We’ve been hearing it since before the midterm elections in November: 2018 is the Year of the Woman.
The milestones for women in politics this year are undeniable: more women on the ballot than ever before, a record number of women elected to Congress, and historic firsts like the first Muslim women in Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Women, some galvanized by the election of President Donald Trump, are taking political power in unprecedented numbers and in new ways, opening up about the experiences that have shaped them in ways their male colleagues can’t match.
A man accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women — including one who was willing to go before the Senate and testify about what she says was one of the most traumatic events of her life — now sits on the Supreme Court. Others accused of harassment and assault are returning to the stage, the page, or the screen after just months away. The most powerful office in the country is still held by a man who bragged about his ability to grab women by their genitals, and whom multiple women have accused of actually doing what he described.
The voices of these men continue to ring loudly in our collective ears — their anger and confusion at being accused dominate our news cycles. Brett Kavanaugh proclaimed that the entire country would “reap the whirlwinds” if he was not confirmed to the Supreme Court. Harvey Weinstein sent an email to friends saying that the past year has been “the worst nightmare of my life.” President Trump claimed that “it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”
Despite all the advances women have made in 2018, in some ways it’s just been another Year of the Man. A year of men getting caught, apologizing, and returning to power. A year of men’s stories getting more attention than the stories of the women they’re accused of harming. A year of men remaining at the center of the national conversation.
To take stock of the ways men have held on to dominance this year, despite women’s electoral advances and an evolving #MeToo movement that seemed to promise greater equality, I turned to Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, is one of several writers this year focusing on the political role of women’s rage. In the process, she’s thought a lot about men — what makes them angry, what makes them powerful, and what might make more of them invested in gender equality in 2019 and beyond.
Chemaly and I spoke by phone earlier this month about the year we’ve had and what’s to come. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
We’ve been hearing a lot about how it’s the Year of the Woman, and of course it has been a really exciting year for women in a lot of ways. But at the same time, we’ve seen so many powerful men start to make comebacks not very long after their #MeToo stories, and we’ve seen men like Brett Kavanaugh gain power despite allegations against them. Are there ways in which this is really the Year of the Man?
Oh, my god, yes. A lot of the articles I have written have been about this — they’ve been about male power and privilege. For the everyday man, the power and privilege come out in the persistent denial of women’s experiences. We see this over and over and over again in expressions of surprise, or gaslighting. Because for the everyday man to accept [the prevalence of sexual misconduct] means looking inside at themselves for the ways they either collude or benefit from what’s happening to women. I think that’s really hard.
Your book is about women’s anger, but as you know, we’ve also seen a lot of men’s anger on display this year, and we’ve also seen a lot of men’s fear of being demonized as part of #MeToo. Why are we seeing men expressing so much anger and fear?
I think that if we home in on white male anger, [it] traditionally, historically, culturally has been understood as a civic virtue. It is the anger of political action; it is the anger of the American Revolution. You can go as far back in our history as you want, and white men’s righteous rage has always been politically rewarded.
You also have the dimension that in traditional gender frameworks, anger and its display strongly confirms masculine ideals, so when Kavanaugh threw his tantrum, support for him on the right went up, because he actually confirmed the way people thought a man should be behaving.
That behavior, that righteous rage, is really inseparable from the authority and public power that men have traditionally had in this country.
Do you think men feel threatened by #MeToo?
I think they feel threatened on a variety of levels. One is this irrational fear that they will be blamed and they’re innocent. I say it’s irrational because study after study shows the unlikely nature of that happening — it’s like false rape allegations in general.
I also think there is, though, this much stronger threat to identity and status. The more power women gain to hold men accountable, which is what #MeToo is about, the more vulnerable men feel their status and power really are.
For the men who are not committing sexual misconduct, and who still may be resistant to #MeToo, what, if anything, would help them get on board in this moment?
I think one way to do it is to convey to men that an action — which is how men are primed and socialized to think about problems — a legitimate action at the moment is listening. Men don’t perceive listening as something that somebody actively does.
I keep hearing from men who ask me, “What can I do? I don’t want to seem like I’m domineering, but I want to do something.” In fact, listening is doing something, and men are not perceiving the importance of listening right now.
One of the most shocking differences to me that was so illuminating: Right after the “grab them by the pussy” tape, I just remember so many women experiencing a kind of trauma because memories they didn’t want to think about or hadn’t thought about were being dredged up. For the first time, they were talking about these memories and they were talking to the men in their lives. I mean, the number of women who said, “I never told my husband, but ...”
