December, you've always been a problem child.
Though its roots emerged earlier, and its declaration wasn’t until March, this year-long, monthly personal writing objective technically began with a blogpost in January that provided a snapshot of my life in that moment. It was the start of my last semester of college, during a time when I picture myself always wearing a skirt so long it hangs past my knees, paired with a shirt low-cut enough to make sure the length of the skirt didn’t make me look like a religious extremist. (This is a tightrope I walk regularly, as I have been receiving regular comments from acquaintances about how overdressed I am since I was fifteen. I swear, I am just an agnostic feminist who hates wearing pants.) Mostly, in my ethereal image of myself from that time I am tall, towering over my city, my university, my work, and my social life, feeling content in my identity and my success. The blogpost documented ordinary but fulfilling moments I experienced in the four weeks prior. In the end, I mentioned the music I had been listening to all month, which was Melanie Martinez’s concept album, Cry Baby. The album was very pop, more pop than I usually listen to, but I admired the clever, thematic metaphors Martinez wrote herself and their accompanying music videos. She was young, as young as me, and from Long Island, just like me, which made me feel special and capable. Like I wrote in January, Cry Baby came to me at a time when I needed its striking hooks to fill in the gaps in my understanding of my own personality. This month, Melanie Martinez was accused of sexual assault by another female pop singer.
I read the accusation made against Martinez on Twitter, followed by a stream of opinions on the topic that inevitably followed. Most tweets I read berated Melanie Martinez in the way we do on Twitter now, using hashtags like #MelanieMartinezIsOverParty and #MelanieMartinezIsCancelled, arguing that we should unquestionably believe the woman accusing Martinez because that’s what we would do if she were accusing a man — wouldn’t we? The accusation was made during the height of the quote-unquote #MeToo Moment, which has led to the firing or resignation of many individual men from their prominent career positions after many individual women have come forward with accounts of sexual misconduct. For me, some weeks have been more disappointing (Louis CK, Matt Lauer) than others (Charlie Rose, Mario Batali) relative to my affection for the work of the men accused. (If Paul Rudd or Mark Ruffalo is accused next, I am officially never getting married.) The reveals that come with each passing week have made this season feel interminable. As women outside of Hollywood, we continue to live our everyday lives dodging the subtle workplace sexism that we have come to expect but are unable to realistically report. We hunker down and read the headlines and hope the progress will eventually trickle down to us, but for the most part we are unable to feel like we are Bravely Joining The Movement.
The weekend after the Al Franken photo surfaced, I sat across from my sister at the New England version of a diner before going to see Lady Bird in theaters. We discussed how we felt disconnected from so many of our peers who were sternly insisting that Franken resign from his position in the senate because of his past sexual misconduct. We agreed that Franken is nasty and sexist, and that he violated the woman in the photo; he was a male comedian trying to make a joke at the expense of a female coworker, and the joke wasn’t remotely funny. Yet my sister and I didn’t feel compelled to demand his resignation because what Franken’s photo showed felt ordinary and predictable. His attitude and actions toward women were completely in line with those of the boys in my global history class in ninth grade and the uncles at my last family reunion. It has been proven in the last eight weeks that this expression of hegemonic masculinity is widespread and epidemic, not confined to isolated incidents. Simply asking Franken to individually resign fails to address that our culture teaches men and boys that female sexual objectification is okay and even funny. In many ways, Franken did what he was told to do. A resignation feels more like a bandaid than an integral part of a solution, and it does not have the same value as presenting a way for men to unlearn their sexist behaviors. I confessed to only my sister that I believed #MeToo was a neoliberal solution to a structural problem.
The individual punishments and blame that characterize #MeToo make way for the defense of "not all men" as we try, in vain, to weed out the bad guys. It is comforting to believe that we can pick the chauvinists out of a lineup and banish them forever and it is easier than addressing the role we all play in our sexist culture. Leeann Tweeden, the woman in the Franken photo, has been named one of the “top Hooters girls of all time.” I mention this not to place blame on her, but rather to highlight the irony in how enthusiastically we admonish Franken’s photo without acknowledging that Hooters has an entire business model based upon the objectification of women’s bodies. Of course Franken took that photo. Look at what we taught both Franken and Tweeden is valuable in women. How can we rightfully ask for any different while we make way for this type of amusement? When the allegations against Matt Lauer surfaced, a video was circulated as evidence of his character. In it, he is interviewing Sandra Bullock in 2009, and he mentions ad nauseam her nude scene in her latest film. We all laughed along at the time, assuming the comments were harmless at worst and comedic at best, because the interview was reflective of our collective cultural attitude about female bodies. Matt Lauer is simply the grown up, celebrity version of the boys in my residence hall my freshman year of college who had posters of bikini-clad Sports Illustrated models on the walls of their common room. They taped up the posters quickly and proudly and I still remember how I felt when I walked from my 8-person girls suite to their 8-person boys suite next door on my first night of college to meet them and saw what they had hung on their walls. But when we read the statistics on campus sexual assault, we are all so shocked and appalled. We act as if RAs, whom college women are supposed to be able to confide in and report abuse to, aren’t taught to overlook these posters as they confiscate candles and dime bags in dorm rooms, as if mothers and fathers didn’t purchase these posters for their sons, as if the one in five college women who are sexually assaulted aren’t staring up at us from our shopping carts asking for justice as we buy the essentials to send our kids off to universities.
