Watching Donna Karan defend the “wonderful” Harvey Weinstein earlier this week as she floated her theory about why women keep getting sexually assaulted (we are, in a nutshell, asking for it), was oddly mesmerizing, like watching a water balloon explode in slow motion. By the end of the clip I had tilted my head so far to one side—as if changing my perspective would make her words line up—that I had to right it with my hand.
The irony that the most hackneyed accusation of all—Well, what was she wearing?—was leveraged by a fashion designer was lost on no one; watching Karan walk back her remarks the next day was less mystifying than hearing them in the first place, just part of the usual PR two-step we’ve come to expect as part of the news cycle.
But buried deep in her comments was a line that actually did line up, even if she didn’t mean it to: “I don’t think it’s only Harvey Weinstein. I don’t think we’re only looking at him; I think we’re looking at a world much deeper than that.”
So, not to take anything out of context here, but Karan is at least right about that. This is not a one-man crime, and the deeper world we’re looking at is in fact our world, this one right here, where women everywhere, regardless of industry, are routinely harassed, doubted, slut-shamed, fat-shamed, just plain shamed, and forced into making impossible decisions. As The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote, “There is no good exit from a hotel room with Harvey Weinstein.”
This is a world where assistants, executives, the NY-fucking-PD, and an industry at large look the other way, a world where each eye-roll, shrug, and sigh adds another layer of insulation to our culture of silence.
As inevitable as the abuse is the backlash against the victims: “What took her so long? Why didn’t she just leave? She had it coming for being so stupid.”
Beneath these comments is a desire, realized or not, to figure out what the hell is going on here. On this, at least, both sides can agree: Something, somewhere is not right.
How did we get here? How did Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose McGowan, the majority of your girlfriends, you, me, your mentor, and your mom end up in the room with the creep in the first place? Why do so many of us know what Tolentino means when she writes about, “a muted sadness, a long-kept knowledge of diminishment, a sense of undeserved yet inescapable remorse” in the tones of victims who step forward to share their stories?
There’s something deeply comforting and simultaneously horrifying when we realize how much we are not alone.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, poet, analyst, post-trauma recovery specialist, and author, writes about this very pervasiveness:
” Almost all of us have, at least once, experienced a compelling idea or semi-dazzling person crawling in through our psychic windows at night and catching us off guard. Even though they’re wearing a ski mask, have a knife between their teeth, and a sack of money slung over their shoulder, we believe them when they tell us they’re in the banking business.” Women Who Run With the Wolves
Estés is interested in the Weinsteins of the world, but she’s also interested in our interior predators, the bankers in ski masks who wreak havoc on our psyches. The latter, she believes, opens the door for the former in ways we may not even perceive. Girls, she argues, are taught from a young age to be nice, make pretty, and look away. I’m not saying this state is universal, but it resonates for me and many of the women I know: We have had to undo many years of conditioning around deep beliefs of needing to please, needing to smile, and needing to not make a scene.
By learning to “be nice,” Estés argues, women “override their intuitions.” We are taught to welcome the predator, or, at the very least, not hurt his feelings. This predator can be anything that makes you small: A limiting belief, an unexpressed impulse, a draining relationship, inherited trauma, or a guy in a bathrobe asking for a massage.
An imbalance in our psyches, in our ability to know, trust, and express our instincts and desires, has its roots in deep cultural conditioning. It’s also reflected by the culture itself. Look to the sexual predator living in the White House who, just over a year ago, laid out the rules of fame and assault: “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” What greater proof do we need that our culture itself is predatory, aggressive, imbalanced, and completely out of line?
” Each group and culture appears to have its own psychic predator…[who] is identified with and allowed absolute sovereignty until the people who believe otherwise become a tide.” Women Who Run With the Wolves
Victims will continue to be shamed and accounts of abuse discounted as long as we continue to heap awards, recognition, bonuses, and passes for inexcusable behavior on perpetrators whose outsize influence is as big as the number of people they have kept small.
It’s not a matter of women being brave enough to come forward and savvy enough to stay out of the hotel room. It’s a matter of taking the predators out of power and rewarding different behaviors. It’s about making a new paradigm in which the culture works toward collective growth instead of singular power-grabbing. It’s about teaching women and men to face something awful and not try to make it nice or pretend it’s not there.
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging our children to be kind; we could all benefit from acting out of a place of compassion. But we serve no one by confusing agreeableness with benevolence. Benevolence is calling your friends out on their shit—from their tendency to start projects they don’t finish (guilty!) or date people who don’t treat them all that well (guilty again)—and being open to hearing the same from them.
Benevolence is using whatever privileges you posses, ones you have because of your race, gender, or financial bracket, to champion and advocate for those without them. Weinstein didn’t target famous actresses with powerful PR machines, a legal team, and loyal Twitter followers; he targeted newcomers looking to break in, young women who, despite feeling the hairs spring up on the backs of their necks, convinced themselves to cross the threshold into a room where they had no power.
The more we respect and sharpen our intuition and pay attention to that nasty thing we’ve heard whispers of but haven’t fully seen, the more powerful our tools of discernment and agitating will be. If we let injustice and abuse happen on any scale we give our silent consent for it to happen again.
This is no easy thing and I, for one, am working on it. I start, as always, with my own life, looking at the ways I keep myself small or the systematic imbalances I resent but take for granted—ones I participate in as a white woman and ones I’m subjected to as a white woman. This work is easier if we do it together. If the rising chorus of voices still speaking out against Weinstein is any indication, there is a tribe out there of silent sufferers who have endured whatever it is you have endured, too.
To paraphrase Beyoncé, together we can move a mountain, calm a war, make it rain, and stop a love drought. Because that’s what all of this feels like to me: an absence of love, a surfeit of fear, harsh conditions, and a multitude of human beings ready to change everything.