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Before and After #MeToo

            I’ve been thinking about the #MeToo movement a lot, especially in the shadow of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to both protests and intensive discussions over the past months. The parallels in how discrimination functions are so clear, no matter which group is being put down. The literature on microaggressions and systemic racism gives language to what women face too, especially women who have been sexually abused by men and then have to function in a world that is inherently prejudiced against women’s voices. It is incomplete to talk about sexism in the workplace without acknowledging the deeper wounds many women carry with them into adulthood, because they were born female.

Ellie says, “Me too.”

Violence against women and children is part and parcel with a culture that keeps women from advancement in the workplace, and allows the workplace to be hostile to women in a sexual way, as well as in the form of gender discrimination. We talk as if women experience sexism for the first time as adults, in the work place, as if sexism hasn’t been impacting us throughout our development, creating their expectations and self-perceptions and opportunities. Even though we are more aware of the prejudices women face today, we are barely scratching the surface.

            I grew up in the eighties, when women were supposed to be able to accomplish anything men could, while still being held to many of the older expectations of womanhood. My lived experience as a child wasn’t just about my abusive home life, or my religious Jewish education, but was also deeply impacted by the fact that I watched A Lot of television, where it was clear that women could be anything, yes, as long as they were beautiful or skinny or sexy (or all three!) and willing to work at the pleasure of a man.

There was a show called Three’s Company in syndication when I came home from school each day. It was a sex farce (no, really, that’s what they called it), and the local New York station aired it at Five o’clock on weekdays. It was a sitcom about a man who had to pretend to be gay in order to live with two women, because, you know, they might both be having sex with him all the time if he were straight. The innuendo and misunderstandings centered on the man supposedly being gay and also on one of the women’s “blonde moments.” The women were ALWAYS being groped and demeaned, and while I remember that the man was an aspiring chef, I have no memory of what the girls did for a living.

I didn’t feel like I could turn off the television, because when the TV was off I felt the fear and loneliness of my real life too vividly. I kept it on while I did my homework, or played with my dog, or even read through piles of library books. TV was my constant companion, but it was also my teacher. TV was my way of finding out about the world and learning how I was supposed to think and act in order to fit in.

“Who needs to fit in?!”

Out of desperation, I often watched a show called The Honeymooners at eleven o’clock at night, while I waited for Johnny Carson’s monologue to start. I cringed at all of the screaming from Jackie Gleason who played Ralph Kramden, a New York City bus driver living with his long suffering wife in a gritty Brooklyn apartment building. He was always getting into trouble and blaming other people for his problems, especially his wife. He would scream at her, “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!” He didn’t actually hit her, and he would eventually apologize, saying, “Baby you’re the greatest,” and give her a kiss and a hug. The excuse for his behavior seemed to be that they were working class and struggling to get by. A comment I read online said that there had been arguments about whether or not the show depicted domestic violence, since the threats were always “comical,” and he never followed up. But even back then, for me, the show was very clearly about man’s right to threaten and blame and demean women and call it funny. I’d been trained for The Honeymooners by watching my father’s behavior, which was very similar. He always praised himself for not actually hitting us. I’d actually watched The Flintstones first (basically an animated version of the Honeymooners, set in the Stone Age, appropriately enough), and found that disturbing too.

My other option at eleven o’clock, when The Honeymooners got to be too much, was MASH, a dark comedy about the Korean War, made during the Vietnam and cold war era. It was lauded for its nuance and political commentary, and when I watched it in syndication in the eighties it was only a few years out of date, but for me, MASH was just another show obsessed with women as sex objects and men as the drivers of all action, thought, humor, and pathos.

            I took some, brief, solace in shows like The Facts of life, which, especially early on, showcased a wide range of girls with different body types and personalities and interests. But it was a rarity. Most shows starred men, or boys, and presented women as sex objects, or money hungry, or both.

