I remember the first time I experienced sexism as a working professional. While the word adulting wasn’t a thing yet — we’re talking 2004 here — I was really young and probably trying embarrassingly hard for people to take me seriously. Adulting was hard enough without having to complicate life with things like institutionalized misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism. I still can’t believe it happened. Not because of what the guy said to me, but because of where he said it and who he was.
It happened the first day as a PhD candidate. He made a joke about me blowing him in his office. I was alone in his office and he asked me what I was interested in. Before I could string together a coherent sentence using smart-sounding grad school phrases (i.e.: how many times I could possibly use hegemony in a sentence), I dropped the stack papers I was carrying. I was nervous. It was my first day.
I bent down to pick them up and he made some crack about me getting on my knees. I can’t remember his exact words but I do remember that the fear of looking stupid in front of anyone, let alone one of the most senior people in my new department, had become a reality. I left his office, went to my car parked on the fourth deck of a dark parking garage, and cried. I didn’t just cry though. I ugly cried and I’ll never forget why.
I was accepted to a Ph.D. program ranked in the top 5 and as a new PhD student, I was terrified of a lot of stuff: not fitting in and making friends with my new colleagues, not being recognized as a serious competitor by my peers, and not being able to hack it as a real intellectual. This didn’t help. I was humiliated, lonely, and more afraid than when I got there. I moved halfway across the country for this. What did I just do?
So there I was, not even 24 hours in and already experiencing the sexism and misogyny that I started grad school to fight against. The irony wasn’t lost on me but I was angry. I was at a university. These people were supposed to be progressive. They were supposed to fight the patriarchy not be the patriarchy. They had man buns before man buns were a thing for Christ’s sake. How could this happen here?
It’s an understatement to say that I felt a little betrayed by my expectations. But there was absolutely nothing I was going to do. There was nothing I felt I could do. I was brand new. I had no friends and was intimidated by everything and everyone. This guy was loved — like really loved. And he was really famous. He was a full professor with international recognition. I had only dreamed of meeting him in undergrad, let alone working with him. He had a reputation for being kind, funny, and smart. His actions made me more than upset. I was disappointed. I wanted to say something but who would believe me?
For years, I replayed that scene over and over in my mind, wondering what I had done to cause him to say such a crude and embarrassing thing. But I also had read enough feminism in undergrad to know that it wasn’t anything I did, anything I said, or anything I wore. And I knew that I shouldn’t have to tolerate that kind of behavior. No one should. But I also knew I couldn’t say anything. He just doesn’t fit the profile. He’s a progressive academic with a great family who publishes in all the right journals and says all the right things. For decades, he’s had a gaggle of navel gazing grad students who literally hang on his every word. Again, who would believe me? I knew the answer.
I did end up mentioning it to a few colleagues some years later just to test that theory. “I don’t know,” they said. “It doesn’t sound like him. I mean….I know you say that’s what he said….but…” So that went well.
For the next 6 years, I, and many of my peers, continued to experience institutionalized sexism. It’s a hard paradigm to escape, even in academia. I quickly learned that a lot of these people that professed to have progressive politics had pretty fucked up feminism. That would have been awesome to know before I moved 1,000 miles to the middle of nowhere.
Now, when I see that same guy at conferences, I fanaticize about punching him in the throat — revenge for the 23 year old who felt powerless in his office 12 years ago and had to cry alone in her car. For the most part, I haven’t thought about that moment very much since I left grad school, but lately I’ve been thinking about it more and more.
There’s a lot out there that reminds me why I kept my mouth shut. You only need to read the comments section of any article on Beyoncé, Janice Dickinson, Erin Andrews, Niki Minaj, or Ke$ha, to see that victim blaming and slut shaming are alive and well. It seriously hurts my soul to think that these people have access to the internet. They also vote.
When Gretchen Carlson accused Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, I was reminded how hard that decision must have been. Who would believe her? Fortunately for Carlson, she had a lot of support from the beginning. People were pretty pissed. Within days, 6 other women came forward, and within weeks, that number grew to around twenty. Megyn Kelly confirmed that she too was harassed by Ailes. And people who don’t even like Carlson or Kelly, or any conservative member of the media called for Ailes to get fired and Fox to be held accountable. And now, because of this public outcry, he was actually forced out of his job.
All this is good news right? I should be happy, as many other feminists are, that sexism didn’t win this time. The victims get justice and the harasser gets fired. I should be thrilled that in this case, sexual harassment became a bipartisan issue. Progressives and conservatives all rallied around a woman brave enough to come forward. #yesallwomen
Something all about this hasn’t sat right with me. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what that was until yesterday. Yesterday, when talking about Carlson, a white male colleague said to me, “What did she expect. It’s Fox.” That’s more than a dismissive remark. Many people feel the way he feels. That sentiment matters and reveals something pretty important about the way we understand sexism.
It was never about the victim.
What makes this moment significant is that my coworker reduced Carlson’s objectification and harassment by her employer to a consequence of working in conservative media. And that’s a problem. His support for Carlson became just another way to critique Fox News and show distain for conservatives. Not that there aren’t problems with either but, seriously, come on. The last few weeks, conservatives and progressives rushed to her defense. But for what purpose?
