Photo | Maya Wong
Revisiting a year of misogyny, sexual violence, and solidarity
Last semester I had the pleasure of writing a final essay about femininity in Batwoman: Elegy . When I sent it to a friend, he responded with a question that took me by surprise: “As a young upper-class white male, what actions should I take to support a more balanced society?”
Several facets to his query astounded me. First of all, he had no qualms with acknowledging the privilege that comes with being a “young upper-class white male.” Moreover, he saw my paper about superheroes as a diving board for social change. His initiative—and the extent to which I was impressed with his initiative—left me with two questions of my own: how do we reproduce this type of open-mindedness and enthusiasm in a large-scale setting, and when can we stop praising people who demonstrate behaviour that ought to be considered basic human decency?
Men and boys need to take on more responsibility in the movement towards dismantling systemic misogyny and sexism. However, we must also encourage girls to expect more for themselves. In her video “Will I Raise a Son Like Harvey Weinstein?” Mayim Bialik tells her viewers: “I was explicitly told by my father… to protect myself, my body, my heart from men because men only want one thing. They want sex.” She articulates a problematic strain of sex education; sex is presented as taboo and innately masculine, and women are taught to be afraid of it. They are taught not to expect or demand pleasure or satisfaction.
In an interview with Deborah Treisman in The New Yorker, Kristen Roupenian, author of the short story “Cat Person,” explains that “women, especially young women, move through the world not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy.” Girls and young women must be taught the necessity of valuing their own happiness. Regardless of the extent to which we cover our bodies, our line of work, our body fat percentage, or how sexually active we choose to be, we have the inherent right to be respected and treated with dignity. Moreover, we have the right to call out those who do not extend us this basic human decency. It is crucial for girls to adopt this mindset; the fight for justice is not over—we still have a long way to go.
From the inauguration of an openly misogynistic world leader to the Hollywood scandal that exposed a shameful number of “open secrets” in North American workplaces, this past year has forced everyone to reexamine their views on sexual violence in the broader scope of women’s rights.
However, 2017 also brought about passionate acts of solidarity and desperate cries for change. Less than 24 hours after Donald Trump’s inauguration, approximately half a million women filled the streets of Washington, D.C. to advocate for legislation and policies to further women’s rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights, among other issues. It was the largest single-day protest in the United States. Over four million Americans protested their newly-elected president’s disrespectful comments about women, as well as his alleged sexual misconduct. It was not only an American protest. There were over 600 marches on all seven continents. Toronto hosted its own march where tens of thousands of women marched from Queen’s Park to Nathan Phillips Square.
The Women’s March in 2017 enabled and empowered millions of women to be heard. Yet, as we roll into the New Year, we must consider exactly whose voices we have heard. For instance, many women of colour were not wholly satisfied with the nature of the protest. Indeed, many critics of the march saw it as another example of white privilege. “White women and white bodies can… shut down cities ‘peacefully’ because they are allowed to… Black and brown people who march are assaulted by cops,” wrote blogger and author Luvvie Ajayi on Facebook. The march was not the only event to reflect this issue.
This year also featured a great deal of online activism. Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal in October, #MeToo took social media by storm. Social media ideally unites people from opposite sides of the world. It ideally encourages sexual assault survivors of any racial, religious, or socio-economic background to share their experiences. It ideally allows anyone to be what TIME calls a “Silence Breaker.” High-profile and everyday women alike used this hashtag to share their encounters with sexual harassment and misogynistic behaviour. In fact, people tweeted this phrase over 500,000 times within the first 24 hours of actress Alyssa Milano’s post. However, Milano did not coin this phrase nor start this movement. More than a decade ago, Tamara Burke posted these two words after a young girl had confided to her that she had been sexually assaulted. So often we do not see women of colour receiving credit for their activism. It is scary how often the voices of marginalized women are diminished or altogether ignored in favour of white voices.
Furthermore, we see that even online social movements tend to privilege white women in predominantly white-collar jobs over other demographics. We seldom encounter the accounts of single mothers trying to get by from paycheque to paycheque or those of domestic helpers and hotel staff whose first language is not English. There are systemic barriers (be they rooted in classism, xenophobia, or something else) that prevent these demographics from speaking out against their attackers. After all, it is all the more difficult to type those two words and hit “enter” when you anticipate it jeopardizing your personal safety or your family’s financial stability.
The fight for justice is not over. We still have a long way to go. To demand justice for women is to demand justice for all women, women of colour, women of different socioeconomic backgrounds, women with disabilities, queer women, trans women, and all who have been historically marginalized. And while I think we’ve started to venture in the right direction, we must be cautious not to take one step forward and two steps back.