Due to recent events, social ills like political radicalism and racial discrimination have dominated the news cycle, temporarily obscuring other urgent problems that still fester in society, even more so with a pandemic raging on. One of these problems is that of gender inequality and the related issues of sexism and misogyny.
Gender inequality is so deeply ingrained in our society that most mainstream attempts to address it fall short or come across as phony or half-baked as best. The fact that this cancer is one of the ever-present issues that seems to have taken a backseat in the current political climate is regrettable. Having a female POC as our Vice President is full of hope and positive symbolism, but it cannot overshadow the inequalities and injustices that females have to suffer in literally every field under the sun.
Only a few years ago, the cause of feminism was set ablaze and came to the front and center of public consciousness after Ronan Farrow revealed the sick and perverse face of Hollywood. In an earth-shattering piece of supreme investigative journalism, Farrow shared harrowing stories of Hollywood stars and female talent receiving harassment and assault from the then powerful producer Harvey Weinstein. For the next couple of years, that bombshell of a story opened a door of allegations for Weinstein and other big or small names in films, media, government, and sports including Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., Charlie Rose, R. Kelly, and Roger Allies, to name a few.
This movement became enshrined in social and traditional media with the hashtag #MeToo. In order to help encourage further revelations of injustices and support with legal funds for women making allegations, Hollywood celebrities came together in 2018 under the #TimesUp initiative, now a bona fide organization still doing it’s part during the pandemic. Despite their efforts, if you search for the terms #MeToo or #TimesUp on Google, you either get older pieces c. 2017-19 or you get headlines using phrases such as “the #MeToo backlash” or “How the movement has installed.” It almost seems as if mass media – dominated by men – is eager to brush off the impact and continued relevance of what these hashtags signify.
In this article, I briefly overview in what ways massive social institutions in the USA, including the Hollywood industry, Sports Industry, and the media, etc have always ensured that women’s issues rarely come to the fore, let alone get addressed. This toxic legacy derives from Hollywood itself and it’s part of the studio system. Nearly a century ago in the 1920s, studio heads discovered that stage-managing and controlling movie stars were the best way to ensure the loyalty of audiences for a fast flow of incoming profits. When it came to the females, the infamous “casting couch” was an unfortunate but in hindsight, not unexpected consequence. Young females would often have to exchange sexual favors with movie contracts and all high-level execs, as well as movie directors, would make free passes at the women working for them. Resisting and not complying would simply mean your career being killed off.
It’s astounding to think that this casting couch phenomenon was such a pervasive artifact of the studio system – and probably persists today – that until the Weinstein story broke, it was widely accepted in the weirdest manner. It would be joked about in the most light-hearted fashion and occasionally featured in film, but never considered worthy of serious discussion. There are stories of the length to which studio execs would go to make sure the status quo was maintained when some star or other threatened to speak out. Even NBC News dodged Farrow’s story on Weinstein, leading to his departure from that organization and taking his investigations to a different publication.
The badly aged and oft-ridiculed quote from Emma Watson on what feminism means belies the cluelessness, or rather indifference or ignorance about the actual pervert issues hidden behind the glorious sets. But it reveals even greater rifts:
In making feminism about superficial aspects of life, Emma Watson unknowingly revealed how categorically different feminism could be for white people or for privileged people in general. On one hand, this quote brushes under the rug the horrendous consequences of wide and deep sexism – date rape, assault, harassment, and discriminatory attitudes, and gender pay gap at work. On the other hand, it does not see the extreme pressure of being a female on those millions of women who are already burdened with being an ethnic minority, economically disadvantaged, or disabled members of society.
According to Koa Beck, former director-in-chief of Jezebel, white feminism “doesn’t really challenge much about our structure, our life, the way we make money, or the way we relate to other women.” In her book on the subject, she describes how white feminism is the exploitative version of feminism, perfectly fine with enhancing personal agenda, achievement and success at the expense of other women, by using the unjust and skewed system in any field to one’s advantage.
Discourse like this highlights another rift in the pop culture discourse on feminism – the two strands of individualist and social feminism. While individualist feminism emphasizes autonomy, self-sufficiency, courage, and fortitude, it allots more personal responsibility to the female agent in not overcoming the barriers. It was primarily advocated by the older spokeswomen of feminism who were well-placed in society and predominantly white. Social feminists on the other hand have highlighted the deep intersectional breaches in the system that keep women trapped in primary problems like navigating education and employment while protecting themselves from predatory elements. Thus while social feminists are fighting to free women from the outrageous inequalities, white or individualist feminism can be seen as happy to play along with male entitlement as long as it allows a few privileged women to break through.
Several examples in recent history have shown how easy it is for male entitlement to not only keep women at a disadvantage but how scarily and smoothly the patterns bleed into the spectrum of exploitation and abuse.
