It seemed easy to agree on things in the beginning of #MeToo, at least for women. After the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story in October, the response was a collective one of outrage and anger. He was a monster, we were in it together. It was black and white.
As the movement has ripped along, however, with new stories breaking every week, pulling in men from nearly every profession and every walk of life, and cutting deeper into our daily experiences as women, the response has begun to fracture. At times, those fractures have widened into a gap I’d never before realized existed. And instead of shining a light exclusively on the behavior of men, I’ve been compelled to turn it on myself.
The first time this happened was when I laid eyes on the S***** Media Men List a few hours after creator Moira Donegan had shut it down (for those not in New York and not in media, this was a list of men working mostly in publishing who’d allegedly attacked, assaulted, and/or abused their colleagues and coworkers). I’ve worked in New York media for more than a decade, and I recognized a number of names on the list as men I too had had troubling interactions with over the years. Initially, I was merely surprised at how many men hadn’t been named: “This list must have been made by a young person,” I remarked to a friend that morning. But as I took a longer look at some of the entries, and began to go back over my own experiences, through the lens of this list, I was forced to confront that much of the behavior the list was describing, I had not only tolerated, but considered “normal” — the extremely handsy cab rides; inappropriate DMs; being cold shouldered professionally, for years, for not having said yes to a man’s party invite (I didn’t say no, either, I simply had other plans and didn’t show up); seemingly business-appropriate invites from professional superiors whose ally-ship I needed, that were actually invites to something much different.
The list goes on, as does the list of all the acrobatics I performed to navigate through. Here’s one thing I didn’t do: make an actual list nor consider publicly calling into question this behavior. Why not? I’m so very sorry to say, it never crossed my mind that men should be held accountable for this sort of behavior, just that it was my responsibility to pilot myself, and my career, around it.
Witnessing how these younger women responded to the hand they had been dealt by men was the first time in my life I felt a generational divide between me and the group coming up behind me. Where I had tolerated, they were demanding. Where I had brushed off, they were calling out. I was impressed by them and, as I continued to go back through what seemed like an endless amount of my own exchanges (not just in the professional sphere), I began to question why I hadn’t done better. By tolerating and surviving and succeeding, had I also been complicit? I felt like I’d woken up and found myself on the wrong team. It was not pleasant.
The Gen Gap, naturally, is not new to me. I’m just not used to being on this side of it. My grandmother was born before women had the right to vote; my mother, a direct product of her 1950s childhood, often jokingly described herself as having barely escaped being an old maid because she hadn’t married my father until she was 25. I, however, stomped through my childhood to the soundtrack of Madonna, through my teen years in Grunge, and through Williamsburg in the summer of 2000 with liberal t-shirts. In 2012 I co-founded an online group for women. I was a feminist, and couldn’t remember a time I’d ever questioned myself over identifying as such.
But as the #MeToo stories continued to unfold, and evolve into hashtags like #BelieveWomen and #TimesUp, and the Media Men List reverberated through the careers of people I’d known, I began to wonder if I was going to have to rewrite my own history in light of all these new revelations.
All these stories I’d told myself about myself, and how I’d succeeded, and all my agency, were they still true? Was it fair to me to suggest they weren’t? If I hadn’t thought of them as such at the time, if doing so would have meant the loss of a job or career for instance, did I have to think of them as such now? These gray areas, particularly for a generation of women raised to believe absolutely in their own agency, are scary places to live in. And self-reckoning can be uncomfortable, overwhelming, and deeply upsetting.
This generational divide, and all the confusion around what qualifies as consent and assault that seems to have illuminated it, was crystallized for me in the aftermath of the story about Aziz Ansari that broke earlier this month. There are plenty of discussions to be had with regards to the journalistic responsibility of how that story was published, but what fascinated me was not the response to the platform but the belief many women seemed to hold that the woman accusing Ansari, “Grace,” did not have a right to tell her story: This was simply a bad date. We’ve all had bad dates.
This argument, at least in my circles, which are mainly New York-based and full of professional women, largely broke along generational lines. Most, though certainly not all (I include myself in the not all), of the women who felt Grace had nothing to complain about and was undermining the #MeToo movement, skewed over 40.
It’s important to note that the Feminist movement has a long, often unfavorable history of excluding voices — often voices of color — with the argument that they threaten to distract from the mission of the greater movement.
Younger women, no matter if they felt uncomfortable with how this story was reported, equally believed that it absolutely should still be told and discussed. In December of 2016, just over a month after the election, Teen Vogue published a widely-read piece by Lauren Duca titled “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that piece, and the term, in the tsunami following the Weinstein allegations. I’ve wondered, as I go through and try to reexamine so many of my past interactions and assumptions: Have we all been gaslit by the stories we’ve been told about romance, and male and female roles? Women, in particular, have been fed tales their entire lives instructing us in what we can expect from men, what qualifies as romance, what it means to be sexy, or independent, or have agency. What it means for a woman to have value. And we’ve internalized a lot of it, possibly as a way to survive.
This cuts both ways: It’s stunning to note that missing in so many these tales is any sort of expectation that men have responsibility for their own behavior. Or that we have any right to expect it. She should have just left. Well maybe she should have, but that is not the point. Maybe since we’re finally discussing these gray areas in the light of day, and not in whisper networks or closed groups, now is the time to start questioning whether leaving should be the expectation. Or, better, teaching men that affirmative consent is the only way that sexual acts are consensual. How do we change the conversation? Renaming things might be a start. As Jodi Kantor tweeted the other day: “This week is the 20th anniversary of the Bill Clinton scandal, formerly known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” We’ve only ever played by men’s rules.
Women have, through necessity, long been taught their safety is entirely their responsibility. “She was asking for it.” To shift some of that expectation on men can feel alarming, and for some, can feel as though we are risking framing women as frail victims. However, if this moment has shown us anything, it’s that women are almost never frail, and that even the strongest among us can be victims.
In the film based on the play from which the term “gaslight” takes its name, Ingrid Bergman is saved from insanity when a friend arrives and confirms the gaslights in her home are indeed flickering on and off (her husband is the one doing the flickering and driving her to madness by, among other things, telling her it’s all in her head). This #MeToo moment often feels like someone has finally arrived and flicked on very bright lights. And lo, we have not been imagining it, ladies. Now comes the hard part: Reconciling what we thought we knew with what we can now see.
Glynnis MacNicol is a writer living in Brooklyn.