Why Harvey Weinstein Broke the Patriarchy

Okay, that’s a little strong. Patriarchy is still present in our society and makes itself explicitly and implicitly known on a regular basis. It shows up in every sphere of modern society.

And yet it feels like something fundamental has shifted in our sociological structures and processes in the five weeks since the first Weinstein story broke in The New York Times. Sociological time moves faster than geologic time but five weeks is but a moment in most understandings of social change.

WeinsteinMaybe it’s better to to think of Weinstein putting a fracture in Patriarchy and that the raft of follow-on revelations — Bill O’Reilly’s remarkable settlement,  Kevin Spacey’s exploitations, the NPR’s news editor’s ouster, Louis C.K.’s exposures, and Judge Roy Moore’s bizarre past (he admits to dating teenagers even if he disputes the molestation) — have splintered that fracture with each additional revelation.

For all those who like the “what about-ism” game, the issue isn’t why past actors, politicians, presidents, and businessmen got away with such oppressive behavior. Such games of looking for hypocrisy and trying to divine moral equivalence only leads to a race to the bottom where folks are motivated to find the worst excesses of the group they dislike, while trying to protect their own from “events of long ago”.

What’s different in the wake of Weinstein is that these oppressive and reprehensible behaviors are being met with broadly shared outrage and institutional consequences. Removing Weinstein from the Academy is largely a symbolic step, but is still important. Having Spacey replaced with Christopher Plummer in a movie that had already wrapped is remarkable. Seeing Louis C.K. go from media darling to pariah overnight is new.

So what’s different? Why did Weinstein’s story become an institution-shaping story rather than a Charlie Sheen meltdown? I suspect there are many factors at play but I’ll try to isolate a few.

The presence of authentic narrators — In an era where personal story is paramount, having a figure like Ashley Judd (and others) come forward and describe her experiences with Weinstein rings with authenticity. All of the victims that have come forward did so at risk of personal loss. There is no evidence of looking for book deals or advancing careers. These are people with hard stories to tell and they demand attention. That’s why the #metoo hashtag developed, allowing other women (and men) to tell their own stories that ring of legitimacy.

The attempt at revisionist history — Weinstein’s first “apology” was to argue that “he grew up in a time when people accepted” this type of exploitive behavior. Harvey Weinstein is 64, one year older than me. We never argued that exploiting women within your company or school or church was what one did. Maybe in the Mad Men world of Manhattan advertising in the 1960s (and likely not even then). But Harvey and I were barely in first grade at the time the show begins. Maybe those who live in the world of politics or entertainment or broadcasting found that gender roles changed more slowly but I doubt it. It’s just that people in power didn’t feel the need to change because they could get away with it.

The rejection of “locker room talk” — The 2016 presidential campaign had gender at its very center. It was a question of whether a woman could be president, especially when that woman would be held responsible for her husband’s past misbehavior. It was a question of whether misogynistic statements from a candidate who demeaned women’s appearance, weight, and character could be trusted to lead the county, whether the accusations of past physical invasions were true or not. The most telling moment in the Access Hollywood video was not the “grabbing” comment but the one where he said “if you’re a star, they let you do it.” Those statements were seen as wrong by most people. The fact that their states voted for him anyway left people unwilling to tolerate such attitudes and behavior going forward.

The social media world — As we strive to understand exactly all the ways that Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms were manipulated during the 2016 election cycle, the ability of social media to rapidly disseminate information cannot be overstated. In fact, that’s why the disruptions from Russia and the alt-Right were so successful. But when the Weinstein story broke in the Times and then ricocheted across social media, the story not only grew in importance and legitimacy but it demanded responses from other institutional entities that would lead to specific action. The NPR case was particularly interesting in this regard as the story jumped from the Washington Post to NPR to Twitter and back. The story broke, was covered by NPR (including a fabulous interview on what the head of NPR knew and when), all the time mediated on my twitter feed.

“Ain’t got time for this..” — One interesting dynamic is that we seem to gotten to the end of our hypocrisy reservoir. Sure, some will still try to defend their favorite guy (the stuff on how “electing pedophiles is better than electing Democrats” is especially galling), but it’s recognized as hypocrisy and craven partisanship right away. One of my sociologist friends, Gerardo Marti, reposted this data from PRRI:

PRRI Morals

I’d seen this data when it first released and focused on the big shifts among religious folks on key issues of morality, especially among White Protestants. But I hadn’t noticed the shift among the Unaffiliated (who we know tend to be disproportionately younger). They are LESS wiling to ignore moral issues in 2016 that they were in 2011. This is consistent with what I see in my students. The week after the Weinstein story broke, I used it as an example in my night class to explore the morality of market decisions. Why couldn’t we argue, I suggested in true socratic form, that Weinstein and Judd had achieved some kind of free market exchange that was mutually beneficial (even if disgusting to imagine). My students argued that exchanges that resulted in the dehumanizing of another were morally flawed. I was very proud.

What make anyone think this behavior was normal? — It was interesting to hear people reflect on the sexual harassment training conducted by human relations departments. Companies adopt policies and make employees watch videos, which prove generally ineffective. The company requires the video to provide legal liability so that management doesn’t get sued when bad behavior occurs (“He watched the video!”). But a compliance approach is woefully inadequate when you’re trying to develop a healthy culture where people can flourish and do their best work. After the NPR firing, there was an interview on Morning Edition with an HR specialist. At the end of her interview, she said (paraphrasing), “We don’t need to train people not to try to kiss their employees and force their tongues in their mouths.”

Sexism is real. Power is on display on a daily basis and is written into the DNA of many institutions that allows male privilege to be sustained. And yet if I listen carefully, I can hear structures creaking under their weight as their foundations are crumbling.

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