It’s hard to look to any end-game without being negative. I’m reminded of movements like Occupy Wall Street in which it felt like the conversation shift, the months-long domination of the news cycle by a group of outraged, disenfranchised people was the end game.
And still, the way that movement fizzled is a cautionary tale. Because there’s always a backlash. Indeed, someone on Twitter noted that pundits’ anticipation of a backlash reads a bit like the “hope” for a backlash—a pendulum swing would provide a new news angle, a fresh take after the same story (prominent guy is revealed to be creepy) has been repeated over and over again. So yes, we’re waiting for the tipping boy, whatever it is, that unleashes the “okay, now we’ve gone too far” voices waiting in the wings.
Or maybe the backlash will just take the quiet form of a series of “solutions” that hurt women, like cancelled holiday parties and women being shut out of after-work happy hours—or as Rebecca Traister warned, women not being hired at all: “Many men will absorb the lessons of late 2017 to be not about the threat they’ve posed to women but about the threat that women pose to them.
All these possibilities hang in the air above our heads like the sword of Damocles. And yet we have to keep pushing. Because without the threat of repercussions for perpetrators, this kind of behavior won’t stop. And as we did during Occupy, we have to revel in this moment of unmasking for its own sake.
Yet we can and should look forward too. And if we are beginning to project beyond denouncement and punishment, the word “intersectional”—which has been derided of late—is crucial. We can make strides if we address harassment as part of a broader problem of worker exploitation and pervasive sexism. In other words, it’s not just about these several-dozen (or more) jerks, but about an entire workplace structure that is formed around gendered expectations of authority and dominance, one that celebrates individuals’ lopsided authority over other people’s lives. We are talking about a system that rewarded a man famous for cruelly firing people on TV with the highest office in the land.
We need a deeply intersectional approach to workplace inequality, as Rebecca Onion writes in Slate:
“We need to be unafraid to tie sexual harassment to other forms of violence against women—to see the connections between harassment and the pay gap, the lack of good child care, and the persistence of the second shift. We need to recognize how sexual harassment and racial injustice exist in symbiosis, and to think about how workers’ tenuous position at this particular moment in the history of capitalism has enabled sexual harassment to thrive.”
All this brings me to Dolly Parton. Don’t see the connection? Well, as I write and think and talk about harassment at work, I have been mentally going back to the feminist cult classic “9 to 5,” starring Jane Fonda, Parton and Lily Tomlin. My mom showed it to me at a young age and it made a lifelong impression.
Because slapstick comedy though it was, this film actually encapsulated both the nature of workplace sexism and a possible avenue for a solution. First of all, the three protagonists represent the way different forms of sexism in the workplace function to keep women down. In the film, our heroines all feel their boss’s sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigotry differently: there’s the harried, overworked single mom, the go-getter whose ambitious ideas are stolen and undermined, and the secretary who is sexually harassed—and then isolated because people think she’s sleeping with the boss.
In the film, the different characters come together and punish their boss with an absurd kidnapping that provides the tension and laughter. But their uprising goes further than that: they actually replace him as a sort of secret cabal, and institute a matriarchal paradise in the office. Together, they enact an agenda which includes equal pay, in-office daycare, job-sharing (my personal fantasy) and an office-sponsored rehab program among other innovations.
This is the only way forward, the only way to build. We need to fire and chastise perpetrators, but this alone won’t eliminate the abuse of workers. Changing the nature of contemporary work from the bottom up could make a dent. At the very least, a robust safety net both within companies and in general keeps people on the bottom rung from being so incredibly vulnerable.
I wonder whether the women in elite professions who have constituted the majority of storytellers in this round of the “reckoning” have the will to harness their fury and desire for retribution into a meaningful redistribution of power that might also eliminate some of their own perks. But even more doubtful is whether the white male power holders—especially in our reactionary political climate—will allow anything other than cosmetic changes.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.