I am certainly not arguing that these men shouldn’t be fired or resign, or that #MeToo is valueless, but I am arguing against the hopeful belief that we can successfully scare men into subverting patriarchy instead of teaching men and women why these actions are unethical. I worry about the backlash to this movement because I recognize that the last presidential election was in part a backlash to eight years of progressive politics. I worry about who will be elected to replace Franken. Specifically, I worry that a conservative senator will be elected — someone who could support legislation that attempts to limit women’s liberation on a larger, structural scale. I worry that a man who objectified one woman in one photo will be replaced by a man who works to defund Planned Parenthood and thus supports the oppression of millions of women. I worry that #MeToo is a watered down version of social action that will never get to the root of the problem but will lead to the dismissal of average working women who report sexual misconduct in coming years. Men need to treat women better because they have learned that it is the right thing to do, not because they are afraid of getting caught. It frustrates me and irks me that the New York Times calls it the “#MeToo” moment, rather than the “Me Too” moment. By extension, I worry about the difference between feminism and #feminism.
The pop culture version of asking Franken to resign was this month’s
#MelanieMartinezIsOverParty, which I observed from a not-so detached vantage point as Martinez’s fans posted videos of them burning her merchandise online. (As of now, Martinez has denied the accusation.) This is the rule during the #MeToo moment, after all: you must immediately delete the artist’s songs from your iTunes library, dismiss your fond childhood memories of watching The Today Show every morning before elementary school, remove House of Cards from your Netflix list, and don't you dare be caught with a copy of Annie Hall in your entertainment center. All of these requirements come from a desire to stand in solidarity with the women who have been abused by these men (and by Martinez), and of course I want to support this notion with my whole, feminist heart. I want to be the best feminist I can be at all times, overflowing with support for a new-wave women’s movement. But I am human and I have questions.
All season, I have caught myself spiraling into doubts about what the good, supportive, feminist thing to do is. I mean, is it really practical to stop ourselves from consuming art made by every problematic figure? And who gets to decide what counts as problematic? Is it only defined by the "-isms," or should we also cast off the artists who treat all people terribly but equally? How will we ever know when we choose to buy or consume art what the deepest morals of its creator are? I guess we are supposed to consume freely and assume artists are innocent until proven guilty? (Lately I’ve been doing the opposite with every man I meet.) How can we distance ourselves from these men when we know so many of our fathers would do the same thing if given the power? Is it fair to enforce modern standards on historical events? If not, what is the cutoff for when men should’ve known better than to treat women this way? Is it after the second women’s movement? Is it the turn of the century? Is it before or after you transition from a comedian to a senator? Should we go back and check the history of every male artist before we buy his work? Was Picasso a dick, too? I mean, he probably was, right? He probably hit on his assistant or coerced a paint store clerk or something, right? Do we have to stop buying tickets to the MoMA until they agree to take down his work? Must we erase every problematic figure in history? I don’t think so, but I generally support the removal of confederate statues, so am I a hypocrite? Why am I able to scoff without hesitation at people who still support R. Kelly and Chris Brown? Is it because their actions deserve more contempt or is it because their work never meant anything to me in the first place, allowing me to distance myself from it, pat myself on the back, and never feel like I have lost something? What instinctual role does race play in my white woman judgement of dangerous men? Is it possible for these men to authentically apologize and be better? What about the argument that we should mourn not the loss of bad men’s art but the art that would’ve been made by the women who were oppressed? That is beautiful and persuasive but what does it mean to mourn art that never existed? Isn't asking for conscious consumption inherently classist and astronomically privileged, anyway? Aside from whether or not it is practical to live this way, is it fair for women to have to live with these restrictions? Must we, as women, be further subjected to a life with less positivity because in the name of intersectional feminism we have distanced ourselves from the art that brings us joy? Is it not enough to have to live with constant fear of assault, with gaslighting attempts by male family members over the seven fishes this Christmas Eve, with the both subtle and aggressive patronizing we experience from our male coworkers and managers regularly — we now also have to stop consuming the media that bring us peace from the hellish atmosphere that so often characterizes our experiences of womanhood? In addition to all we’ve already sacrificed to this patriarchy, do we also have to give up the things that make this fight feel just a little bit lighter?