One of the worst demonstrations of this sick, demented privilege in recent memory was the case of Larry Nassar, a sports surgeon based in Michigan State University. Nassar abused his power by harassing the young female athletes under his care and treatment for decades. He was knowingly abetted and ignored by the University and the USA Gymnastics all that time due to his record of managing Olympic teams for the USA. He was convicted in 2018 in a landmark trial where the judge asked all hundred-plus victims to come and read personal impact statements to Nassar in court. However, his case is the tip of the iceberg of decades of abuse of power by US Gymnastics and reflective, no doubt, of other institutions in the country.
The heinous practices going on in Silicon Valley as we speak come to mind. Check out the revealing details put together by Emily Chang in a book and an article based on it. It’s the same story all over again: males believing that the power they wield in the world of technology can be extended to personal and social lives. While males boost their ego and burn hard-earned money for a good time, females are stepped over, manipulated, humiliated and exploited, while being forever kept at arm’s length when it comes to work and enterprise. How often does this shamelessly rationalized lifestyle step from exploitation into criminal assault is anybody’s guess. Moreover, this ugliness stays hidden from the public eye for lack of an emblematic case of allegations to finally open the Valley for this conversation.
The disturbing reality is that this pattern starts early in colleges and universities. Males start exerting their entitlement going about in a presumptive, negative, and abrasive way in dating and relationships. Many don’t even bother dating and conjure straight-up, molly-aided rape schemes. An argument can be made that only men with predatory minds or who exhibit psychopathy or otherwise lack of impulse control will fall on the wrong side of gender inequality. But what to call it when a feminist campaign to raise awareness of these dangers in a highschool unleashes a storm of fury and abuse from otherwise ‘regular-seeming’ male peers? Read this real-life story by Jinan Younis if you don’t believe me.
Why should such a toxic attitude against any female voices for respectful treatment turn up the male ego so loud that nothing fair gets heard? Look at the pop culture around you and then ask the question again. The music videos, the sexy movies, the visuals in PlayStation and Xbox games. They all seem to present and reinforce two predominant and equally toxic messages that go against females: Females are not worth screen-time, or unique, original storytelling from a genuinely female (rather than masculine, studio-dictated) point of view. Two, the major use of females is to make them the object of lustful gaze.
What’s frustrating is that there are rarely ever any mainstream attempts to address the issues and the toxic branding of “females”. The very recent gender-consciousness on screens is nothing but pandering to a “woke” mentality while giddily playing into the hands of the studio system. Why do I say that? Because the misogynist and sexist attitudes are so deeply ingrained and their expressions so large in numbers, that even when alternative representations of females exist, they can hardly break free of the concrete facade already in place.
Take for example the Girl Power moment in Avengers: Endgame which turned out to be much ado about nothing. Even if there really had been an actual female-driven thread in that juggernaut of a movie, it would still be a masculine vision for ‘female heroism’. Allison Willmore makes this point brilliantly by analyzing what’s wrong with the “made for women” class of movies today, whether a spineless Ruth Ginsburg biopic or an Ocean’s movie with unreal portrayals of “Alpha” women. These examples are nothing but studio choices by execs still unshaken in their belief that saleable female content can only have masculine-derived themes. The sad part is that even independent cinema with outwardly progressive themes is not free of such “strangulated liberation”. I felt personally disappointed when a few years ago Sorry to Bother You gave the activist role in the story to the male hero’s male best friend and the male-gaze inviting, so-called liberating role to the hero’s girlfriend. The only progress inherent in these representations was the diversity of skin color. Otherwise, the representations still augmented long-standing presumptions of what masculine liberation would look like (more intellectual, leadership role) versus what female liberation would look like (sexualized, happily self-objectifying, liberated only in bodily expression).
There is only one area where females seem to have truly broken through and that is politics. The surge in the number of elected representatives in the senate and congress feels like a genuine victory for females and a hopeful signpost for the future. But note that winning votes of the population in a fair election has allowed females to break through in large numbers because by its nature it is not a closed-off system where males guard the gates. These women worked hard and there was no one forcing them to change their female point of view into a male-derived worldview. They focused on issues of women as much as other inequalities in society and won the trust of the people they promised to work for.
While we can hope that these numbers will translate into more gender-equal legislation in the future, the media is still predominantly under one-sided control. The pervert mass culture which legitimizes excluding the female experience, demeaning the female personhood, and exploiting the sexuality of the female body to one’s self-centered advantage will not change until the on-screen messages change.
The importance of movements turning the tide away from studio-mandated pellets of cool female bravado toward the ills and crimes against females both in general society and in the same studio system cannot be overstressed.
One can only hope that it will not take another hundred years of a media-dominated society to get to that movement.