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.
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.
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.
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.
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?