear of losing out on a piece of the ‘standard nightlife action’; fear of losing dominance in a work situation; or fear that a woman’s rejection of his advances implies a lack of sexual attraction or prowess on his part.
But here’s the thing: understanding what motivates them is the first step to prevention and protection, because simply by not being fearful ourselves, we as women are better able to not give in to men’s fear.
Instead of being afraid that speaking up will subject us to others’ judgment, know that there is nothing shameful about speaking your truth, because only by speaking our truth can we communicate the importance of our self-worth.
Instead of being afraid that men will taunt and scorn (and some will) when you rebuff their advances, say no if you don’t want to, because that’s the ultimate gesture of self-respect, and something that no amount of sardonic comments can take away.
So say no, firmly, reasonably and yes, I repeat – firmly.
And heck yes, shout no if you need to.
This reminds me of a painful moment in the book I’m currently reading, Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys, in which the daughter of the Mulvaney family, Marianne, suffers in silence after being raped by her prom date, out of fear that she will bring shame upon her family in their insular upstate New York community.
Notice the self-censoring impulse of her responses, and the self-denying nature of her thoughts:
“Who was the boy, Marianne?” Dr. Oakley asked quietly. “What did he do to you?”
Marianne didn’t reply at first, then said, in the same near-inaudible voice, that she did not wish to say the boy’s name. She did not believe that what had happened had been his fault to any degree more than it had been her fault. She’d been drinking at the party, and she had never been so sick in her life. She had made a mistake to drink and believed that friends had warned her but she could not remember clearly. She could not remember much of what had happened and even the memory of the prom itself had become blurred like a dream you know you’ve had yet can’t recall. It was there, it was real, yet she had no access to it. And she did not wish to speak in error.
Dr Oakley said, frowning, “But something was done to you, Marianne? You’ve been – ‘hurt’?”
There was the evidence she’d discovered. Marianne said slowly, of certain injuries. On her body. She had struggled with him, the boy whose name she did not wish to say, but he’d ripped her dress, and might have struck her – unless she’d fallen, slipped and fell in her high heels, on icy pavement. Trying to run from his car. It had been very cold and windy and she didn’t know where her coat was and she’d been sick. She had never been drunk before but believed that that was what had happened to her – she’d been drinking something made of orange juice and she’d been warned but had not listened, or could not remember having listened, and could not remember who’d warned her. She did not wish to name any names and to involve her friends or anyone for no one was to blame except possibly herself. She might have been running and stumbling from the boy’s car because she was going to be sick. Ashamed to be sick, vomiting in his car. […]
For the past few days she had been praying and meditating upon what to do, and she had decided she must do nothing, for it was she who had made the mistake and not the boy and she must not bear witness against him. And Marianne began to cry again, helplessly.
“Did not wish”, “did not want”, “must not bear”, “she must do nothing”: Like many of Weinstein’s female victims, Marianne would rather write off the truth and white-out her memory, preferring to suffer in silence instead of seeking for help.
She fears that people won’t understand – won’t even try to understand, but do what’s far easier: speculate and shame the woman for seducing the man.
It’s the classic Genesis narrative – had it not been for that minx Eve who fell trap to Satan’s stupid fruit bid, poor clueless Adam would never had sinned.
‘The Fall of Man’, by Jan Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens
Misogyny, as we know, is no new thing under the sun.
Ultimately, people treat us how we want and teach them to treat us, so if we don’t think much of ourselves anyway, predatory men will pick up on our fear of not being enough from a mile away.
I’ve noticed, then, that the more confident and certain a woman is about her worth, the less likely she is to be a victim of misogyny.
But instead of seeing predatory or disrespectful men as ‘enemies’ or ‘monsters’, understand that deep down they harbour deep, crippling insecurities about their manhood, and as such are desperate for sexual validation, which they can only obtain from the other sex. In this sense, perhaps no one is more human than them.
So choose to feel sorry for these souls and step away, because your time is better spent with people who truly value your worth, be that your loved ones or yourself.
Joyce Carol Oates, circa 1999
Feature image credits: Vanity Fair