            Star Wars, one of my mainstays, was also filled with sexism. Princess Leia, who should have been powerful and in charge, always had to be dressed in skimpy clothes. The whole first act of Return of the Jedi was Princess Leia in a push up bra, locked in chains as Jabba the Hut’s sex slave. It didn’t escape me that, of the twins, only the male had the powers of the force.

            And then there was the music, especially the videos on MTV, where Heavy Metal and Hard Rock and Rap videos all featured scantily clad women draped suggestively over cars, for some reason. Madonna was a huge star back then too, in large part because she was willing to exploit her own sexuality instead of leaving it to the men. Neither of those options were going to work for me.

            Things started to change on TV when I was a teenager, I think. Oprah Winfrey revamped her talk show and started to discuss issues like sexual abuse more openly. And China Beach showed that the skinny, sexy, tipsy nurses on shows like MASH had a lot more going on behind the scenes, even if the men refused to see it.

            But change was slow, and inconsistent, and often, like Madonna, moved from the exploitation of women by men to the exploitation of women by women, to show that women could be powerful too. Even now, we still accept an extraordinary amount of misogyny as normal in our movies and on TV, in our books and certainly in our politicians. And we still seem to accept the trope that men can’t be expected to control their desires, but girls as young as ten (no, younger) are held responsible for choosing to wear outfits that men consider provocative, and are assumed to know exactly what impact they are having on men. But girls and women are also judged for being too plain or prudish in the way they dress. A sixteen year old girl who dresses in baggy clothes, or skips makeup, is clearly just not trying to be successful, and she should be ignored, or hated (just take a look at the backlash against Billie Eilish), whereas a sixteen year old boy can wear whatever he had on for soccer practice and become a superstar.

            The backlash against Billie Eilish, by the way, for dressing in baggy clothes, is constant and virulent, as if she’s a thing rather than a person, because she won’t let us judge her breast size. The fact that girls generally hide under so many layers when they have been sexually assaulted barely gets discussed in favor of how freakin’ weird that girl is; so moody.

“I’m moody too. You wanna make something of it?”

Even this past year, post #MeToo, with half a dozen pre-eminently qualified, charming, accomplished, intelligent, and hard working women running in the presidential race, we still ended up with two old white men, in the DEMOCRATIC primary. (And yes, a woman of color has been chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, but that’s one man’s choice, not the choice of our whole society.)

            And now, during the pandemic, we’re experiencing what media figures are calling a Shecession, because it’s most often women who have had to quit their jobs, or reduce their hours, to take care of the kids. And since women are more likely to work in hospitality and education, where so many of the jobs have been lost due to Covid 19, more women are losing their jobs than men and a decade of employment gains made by women has been eroded. On top of that, the jobs were low paying to begin with, so those women didn’t have the benefit of savings to make it through the recession safely until their jobs can return, if they ever return.

            I’m tired of being told that we solved sexism with #MeToo, just like we solved racism back in 1965, and we should just get over it. The assumption behind both statements is that if women or people of color are still achieving less, or earning less, it must be because they are as inferior as we thought they were, and not because there is still something wrong with the system.

            I’m not sure #MeToo changed much, actually, other than a few men with egregiously long resumes of abusive behavior being fired from their high profile jobs. As a society, we’re not even reading long lists of books exploring systemic prejudice against women, or discussing what it means to try to pull yourself up by bootstraps that don’t exist, because they’ve been ripped off by force.        

            One of the more startling realities of the Black Lives Matter movement is that even though most of the originators of the movement were women, the movement overall barely addresses women’s issues. Women were also at the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and then too the issues specific to black women were barely discussed.

            I don’t have a solution to this. And watching the backlash against Black Lives Matter protests, including the killing of protesters in the streets, is demoralizing. I’m tired of the ways manipulation of reality has continued, and worsened, in our current environment. I’m tired of all of the ways being female makes me less likely to be believed or even heard, than the average white man. Maybe having Kamala Harris on the big stage will have an impact on our society’s willingness to listen to and respect women. I hope so. Get your ballots in early if you can.

