How do you come back from being the alleged perpetrator of a #MeToo moment? Most religions have some place within them for the admission of fault, regret and redemption. So, too, does the criminal justice system. Both accept the possibility that an individual may change for the better in the future. For the men caught up in accusations of “sexual misconduct”, however, public shaming is comprehensive and, thus far, final.
The aftermath of #MeToo has sparked some necessary conversations: about sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, or the effect of repeated exposure to pornography on men’s behaviour towards women. For anyone who cares about fairness in employment, or relations between men and women, it is very good that those discussions are happening at all.
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Yet #MeToo has also been notable for something else: a form of extralegal judgement, often spread on social media, which can have powerfully destructive effects on the reputation, career and family life of the accused. Some of the charges against men – and they are overwhelmingly men – certainly fall within the category of criminal activity. Many more fall within a broader range of behaviour that society now finds unacceptable: a crude or sexist remark; an unwanted advance; pushy demands for sex on a date; or an extra-marital affair, or affairs, that left sour and complicated feelings in their wake.
Does such behaviour matter? Certainly, and to varying degrees depending on the circumstances. Yet the shift in culture has been sudden: much of this behaviour, until very recently, came under the remit of private attitudes to moral boundaries. Its exponents might, in the past, have been variously known as male chauvinist pigs, womanisers, jack-the-lads, cheats, sexists, pervs, office pests or – whisper it – ‘not safe in taxis’. The alleged behaviour is also, in some cases, subject to differing perceptions or disputed factual accounts of what happened.
The law has a definition of offences and standards of evidence needed for an individual to be convicted – yet there is a widespread perception that often the framing and conduct of rape trials, for example, are unfairly stacked against the complainant. The #MeToo accusations rose up partly in response to the perceived inadequacies of our adversarial legal system, and frustration at persistent yet damaging male behaviour which lay beyond its remit. Now the people’s judgements instead play out in magazines, newspapers or social media. This “calling out” has become part of civil society, yet the mere effect of accusation carries much of the practical force of a criminal conviction.
Serial scandals crack open new topics for debate. When the US comedian and actor Aziz Ansari, for example, was accused in January of allegedly pressuring a reluctant date for sex, it began an international conversation about what consent looks like. That has been useful for society, but crashingly humiliating for Ansari himself, who somewhat ironically wrote a book on the pitfalls of modern dating. Since the story broke, he has been professionally invisible.
Not all of this can be laid at the door of #MeToo. That movement has collided with the phenomenon of internet shaming which was around before the Weinstein scandal broke. An early casualty of this was the Nobel prize-winning British scientist Tim Hunt, who in 2015 found himself in a social media storm over a jokey but silly remark about “trouble with girls” in labs, made during a speech in Korea in which he explicitly encouraged women into science.
Even though former female colleagues testified to Hunt’s support of gender equality in science, he was reportedly told by University College London that he must resign immediately from his honorary position or be sacked. The effect upon Hunt and his wife – a senior immunologist – was shocking and profound. Both, with justification, felt they had been “hung out to dry”. The couple are now working in Japan.
The Hunt affair presciently illustrated one of the problems with modern shaming: its potential absence of nuance, context or a sense of proportion. I would add, post #MeToo, how selective it can be in its outrage. The journalist Toby Young recently resigned from his role as head of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps to deliver the Government’s free schools policy. Young was previously compelled to resign from his government-appointed role as a board member of the Office For Students, a higher education regulator after controversy was triggered by the uncovering of some of Young’s more embarrassing historic tweets, including crudely expressed enthusiasm for women with big breasts and a sick joke about Comic Relief.
Young had two personae: one a provocateur on a polemical crusade against ‘political correctness’, and the other an individual who was serious about social mobility and the future of education in the UK. It might have been predicted that these two personae could not easily co-exist in public harmony, and indeed Young has unreservedly apologised for the “stupid, puerile” tweets. Few would disagree that he should.
In the pages of The Guardian and The Observer, however, Young was energetically transformed in numerous opinion columns – into a sly eugenicist and uniquely dangerous creature of right-wing malevolence. The comedian Stewart Lee wrote that “somewhere around twenty years ago Toby Young started being nasty about people less fortunate and privileged than him … and then the wind changed, and Toby Young was stuck with the horrible face he had made”. His article ended with a vision of Young’s future – clearly satisfying to Lee – that was one of crude public derision without end.
It came as a surprise to me recently, therefore, to see heavily advertised on the Guardian website a forthcoming Guardian Live event at which the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle is in discussion with the rapper, poet and activist Akala. As the blurb eagerly pointed out, Boyle has “brought his own brand of satire to political commentary for The Guardian”.
Indeed so. In 2012, just six years ago, Boyle took his own brand of satire around the UK in the shape of his show The Last Days of Sodom. It was, perhaps, one of the most consistently vicious and misogynistic pieces of stand-up ever performed. His response to a female heckler was: “I’ll abuse you so badly your gynaecologist will think you’ve been in a f***ing car crash,” and again: “I reckon your pussy has seen more action than f***ing Helmand.”
And, since it was 2012 – when little girls across the UK were watching and admiring sporting stars such as Rebecca Adlington, Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton – Boyle’s first instinct was to cram these stellar female athletes back in the sex-fantasy box, and describe himself masturbating about them, raping or otherwise abusing them. Adlington was “a bit of a challenge-wank”; Ennis “I couldn’t go out with Jessica Ennis. Couldn’t go out with someone who wouldn’t feel it when I punched them in the stomach. I’d end up having to pay for an abortion.”; Pendleton: “Victoria Pendleton can lift twice her own body weight. Which is sexy, ’cause it means she still wouldn’t be able to throw me off.”