Days after her lawsuit was filed, Bloomberg News posted a supercut documenting all times she was humiliated on camera. It received a respectable 28,000 views and was reposted by outlets that include Mother Jones, People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and even the feminist website MissRepresentation. Though outlets like Vox.com called the video “cringeworthy” and “painful to watch,” it didn’t stop any them from reposting it. Because why would they? The Bloomberg video offered viewers evidence that Carlson might be telling the truth, because, you know, her word wasn’t good enough. People needed to see misogyny for it to be real. I suppose she should be grateful that people all across the political spectrum are even entertaining the idea that she is telling the truth, even if it means perpetual humiliation. After all, nothing says love like putting a victim’s most degrading moments up online for public consumption. Newsflash to Bloomberg: You’re not helping.
Progressives were elated. We finally had more proof that the on-screen antics that oozed misogyny mirrored an even worse off-screen culture. According to the New York Times, women were asked to literally “lay with the big boys.” Ailes became conflated with Fox and consequently Carlson’s very personal and painful experience was used as an opportunity to shame Fox instead of Ailes. Carlson’s newly constituted supporters were quick to defend her not because they are driven by feminist principles, but because they couldn’t stand Fox News. It was never about the victim. The amount of support Carlson received is directly proportional to how much her supporters loathed her employer. And that’s a problem.
Carlson got a lot of support from progressives early on partly because she worked at Fox. Her accusations just confirmed what so many already suspected: This is what it’s like in conservative media. This is also the beginning of the slippery slope to victim blaming. The subtext is by choosing to work at Fox, women put themselves in a position where they get harassed. It’s the same logic that says “Of course she was raped, she had 6 shots in 10 minutes.” “This is your fault. If you don’t want street harassment, don’t wear a mini skirt.”
As progressives, we recognize this language as symptomatic of rape culture. We’re also often the first people to call out rape culture, armed with clever memes and hashtags that push back against the logic of misogyny. We know that shots of alcohol and mini skirts don’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape. But for many, the same logic does not seem to apply to Carlson.
“If you don’t want to be harassed, don’t work at Fox.”
If Carlson’s experiences and her very identity as a victim are used to validate our own progressive values and beliefs about conservatisim, what does that say about our own progressive politics and attitudes towards sexism? It becomes very easy to make this about Fox because the rape culture, misogyny and patriarchy that are so obvious to us on-screen validate our belief in Carlson’s story off-screen.
What’s much harder to do is to situate Carlson’s experiences within a larger context of patriarchy and misogyny in the workplace. I’ll go as far to say it’s intellectually lazy and even irresponsible to situate Ailes’ actions and white privilege solely within conservative ideology.
Carlson didn’t get sexually harassed by her boss because she worked for conservative media any more than I was sexualized by my teacher because I was a grad student. She got harassed because patriarchy is everywhere, white male privilege is everywhere, and assholes who objectify women are everywhere. We seem to have conveniently forgotten that sexual harassment and abuse cuts across race, class, and gender. To reduce a victim’s experience to a consequence of conservatisim makes it even more difficult for women who don’t work for an organization like Fox to come forward.
We need to think harder about whom we choose to label as “real victims,” why we choose to believe them, and recognize strategic moments when we make their experiences something that validates our politics. What if Carlson didn’t work for Fox? What if she didn’t work for such an obvious misogynist? Who would believe her? It took some of Bill Cosby’s victims over 30 years to be taken seriously. Who believed them? Cosby’s identity as a Jell-O pushing TV dad not only helped, it enabled him to rape women without consequences for decades.
So while I’m happy Ailes lost his job and more women are exposing him for what he is, his demise is not driven by intolerance for sexual harassment, a new respect for feminism, or really anything remotely related to defending and protecting victims. It demonstrates the propensity for even the most well-intentioned to pick and choose which women they believe based on who their harasser is, what sort of politics he has, and what kind of person he is. So, we’ve come full circle. Welcome back to rape culture, where the propensity to believe the accuser depends on the identity of the accused. Sigh. #facepalm
As a junior professor, who worked at the highest levels of university administration some of the most sexist things ever said to me in the workplace were said to me by progressive academics that were supposed to have my back. Most of them claimed to be feminists. Just last year at a staff meeting, a non-tenured white male jokingly asked a non-tenured non-white female what was under her dress. Another one made a comment that I should smile more, you know, because that’s not offensive. So, when I’m sitting in faculty or committee meetings and patriarchy rears its ugly head, I’ve learned to be disappointed, but am not surprised. As humans, we need to do a better job at recognizing that sexism and harassment thrives in the most unlikely of workplaces, not just the ones that are in strategic alignment with our politics.
I’m not arguing that the culture at Fox isn’t toxic or that the conservative movement doesn’t have major problems with gender politics. But as a progressive and as an American, I’d like to live in culture that defends all women from sexual harassment and abuse because it’s the right thing to do, not because it serves to advance a particular set of politics.
Look, there are countless women out there who don’t work at Fox news that suffer through sexism and harassment from their peers every day. But they don’t have the luxury that Carlson has. Ailes is an easy target. Most other harassers are not. When most women ask themselves “Who will believe me?” they know the answer.