“Good Men” and Harvey Weinstein
We know that most men are not Harvey Weinstein. But in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
As an actor, it’s my job to portray a great variety of characters — even those whose beliefs are in direct opposition to my own. Sometimes, we are called upon to play characters we would despise in real life. But to make an audience believe these characters, there is an idea every actor must accept: that all characters, regardless of how evil, genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. When an actor can inhabit their character’s beliefs, the portrayal will seem authentic, human, and become far more than a caricature.
Imagine that I’m playing the villain in a blockbuster superhero action film. (No pressure, Universe — just throwing that out there.) In playing this character, I must justify his actions and thoughts, no matter how immoral or unacceptable that I, as Matt, might find them. I have to imagine the life experiences that have shaped this character’s view of himself, and the world, so that the audience will understand why the character feels justified in his actions. That villain who is seeking to hurt people or blow up the world — or whatever a good super villain does — feels justified because of how his life experiences have shaped his beliefs: in his mind, he is doing the “right” thing. But regardless of whether they feel they have “good” or “justifiable” intentions, that villain is still capable of causing extreme harm to other people.
In real life as well, the people we commonly identify as villains — *cough* Donald Trump *cough* Harvey Weinstein *cough* — genuinely believe their motives and actions are justified. We all do. A combination of beliefs — learned from the people who raised us, the culture we grew up in, and through our own life experiences — comprise each of our moral codes, and these codes inform our subjective definitions of what is “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.” When others’ evaluation of our actions is at odds with our own sense of self, and our rationality or “goodness” is challenged, it can be a very painful experience. In order to exist in this world and be moderately happy, most of us must believe that we are “good” people. And that what we are doing is “right.” Men in particular are taught to believe that we should always have the right answers and be in control. When our actions are questioned, it might feel like our entire identity is at stake.
Our binary perspectives of ourselves as either “good” or “bad” limits our perception in fundamental ways. If we narrowly define ourselves as either a “good man” or a “bad man,” we fail to address the more important goal: becoming a “better man.” Although we cannot control where we started, we can control where we go. We can challenge our own beliefs. We can ask ourselves what it means to be a moral man? To have integrity? And although I have been asking these questions of myself, it has taken time, being called out, being called in, reeducation, deep self-reflection, and experience to realize that socialization has played a significant role in shaping my own moral code.
About three years ago, I was dating a woman who shared with me her experiences trying to start a business. She constantly had to deal with potential investors rescheduling their agreed upon daytime meetings, preferring instead to talk over late night drinks or dinner, presumably in the hopes that the business meeting would turn into something personal. After a number of these experiences, she became disheartened because she was constantly put in positions where she had to tolerate inappropriate romantic advances and sexual harassment in order to — literally and figuratively — “keep her seat at the table.” She felt if she expressed dislike at what seemed like an advance, she could be labeled as “bitchy” or “difficult to work with” — but if she was too friendly, or advocated for herself too strongly, she inadvertently risked the potential investor interpreting her actions as romantic interest, thereby giving what the man would likely perceive as an invitation to hit on her.
I was at a loss for words. I realized that, as a man, I would never have to endure these challenges. She remarked that this was “just the way the world is.” At the time, I felt that the best I could do was listen and try to empathize. I knew she was right. That was — and still is — the norm. As I attempted to help her feel better, I was left feeling angry and powerless. I could only imagine how she felt.
I began to wonder how many other women had similar experiences, whether in trying to start a company or at any workplace where they have to conform their actions to appease male figures in a position of power. And then I started thinking about my own experiences and advantages, and how they would have been different if I were a woman. My current understanding is best expressed by Angela Davis, who asserted, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change… I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
As men, we constantly receive explicit and implicit messages from our culture about what it means to be a man. We must be dominant; our value is measured by our ability to have power over others — especially women. In films, male heroes don’t cry. They are not vulnerable, and they rarely express anxiety or fear. Instead, they are strong and silent. They sacrifice deep human connection and a chance at love in favor of fulfilling their duty as the sole purveyors of justice through physical domination. To be a man is to “get the girl,” or even better, “the girls.” We are told that we must take on whatever quest is essential to proving our worth as men. By consciously or unconsciously believing that sexual conquests are evidence of our “manliness” and heterosexuality, we reinforce the ignorant notion that women exist on this earth for our pleasure… and we undoubtedly feel cheated when they resist being perceived and treated as such.
As men, we are so used to women accommodating our needs that the absence of this effort can feel like a grave injustice. These beliefs are not limited to those we might identify as overtly sexist or “misogynistic.” Even those of us who pride ourselves on being seen as “good men” will have developed similar patterns of thinking — to which the only remedy is identifying and actively resisting the current of mainstream ideology.
When I was younger, I would occasionally hear statistics like, “1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime,” or that eight out of ten rape victims know their attackers, or that “The U.S. Surgeon General has declared that attacks by male partners are the number one cause of injury to women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four” (from Angry White Men by Dr. Michael Kimmel). I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit it, but when I heard some of these numbers years ago, part of me wondered, “How could this possibly be true?” Up to that point, no woman in my life had told me she had been raped. I remember thinking, surely if these statistics are correct, I would know women who have had that experience. I did not realize that women who have been subjected to these acts of violence would often not discuss these experiences with anyone, and especially not with a man.