“I’m ready!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

122 responses »

  1. Rachel this is a terrific piece that I am coming late to. My father adored Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners show and I can still hear him laughing at it, which gives me the creeps now that I’ve rewatched some of it and realize how sexist, classist and borderline violent it really is. I’d add I Love Lucy to your list as well. Lucy may have tried to be independent, but she was always inept, worried about Ricky finding out about her escapades, unable to be more than a dingbat. In today’s very toxic environment a large swath of American society is unabashed in linking misogyny, racism and sectarianism, with Kamala Harris as the perfect synthesis of the three. The Barbie dolls in the white house are in great contrast to the strong black women of the Obama years. We haven’t come a long way, have we?!?

    • The last four years have been surprising in a lot of ways, but the misogyny might be the least of them. It’s so deeply ingrained in our society. The belief in the inferiority of black skin is around four hundred years old, and created my economic circumstances, but the belief that women are property goes back to the beginning of time.

  2. Wow. You should lecture. This sounds like a build of months of feeling and reaction to everything. I used to watch The Honeymooners, and Three’s Company, and the Flintstones. Thanks for taking a critical lens on society. Applied for my ballot!

  3. Rachel, Love your output, and find this piece fascinating. You, like me, oppose any kind of reductionist thinking—for example, women are sex objects or blacks are criminals. But why would you reduce the U.S. President, or anyone, for that matter, to “lizard brain”? That’s an honest question.

    • I don’t think its reductive to recognize that our current president has a habit of appealing to, and acting on, some base level instincts, and talking about people who disagree with him in very reductive terms. But I can believe that you, and others, may see other aspects to him as well. We are, none of us, only one thing.

  4. My reply might not have made sense. It was early. What I meant to say was this. Calling anyone, including Trump, “lizard brain” is reductive. We might virulently disagree with that person in a whole host of areas, but we can never reduce him or her to a “lizard brain” label.

  5. I agree. I didn’t say much during the first wave of #MeToo and #TimesUp. I thought then, what I still ruminate on now, once the hashtag is done trending, what substantive change has occurred? We rise up and rush around boldly, dispense with the worst offender as scapegoat, but we don’t address the deeper issue, which is, that misogyny runs through the DNA of our culture and gets replicated through our media. It is as pernicious as racism.

  6. Beautifully written👌👏🤗

  7. I believe as it seems a lot of unfairness is ongoing and we wonder, will it ever be fair? I believe, yes it will. Balance is coming and it begins because the women finally have a voice!

  8. I have aways struggled with the MeToo movement. On one hand I recognize the way it has helped so many women and even some men find justice but my fear is that it has been weaponized to some degree. Many of the accused are being tried in the media and careers are ending with little to no proof. As a mother, I worry about the precedent that is being set. Will my 17 year old be accused of assault in 20 years because he tried to kiss a girl while they were on a date? I think its a fair question to ask about something that occurs everyday around the world. This movement often feels angry, rightfully so, but when guilt is determined by the media rather than the courts I feel the point is devalued.

    • I wish the courts had a better history of dealing with sexual assault, because I agree that social media is a terrible forum for real justice. But when the police and the courts fail to protect and defend victims, I can understand why people would try whatever route might work.

      • I definitely understand, but many of these people did not go the legal route at the time so the system did not actually fail them. I understand how difficult the decision to speak up is, I was raped at 15. There should not be a SOL on rape ever. My earlier comment is not about rape, I just want to be more clear about that. My problem with MeeToo is about ruining lives over a butt slap or a ass grab 20 years ago. Yes it was wrong and it is sexual assault. No one should ever be touched against their will but why are people only outraged now and turning to the media for justice that they never sought it in the courts. I just find it distressing that proof doesn’t seem to matter very much anymore and believe that it will bite victims in the ass later.

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