Time’s ‘Silence Breakers’ moment only a start for media culture change
Penalties for sexual ‘misconduct’ were more visible in 2017, but there is plenty to despair
Time magazine’s Person of the Year cover. “Time’s term ‘silence breakers’ is an interesting one, as many of the women profiled by the magazine had broken their silence many times in the past.”
Time magazine has selected as its “Person of the Year” a group it calls “the Silence Breakers” – the women, and some men too, who came forward in 2017 to tell their stories of sexual harassment and assault. It is a high-impact choice. It resonates. And it reflects a year of news that has been both extraordinary and unsurprising, inspiring and disillusioning, in equal measure.
In late November, when more than 80 women met at the Project Arts Centre for Waking the Media, an event organised by Irish Times columnist Una Mullally, the feeling was that there was still some silence yet to be broken. At a time when the media was investigating abuses of power in the arts and entertainment world, the women in the room felt it was time for the media to reflect on itself too.
Some editorial gatekeepers have come to the realisation that sexual harassment, sexual assault and sex discrimination is widespread across multiple industries – and that this is unjust. When Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal referred to “the fastest-moving social change we’ve seen in decades”, he sounded confident that lasting change has already occurred.
Personally, I find it’s hard to be complacent when you grow up in a culture with no shortage of newspapers, chat shows and radio segments that would qualify for mention in Susan Faludi’s Backlash (her bestselling dissection of how 1980s media unravelled the feminist progress of the 1970s). The backlash is only ever a handful of “contrarian” op-eds away.
Even Time’s term “silence breakers” is an interesting one, as many of the women profiled by the magazine had broken their silence many times in the past, and not just to those other women who might horrifyingly find themselves in the same situation. Many who spoke out were disbelieved, threatened, gas-lighted and/or smeared. Some were believed, but their courage was met with a shrugged shoulder.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal has answered a dispiriting number of “whatever happened to. . .?” questions about the fates of talented actresses who I’d quite enjoyed watching until it was decided that they were not compliant enough with the Hollywood patriarchy or quite grateful enough for their part in it. They faded from view, uncast, while Harvey prowled on.
The link between harassment and the perennial issue of under-representation of women in the creative industries couldn’t be clearer: when Weinstein wasn’t inviting actresses to his hotel room for “business meetings”, he was keenly fostering the early careers of directors such as Quentin Tarantino, David O Russell, Kevin Smith and Peter Jackson. Male directors. In 2016, women directed just 7 per cent of the 250 highest-grossing films in the United States.
Time and time again throughout 2017, organisations that meted out less-than-ideal treatment to women found out that their business reputations and operations could face real consequences for doing so
This sad statistic is in part a function of Weinstein and other since-disgraced men being permitted to thrive in their dressing gowns, despite the deafening whispers about their behaviour. Weinstein culture assesses the worth of women according not to what we have to say but to what it can take from us. Men with toxic attitudes to women do not promote them as writers and directors. They much prefer women to be their audience.
At the Waking the Media meeting, designed to be the first of many, the conversation moved along the spectrum of experiences from sexual harassment to what it feels like to be the only woman in the meeting room (lonely, exposed, outnumbered). It was felt that if there were a critical mass of women in senior roles, this would help minimise some of the other problems that can cause women to “lean out”, weary from the battle, their potential unfulfilled.
It has been a remarkable year for women in the media, not just because of the tsunami of revelations about male sexual “misconduct” (as the US lawyers sometimes like to call assault and harassment). Confirmation of pay discrepancies between men and women at various broadcasters, followed by plummeting levels of patience for certain male dinosaurs I couldn’t be bothered naming, created a spike in awareness about the fact that not all media platforms are shared equally.
There are so many chickens-and-eggs at play, it is not easy to see how the inequalities can be eradicated. There is the sense that qualities such as “gravitas” and “authority” and “credibility” continue to be ascribed far more readily to men. This creates the irksome irony that the injustices that women have been objecting to for decades will truly be tackled only when men concede the point and repeat it for us.
Later in the year, it emerged that US network Fox News was aware that its former anchor Bill O’Reilly had agreed a $32 million sexual harassment settlement before it renewed his contract. Those opposed to the proposed takeover of Sky by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox have since used the case to urge the UK competition watchdog to reject it on the grounds that here is evidence of the company’s unsuitability to own Sky.
Time and time again throughout 2017, organisations that meted out less-than-ideal treatment to women found out that their business reputations and operations could face real consequences for doing so. I’m pretty sure the risk of this kind of corporate penalty didn’t always exist. The fact it does now – even in theory – has to be welcome.