I always circle back to my same source of caustic guilt: when I was sixteen, I went to the movies with my grandmother without any prior knowledge of the film we were about to see, or its director, or the reasons he deserves the utmost contempt. While watching Midnight In Paris for the first time, I felt existentially understood. It is still my favorite movie because it came to me when I was young and convinced that everyone else in the world was happier than me. Seeing my neuroses reflected on screen helped me name and accept my dissatisfaction, and ended my harmful fantasy that there was some greater contentment out there that everyone but me was relishing in. What Midnight in Paris gave to me has been tarnished as I have gotten older, grown into my feminism, and learned all of the reasons to hate Woody Allen. (As Nanny says, “I love his work, but he’s a rat bastard!”) I haven’t paid for one of his movie tickets in years, but I admit that I am still reliant on the comfort I was given by a man whose writing I love but ethics I absolutely despise.
Each of the Me Too scenarios are distinct, but they are being lumped together without full consideration of the ways they differ. Harvey Weinstein, who reigned over women for decades, is not the same as Melanie Martinez, a queer young woman (with a song about childhood sexual abuse on her album) who has been accused of raping her best friend during a sleepover. Martinez, unlike Weinstein, played no role in the structural workplace power men hold over women — which is the concept from which Me Too originally stemmed. Some of this generalizing is necessary in order to support it as a movement, but blanket statements about evil and good are so common in modern journalism that sometimes I am compelled to delete all of my social media apps for days at a time until I can remember that it’s okay and healthy to feel two things at once. It was during one of these deletions that I began drafting this post. Like I expressed last December, I am still tired of writing celebrities off as soon as their perfect images falter. It isn’t something I do with people in my real life, so it feels false to do so online.
The Me Too accusations do not call for shock or surprise from those of us who inhabit these bodies that are treated like public property our entire lives. We already knew these things happened all the time. But I am grateful that in this cultural moment when womanhood feels particularly raw — during Me Too but since the election, really — I have been able to seek virtual shelter in this space every month as I try to make sense of my experiences as a woman by putting pen to paper. Or, more accurately, as a woman typing in Google Docs, Weebly drafts, Word documents, and iPhone notes, while on the Long Island Railroad, on the 2 train, in Pace University’s Honors Lounge, and its courtyard, and its elevator up to the Communication Studies department, in a dozen different Starbucks in two different states, in my bed on Friday nights, on the swing on my back deck on Long Island in the summer, at Back Bay station in Boston after crying in the front seat of my best friend’s car, crossing over Delancey Street in July and editing while I walked, and on New Jersey transit on my way to a county that a year ago I would have sworn I would never return to so regularly.
I do not have answers to the questions I have posed in this writing. I am a mess of contradictions, I know, like a long skirt with a low-cut shirt, but I will not apologize for this. I am going to continue to write nuance into all situations, to avoid classifications and categories and be-all end-all statements. And I know I am going to mess up. Repeatedly, consistently, and overwhelmingly.
My self-imposed monthly blogpost deadlines have often made me feel like I need to come to grand conclusions about my life and the world before I have fully formed them, to answer all of the questions like those above that constantly swirl around in my head. There has been value in this pressure, as some months I began writing aimlessly and ended up explaining something to myself that brought me comfort and calmness. As I read back through the year, I can detect the underlying lessons that I didn’t realize I was beginning to uncover at the time I wrote. The most surprising of these was the lesson that people are actually reading my writing. As a result, I must use my words carefully and strategically, for my best friends and for my mom and for my best friend’s mom (hi, Mama Viggz!), but mostly, I must use them joyously and kindly and confidently. In my posts from the year I also witness myself coming to the conclusion that some people will love me. And some will hate me, too. Both are okay. One matters much more. This year I learned to accept that six weeks of silence from someone communicates a message to me quite clearly, even when I am trying my absolute hardest not to read what is written in the unspoken sentences. In the second half of the year I realized that Jack Antonoff’s production is art come to life. We must appreciate it (and hope he is not accused of sexual assault). In the fall I found that it is possible to feel broken hearted without getting broken up with. In the words of our favorite Lorde, I know now that it is essential to recognize when “it’s time to let go of this endless summer afternoon,” but I am still working on this one. Several times this year I learned that sometimes things fall gracefully into place. Most of the time, things crash and burn erratically into place. Let them fall. The result is the same either way.
As I have just explained, I need to write with nuance. Most definitely not as often as this year, but consistently still, I will continue to write. And I hope you will continue to read.
The subheading of this post is a quote from the song “December” by Sara Bareilles, because why not end the year with a thematic homage to my singing-songwriting-piano playing-nose ring wearing-sarcasm spewing hero?
A portrait of the blogger at age 22, for better or for worse.
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