And there was a debate after that tape, and Facebook analyzed millions of comments happening during the debate to see what people were talking about, and the comment analysis revealed this amazing difference: The No. 1 thing women were talking about was that tape. But it didn’t even make men’s top 5 list. I thought, okay, that is really the problem in a nutshell, because for women, that tape materialized so much of our experiences. But for men, it was gone; it meant nothing. Closing that gap is really important.
I don’t want to overlook the fact that men can be survivors of sexual misconduct. We’ve seen many men come forward as part of #MeToo — do you think our current expectations of masculinity make it harder for men to come forward? How can male survivors feel like they’re a part of this movement too?
I think that is actually ultimately the same problem as the issue of interrogating masculinity broadly. I am convinced that there are so many more men who were assaulted as children than our society is willing to acknowledge. Men generally suffer in silence until, frankly, they cannot sustain that anymore, and that usually happens when they’re in their late 50s, sometimes even later.
One of the reasons I focused on anger as a filter was because I thought it was really just a good way to approach the broader gendering of emotions, and to show how the focus on anger and aggression for boys and men means they are really punished for showing the “feminine” emotions that indicate weakness or sadness or fear.
That’s a penalty that is high not just for men as individuals, but for our society, because in the end, that equation that is so punishing to them comes out in high rates of suicide and violence against other people. Our way of thinking on masculinity directly silences male victims.
A way in which I think it has seemed like the Year of the Man to me — and I play into this as a journalist sometimes — is that a lot of the focus has been on individual men. Are they going to be punished, are they going to make a comeback, etc. Do you think we’re going to see more systemic changes in the coming year? What’s needed to bring about those changes?
I have to be honest: I’m feeling pretty cynical. I see the work that Time’s Up is doing, I see the work that the National Women’s Law Center is doing, and I think it’s invaluable and necessary. But what I still mainly see is a lot of women talking to other women, and until we can have rooms that include men with power who are willing to listen, I think it’s going to be more of two steps forward, one step back.
People keep asking, has #MeToo failed? But #MeToo is much older than people realize in terms of Tarana Burke’s efforts, and really, we’re only at the beginning. I think that’s scarier for people — they want it to come, be done, and go away. When you say, listen, if we’re looking at a 12-hour clock, we’re about 6 seconds in, they don’t know what to do with that information. It requires us to confront the fact that the problem is inherent in every part of our society — our families, our schools, our religious institutions, our sports.
What’s your advice for boys and men in this moment? I’m interested not just in how they can support girls and women, but also what they can do for themselves to break out of these expectations of masculinity.
I think it’s really hard for boys and men to do that, to actually confront other boys and men or walk away from the demands of masculinity. One of the interesting outcomes of conversations I’ve had with boys and men is how difficult that is. But the flip side of that is men who have said to me, “I thought I was the only man in the room who felt this way, but in fact, when I took the risk and I talked about it, it turned out that most men in the room felt this way, but no one was willing to say it.”
I think being willing to risk what is perceived as vulnerability by being open in that way is really important, and so as adults, we need to find ways to allow boys to do that without them sensing penalty. The penalty they fear the most is from fathers — if they think their fathers are watching them, for example, they won’t play with dolls. Men have a lot of power over the way boys perceive themselves.
I also think a lot of women hold men to these masculine standards and they may not know it. A lot of women benefit from and derive psychic satisfaction from feeling as though they’re being protected by this invulnerable man.
I know this is self-serving, but I think boys and men need to be reading more of what women are writing. Men just tend to read other men. I didn’t really expect men to read my book — it’s a book by a woman about emotions — but so many men have written me to say, “I had no idea, thank you, I will give this to other men.”
As we’ve been talking about advice for men, I wonder: What is the payoff for them if they do these things? We can say, “Be more comfortable showing vulnerability, stand up and say something,” but there’s a lot of risk involved in all those acts. What’s the reward?
I believe that men are incredibly lonely, and the loneliness is a form of emotional isolation that is largely related to this rigid masculinity that they’re expected to perform. In order not to be lonely, you actually have to be intimate and vulnerable, but intimacy and vulnerability are seen as feminine weaknesses, and so we will never be able to deal with the social harm of loneliness until we are willing to think about masculinity.
I think that if we think about the benefits to men, there are many. Among them are the intimacy that comes with more egalitarian relationships, the friendship that comes with vulnerability, and the ability to join communities in a healthier way that’s not structured around dominating them.