The reality is, the way men are socialized often makes us unsafe listeners for these accounts of abuse. Questions and comments that consciously or unconsciously place blame on the survivor can amplify the emotional trauma of the violence, and can, in some cases, magnify the trauma of the rape exponentially. With the stakes so high, why should women entrust men with these highly personal accounts, stories that — in most cases — are connected to tremendous shame, self-blame, and trauma?
Despite my attempts to be the best person I could be, a lifetime of socialization had left me ill-equipped to be an effective ally to any woman in my life who had been violated by a man. Unless we, as men, make a conscious effort to parse our thoughts from the conditioning of the status quo, we will continue to be woefully inept at understanding how we live in a culture where violence against women is so pervasive. And we will be ill-equipped to understand how our beliefs and actions are often either directly harmful to women, or indirectly preserving power imbalances that already exist.
After I began to speak publicly about these issues, a remarkable number of women have shared with me their personal experiences with sexual harassment, assault, emotional abuse, and/or rape. In many cases, I have known these women for years, even decades, but it wasn’t until I began educating myself and openly expressing my opposition to rape culture that these women felt safe enough to candidly discuss with me their traumatic experiences. In hearing their stories, I’ve come to understand that many women didn’t even consciously recognize their experiences of abuse for what they were. As a product of living in a society that constantly creates excuses for the behavior of men to avoid accountability, we teach the victims of this violence the lie that they are either entirely, or at least in some ways, at fault. The status quo is to teach women the ways that they are supposedly at fault, but not to teach men the ways in which we are complicit.
My point is not that more women should be sharing their stories with men: that is for them to decide. However, as men who want to perceive ourselves as “good,” we have a responsibility to challenge our preconceived notions surrounding violence against women, to educate ourselves, and to take a proactive, strong, and visible stance. Most importantly, we need to have these conversations with other men. We need to not only speak out against abuse, but also to demonstrate how our culture perpetuates and normalizes this violence through sexist jokes, “locker room talk,” slut shaming, and talking about women in dehumanizing ways.
We cannot always expect women to educate us in these matters; we are all capable of doing this ourselves. There are countless books and resources that can give critical insight into how we can be better allies, feminists, and in turn, better men. If we wait for women to educate us about these issues, we are asserting that these problems are not a high priority. And the message we send with this passivity is that we are not allies to be depended upon. We must not leave women to fight these battles alone. The wealth of information and leadership available on these subjects that has been helmed by women is more vast than most men can, or care to, imagine. But it is exactly our internalized sense of superiority that often makes us think we have so little to learn from those who have been marginalized based on the same identities that give us our male privileges. Additionally, it is critical that we consider how people face additional challenges and forms of oppression when they are People of Color, gender non-conforming, LGBTQ, poor, undocumented, disabled, etc.
Each of us is more than a product of our culture. Through our actions and inaction, we all contribute to shaping our culture. The conversations that we have, and in many cases the conversations that we choose not to have, can influence the people around us and can thus impact what becomes the mainstream view. And despite spending the past few years doing aggressive reeducation and work on myself to try to make sure I’m holding myself to my highest standards, I am reminded frequently that this work is never done. The riptide of male domination is a powerful force that will continue to pull us all into danger unless we swim like hell out of it. The only path is forward. And the time is now.
James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Many times, these conversations are difficult and painful. They will often be met with anger, defensiveness, and denial. I understand this point because I have been on both sides of this conversation. But integrity does not come at zero cost. Positive change does not evolve by acting within our comfort zones. And with our silence comes the slow erosion of our personal integrity, humanity, and goodness. If we are to change the culture we live in, we must have these conversations with the other men and boys in our lives.
Most men have not committed “villainous” acts in the ways of Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein. But if the men capable of the most heinous acts of abuse can create justifications and excuses for their actions, then even us “good men” are capable of justifying our actions, inactions, complicity, and general lack of interest in truly learning from women about how we unconsciously uphold a culture where this kind of abuse grows. We are all human, and, as such, we are all imperfect. But let us not allow ourselves to be complacent in our imperfection, leaning on the tightly held belief that we are not “bad” guys; but one of the “good” men. Instead, let us always ask ourselves what it takes to be better men… and act accordingly.
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a list of resources that helped shape my perspective:
*The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks (this one most challenged my ideas about masculinity)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Sex Object by Jessica Valenti
Women, Race, & Class by Angela Davis
Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel
The Guy’s Guide To Feminism by Michael Kimmel and Michael Kaufman
*We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler
My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem
*= two of my favorite books, but might be useful to have some working knowledge of feminist ideas and language before reading
The Mask You Live In “follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.”
The Hunting Ground “follows undergraduate rape survivors pursuing both their education and justice, despite ongoing harassment and the devastating toll on them and their families.”
Miss Representation “exposes how mainstream media and culture contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America.”
The Invisible War “explores the ever-increasing incidents of violent sexual assault within the U.S. military.”
People to follow:
Melissa A. Fabello