Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem
Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem on MSNBC

OPINION

With allegations of sexual harassment, who do we believe – and when?

When dozens of rich, famous, beautiful Hollywood actresses talked, the world finally listened. But credibility shouldn’t depend on numbers or status, says Kat Lister

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By Kat Lister on

There’s a quote I have scribbled down in multiple notebooks at home and I reference it repeatedly – both on the page and down the pub (frankly, whenever I can).

“Who gets to speak and why is the only question,” Chris Kraus declared in her genre-defying opus, I Love Dick.

When I first read it, the feminist fireworks were ignited deep inside. Why has it been scrawled on numerous notepads in my flat? It could refer to any one of us – every single woman out in the world attempting to speak the truth about her life. I quoted Kraus when writing about my miscarriage earlier this year. I drunkenly ranted it when Hillary Clinton was told to “shut the fuck up and go away” last month. Most recently, it speaks of powerful men and silenced women – of Harvey Weinstein and Terry Richardson, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and screenwriter James Toback.

But there’s another “w” I could add to this equation – and it’s “when”. If there’s one avoidable thing I’ve learnt in the wake of Weinstein’s downfall, it’s that there is safety in numbers, yes, but there is credibility, too. Why does it take tens of women to speak out about their abuse before we believe the first one? And why is it only when certain women come forward that we actually drop everything and decide to listen?

It’s a question that Jane Fonda posed this week during an interview with MSNBC. With the exception of Lupita Nyong’o (who wrote eloquently about her experience of Weinstein’s unwanted attentions for a New York Times op-ed last week), Fonda asked why we only pay attention when accusers are “famous” and “white". In other words: when are we going to listen to all women, regardless of the colour of their skin or the height of their platform?

“It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them,” the actress and activist said. “This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of colour, and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”

Would the conversation we’re now having be able to occur without the testimonies of well-known white celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd?

Sitting next to her, Gloria Steinem picked up the baton to question and expose the inequality that underpins racism and sexism – socially, culturally and structurally.

“If you steal money, you probably get arrested and convicted, because everybody says stealing is wrong,” Steinem commented. “But if you do something that is very sexist or racist, because there still is a critical mass of bias in this country it takes more cumulative instances for it to be recognised.”

Despite this, both Steinem and Fonda agreed that this feels like a watershed moment. “We have reached a tipping point, I think,” Steinem concluded.

When it comes to who gets to speak, why and when, have we reached a tipping point? It’s hard to analyse. Would the conversation we’re now having be able to occur without the testimonies of well-known white celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd? I’m not so sure.

Judd spoke about the role inequality has to play in sexual-harassment cases when recounting her own experiences as a young actress in the grips of Weinstein. In an interview with US network ABC, Judd said she wished that she could “go back with a magic wand. I wish I could prevent it for anyone, always.”

Her next line, a familiar reality for so many women who have stayed silent in the wake of abuse, assault or abuse: “I don’t know that I would have been believed and who was I to tell?” she said. “I knew it was disgusting. Was I going to tell the concierge who sent me up to the room?”

The truth of the matter is that, until women across the board – irrespective of race, wealth or employment status – feel empowered to speak up at the point when harassment takes place, these kinds of experiences will continue to be suppressed. A recent BBC survey revealed what we already knew: harassment isn’t a Hollywood disease – it’s everywhere. What’s more, the silence surrounding and enabling it is perpetuated by inequality. In fact, as pointed out in The Atlantic this week: “The problem appears to be particularly acute in service industries, in which employees rely on tips and interface frequently with customers; in low-wage industries, in which employees have little power to begin with; and in industries dominated by men, like construction.”

Because this isn’t about sex – it never was. It’s about power. Those without it continue to be silenced and it’s going to take more than a Chris Kraus quote – however glorious it is – to empower women to speak up.

@Madame_George

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Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem on MSNBC
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