Before that, in 2010, Boyle’s act contained nasty, drearily stereotyping gags about people with Down’s Syndrome. Then, of course, there was his run of hellish jokes about Madeleine McCann, too nauseating and depressing even to repeat: if one theory of comedy – espoused by the likes of Stewart Lee – is that it should “punch up” to hit more powerful targets, then surely Boyle couldn’t have punched down any harder than on a pair of permanently agonised parents of a missing child.
In 2012, Boyle had brought a libel case against the Daily Mirror for accusing him of being racist in his act and won. It’s just as well for him that he didn’t attempt to argue against accusations of misogyny. The wider truth was that at the time when Boyle was doing that routine, racism in stand-up circles was deeply unfashionable – and possibly career-killing – but extreme misogyny was having its moment in the sun. When it came to sexism, Young might have been in the metaphorical kindergarten with his unquiet admiration for “boobs” and “serious cleavage” but Boyle was doing a comedy PhD in repetitive, elaborately structured fantasies of violent sexual abuse for chuckles.
In 2010, the “rape joke” had already risen on the comedy circuit, and the fact that you could do it with impunity was known and accepted. Jimmy Carr was especially keen on gags about forced sex, so keen it was a staple of his act, even on television: “What’s the difference between football and rape? Women don’t like football.” The Australian comic Jim Jefferies openly told an interviewer: “You can’t do jokes about black people or Asian people. But you can do a rape joke on stage now and there’s not a problem.”
I was familiar with the arguments made at the time; all those impassioned defences of how comedy operates according to its own sacred rules, how it must flirt with the boundaries of what is taboo, how a joke is a joke. It was instructive to see how those theories melted away – rightly – when a clearly racist joke was in question, yet not a viciously misogynist one: women were fair game. Not any more, as the savvier comics have absorbed. Boyle recently tweeted that he had once walked out of a corporate do when he witnessed a female performer being harassed. One had the impression that he was waiting for a ripple of applause.
What happened? Well, the wind changed, as Lee observed of Young, but Boyle didn’t want to be stuck with the face he had made. The Guardian appears content to let him shift to a more acceptably political one, apparently without comment or reflection. I’m not opposed to people changing their views: in fact, I welcome it. What I don’t like is a selectively outraged viewpoint that suffers collective amnesia when it comes to Boyle’s misogyny, but frames Young’s lewdness on the wall for posterity.
Today’s 20-something women are angry. One of the things they have to be angry about is the way that – over a period of roughly 20 years, beginning in the mid-Nineties – popular culture abandoned the wider interests of girls and young women in favour of what was deemed fashionable.
I remember the rise and reign of the new sexism because I spent those decades writing against it. It started out masquerading as irony or fun, comedy or freedom: it ended up none of those things. In advertising, music, magazines, fashion and film a bombardment of heavily sexualised imagery was de rigueur. “Porn chic” ruled the early noughties. T-shirts for young girls by the fashion brand French Connection bore the slogans “guaranteed fcuk” and “porn star”.
The fashion photographer Terry Richardson, or “Uncle Terry”, was notorious for his exploitative sexual behaviour on explicit shoots with young, inexperienced models: this was known years before the Danish model and film-maker Rie Rasmussen publicly pointed it out in 2010, but such was his industry clout that Conde Nast only stopped working with him in autumn 2017. Plastic surgery and full-body depilation for young women was gradually normalised. The director Quentin Tarantino, and his protégé Eli Roth – known for ‘torture porn’ – took especial pleasure in showing young, attractive women subjected to new and repulsive extremes of screen violence. All of this unfurled in plain sight.
Mainstream society excitedly embraced aspects of porn culture, precisely as aggressive and violent behaviour towards women soared within the porn industry itself (one 2010 study of popular porn videos found 88.2% of 304 scenes analysed contained physical aggression, and 48.7% verbal aggression: the “targets of aggression were overwhelmingly female”). As the effects seeped into society – not least in young men’s porn-inspired expectations of how young women should behave sexually – it was impossible to avoid the impression that a significant sector of feminism was asleep on the job, increasingly mired in academic discourse, and ludicrously wary of not seeming “sex-positive”. Meanwhile, the worlds of fashion, television and film colluded in the casual insult and sexualising of women and young girls.
There’s a social revolution happening, and society is shaping fresh codes. Yet perhaps we should all be more honest about how and why women finally arrived at the snapping-point of the #Time’sUp era. The preceding decades saw the long-term, energetic fusion of commerce, sex and misogyny; widespread coarsening in the media of male attitudes towards women (and, frequently, female passivity or apparent encouragement in response); and general obeisance to the tyranny of cool. Many men rode this cultural wave feeling like sexually outspoken buccaneers while ending up just looking like bullies or boors. The wiser ones didn’t. The hashtag #yesallmen simply isn’t true.
There’s a new version of what’s cool now, which involves women not accepting routine insults: long may it thrive. But if we want a proper discussion, it’s time to stop dropping inconvenient bits of history into the communal memory-hole. Let’s recall the full picture of how sexism and violent misogyny got comfortable at the cultural table, and who allowed them in. That might make for a more complicated, broader and fairer discussion around #MeToo, one that goes beyond a clutch of permanently shamed names. If so, good.
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