When Women Rise, When Mighty Men Fall

Illustrated by Rory Midhani for Rebel Girls: The Illustrated (And Quite Condensed) History of Women’s Studies at Autostraddle

The latest round of men media icons have fallen this week. Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor, white middle-class America’s dad and grandpa respectively, have been fired from their networks after reports of inappropriate behavior. They join Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein and a growing domino-line of men toppling as women who have been victims of their sexual harassment and assault speak their stories out loud, in public.

And still there are some who rush to these men’s rescue, who say the careers of these and other “brilliant” men shouldn’t be tarnished. The word tarnish means to “dull the luster or brightness of, to make dim.” And yes, their atrocious behavior towards women does dim the careers of these men. Why are men who harm and demean women treated with more care than the victims of their harassment and assault?

We must remember that the work we do emerges from who we are, and if who we are is someone who sexually harasses and assaults others, particularly those in subordinate positions to us professionally, that informs our worldview: how we report the news, how we tell stories on the radio, how we produce movies for the silver screen.

Garrison Keillor’s defense — like that of so many others — is that what he did wasn’t a big deal. The necessary follow-up question is: Wasn’t a big deal to who?

We live in a culture where women are constantly told that our bodies don’t belong to us, where men are told that “no” sometimes means “yes,” and where men are given permission to take what they want from us without our consent: airtime, space in the room, emotional labor, embraces. Sometimes men are given permission to take everything we have and are. On top of this, women are too often told that the harm done to us is our fault. Women move through the world having to protect ourselves from men who have been told — and shown, time and time again — that they can take whatever they want without consequence. Women’s individual experiences of trauma only reinforce the messages we get all the time that tell us to get small, to shrink our bodies and our intellect in ways that make us less intimidating.

I don’t think we always realize the personal and collective costs of these violences against women. The way living inside a culture that doesn’t value women wears on us over time. The way navigating a culture that doesn’t believe us feasts on our sense of confidence and worth. There is no way of accounting for the risks we don’t take, the dreams we don’t follow, the books we don’t write, the cures we don’t find. We women are way finders. But when someone harasses us, when someone crosses an unspeakable boundary, when someone assaults our body and sense of safety by staking their false claim, we are undone. And it takes time to remake ourselves. Some of us never return to being whole.

The current president of the United States is a known sexual predator. Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore might win despite the fact that eight women thus far have come forward to talk about him initiating sexual relationships with them when they were children. Despite the fact that an Alabama ex-cop has come forward to say that “she was tasked with keeping Roy Moore away from cheerleaders at high school games.

Behind all these famous men in the spotlight are armies of men in workplaces and homes across the country. They sit across desks from us holding promises of promotions and threats of hostile workplaces. They ogle and shout at us outside convenience stores or in dark parking lots. They take us to prom and expect sexual favors in return. They tell women huddled in corners of our own homes when and how we can eat, who we can see, when we can go outside. They tell us they, and not we, define our worth. They threaten both our livelihoods and our lives. If you think a man groping a woman at the party is not connected to a man battering his wife at home, you are sorely mistaken. Toxic masculinity takes many shapes and forms. The patriarchy oppresses in both private and in public, personally and collectively.

What we are seeing now is women pulling a rip cord on legacies of harassment and abuse. Women refusing to stay silent — not only for their own sake and safety, but because they will not allow other women to be harmed. Because these women cannot stand by and watch dangerous men continue to receive accolades for their work while harming countless women behind the scenes. Because these women will not abide abusive men not suffering consequences and all the while continuing to control the cameras or speak into microphones: shaping the stories of our culture.

This is a moment of reckoning. One that is long overdue.

And we have choices.

One choice is to cram stones and cement in the base of the crumbling tower of patriarchy. To pretend the lived experiences of women are lies so that we can feign safety and the belief that all is right and whole in the world.

There is another way.

We can recognize the inherent lack of safety of women in our culture. We can acknowledge that men have the capacity to be deeply flawed. And that their flaws are not a result only of genetic makeup or personal disposition but instead a reflection of a culture that tells them over and over again that their behavior is okay — that they are allowed to exert power over women, to behave without regard for women’s physical or psychic wellbeing. That those standing by will assist them or look the other way.

Instead of questioning the accusers or investigators holding perpetrators accountable, we can acknowledge the rape culture we live and breathe inside and are all suffocated by. We can realize that most of these firings were a long time coming. We can acknowledge that the reason we are seeing so many icons fall — so fast and at once — is because finally women and other survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are being believed and thus feel emboldened to speak out. We can hold predatory men accountable for their behaviors. We can decide that now is the time to talk to our children differently, to teach them about autonomy and consent. Men can listen to women and work to undo the toxic masculinity inside of them that our culture has encouraged and condoned. They can realize that they too have participated in this oppressive system. They can speak to one another, own past mistakes, and work every day to do better. They can apologize.

And women can undo our internalized misogyny by recognizing our own and one other’s value. We can support each other in this time of reckoning, a time which often means engaging with memories of our own experiences of assault, abuse, and harassment . We can speak our truth, aloud, even if only to ourselves. And we can continue to make our way. Women can carve a path towards the future that makes room for us everywhere.