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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

US culture year in review: the year of women breaking their silence

We reflect on reverberations in US culture in the first full ‘year of Trump’

Illustration by Alex Belman / The National
Illustration by Alex Belman / The National

For the past few months, whenever I’ve thought about the state of American popular culture, I’ve found myself thinking of a comedian named Abby Schachner. She does not star in any television shows, has no comedy specials on Netflix, nor is featured in any upcoming films. But in 2003, Schachner was an up-and-coming performer when she called Louis C K and asked him to attend her next show. As detailed in the New York Times story on his misconduct, what happened next – her fellow comedian subjecting her to an unwanted torrent of sexually explicit commentary – led her to quit comedy.

Some of the attention of this year has been directed at the notoriety and success of men brought down by accusations of sexual misconduct, and rightly so. But far more haunting are the stories of women like Schachner, whose careers never took the progression they might have, had predatory men not blocked them from advancement, or shoved them out of contention. And so alongside the culture we have, we must imagine the culture we do not have, denied to us by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C K, and Brett Ratner.

This abuse was prevalent on every level of the career ladder for women, affecting not only the likes of Schachner, not yet a household name, but Salma Hayek, tormented during the production of her pet project Frida, and Mira Sorvino, whom Weinstein quietly blackballed from the Lord of the Rings and ther films.

This year has been dominated by discussion of the flagrant, egregious, flabbergasting misbehaviour of prominent men – in Hollywood, in the media, on television, among chefs and radio hosts, and athletes and CEOs. Every day, there are reports of new allegations, usually involving multiple accusers, and little wiggle room for doubt. This month, accusations were levelled at Dustin Hoffman and NFL team owner Jerry Richardson. No one believes that we are anywhere near the end of this story.

The twin stories in the New York Times and the New Yorker detailing the allegations against Weinstein triggered the earthquake that is roiling American culture right now, but the tremors of 2017 are a delayed response to 2016, when the people chose to elect another prominent TV personality and chief executive, who had been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women, to the presidency.

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Read more:

Time names sexual abuse 'Silence Breakers' as Person of the Year

Will the Weinstein effect go global?

Hundreds join Hollywood #MeToo march

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In truth, the entirety of this year has been the story of angry, fed-up women seizing the reins and refusing to let go. On January 21, I was standing on a street in Manhattan with nowhere to go. Donald Trump had been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States the day before, and the air of disbelief had not dissipated – and it felt like it would never dissipate. And so here we were, the leftovers, crammed together on East 47th Street, listening to a local politician offer a kind of sober uplift on this unimaginable day.

The crowd was not moving. We wound up hearing the politician’s speech a second time, still mostly immobile, and when, at long last, we reached the corner of 47th and Second Avenue, I could not help but let out a gasp: the crowd extended for at least 10 blocks uptown, and another five or more downtown, a solid mass of humanity out to express their horror at what had befallen the US.

Humanity, yes, but women in particular, shocked and furious that the country had chosen to elect a man as president who went out of his way to belittle women, and who gave a man accused of sexual assault the most powerful position in the world.

That day, 400,000 people marched in New York City. I was with the crowd for more than five hours, and only made it as far as 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, a half-mile away. In total, more than four million Americans across the country took part, making it, in all likelihood, the largest single-day demonstration in US history.

The remainder of 2017 has served, in retrospect, as an extended march, a cry of protest at the shameful treatment of women in American society. It began with Trump, and his seeming Teflon-like immunity from shame or electoral consequence, but acquired a head of steam with the near-simultaneous New York Times and New Yorker reports on Weinstein’s three-decade reign of sexualised terror, allegedly assaulting and raping employees, performers in his films and other women, with a near-complete lack of consequence.

Trump had ripped the bandage off our still-suppurating national wounds of race and gender; Weinstein (along with alleged predators the late Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News) had exposed brutal and inhumane conditions under which many women seek professional advancement.

The last quarter of the year was primarily devoted to an extended unspooling of the names of American men who allegedly used their positions of authority to take advantage of women (and men) in their midst. Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Mario Batali. The head of Amazon’s television department. The head of Pixar. Multiple members of Congress. Former senator Al Franken. Prominent journalists at The New York Times, The Atlantic, and ABC News. Russell Simmons, Garrison Keillor, Jeffrey Tambor. By the time this article reaches print, there will undoubtedly be other names joining them.

Perhaps the primary distinction between Weinstein’s accusers and Trump’s were that Weinstein’s were famous. Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie were deemed more trustworthy than the likes of Summer Zervos and Natasha Stoynoff. This was demoralising, to be sure, but it was also a telling sign of the surge of anger about mistreatment of women, that so many prominent Hollywood actresses were willing to come forward and run the risk of damaging their careers by naming names.

In this climate, it was increasingly clear that Hollywood’s well-publicised struggles with the place of women and minorities in positions of influence was less a matter of a tolerant, progressive community wrestling with the complexity of change, and more about a rotten industry exposing the extent of its rot. Women did not get to make their own films because women were not treated as equals. Weinstein and all his partners in abuse were haunting reminders of those who never made it, blocked by predatory men or a system whose floor was slanted sharply away from them.

All of which made summer blockbuster Wonder Woman a highly enjoyable work of escapist entertainment directed by and starring a woman, something more than what it might otherwise have been. To see Gal Gadot leap into action in the streets of London and the trenches of the First World War was not merely to watch another costumed superhero place the world’s burdens on their muscular backs, but to glimpse a world in which Patty Jenkins, whose Monster had won an Academy Award for Charlize Theron, might not have to wait another 14 years to make a film. Many of the best movies of 2017 were similarly concerned with the experiences of women.

Sean Baker’s near-miraculous The Florida Project occupied a liminal space in the shabby motels near, but entirely not of, Disney World. The film was about the elaborate fantasy world created by Moonee (a stellar Brooklynn Prince) and her friends, but the heart lingered on Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), driven to extremes by the stresses of single motherhood and financial chaos.

The year was about angry women, whether it was Frances McDormand’s grieving, vengeful mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or Saoirse Ronan’s bitter high-school senior, flinging herself out of a moving car by means of introduction, in Greta Gerwig’s wondrous Lady Bird. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s light-hearted Battle of the Sexes was a redo of the 2016 election, with Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King as Hillary Clinton and Steve Carell’s ludicrous Bobby Riggs playing Trump. Even Sally Hawkins’s silent heroine in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water was engaged in a wordless protest against the indifference to life of the all-male national-security establishment.

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Read more Year in Review:

Pop music in review: leftfield chart-toppers and the growth of grime

Travel year in review: our writers' highlights of 2017

2017 in Review: a year of progress and creativity in the arts

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The gap between art and life, between fantasy and reality, shrank in 2017. Our favorite onscreen heroines were talking, at last, about the minefields they had had to crawl through to reach success, and fictional characters were bleeding into the real world. Anti-Trump protesters donned the blood-red robes and white bonnets of the handmaids from the Emmy-winning TV series The Handmaid’s Tale to demonstrate precisely the thing they were not – acquiescent and tamed.

David Simon’s critically acclaimed HBO series The Deuce was about transforming eroticism into business, with the grimy Times Square of the early 1970s taking on uncanny resonance. Even The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a kind of effervescent Mad Men about a 1950s housewife who takes up stand-up comedy, could not help but remind us of all the women kept from making ‘em laugh by the form’s masculine gatekeepers and toxic demands.

“So somebody’s got to go kill something while I look after the kids,” the female narrator of Pure Comedy, the title track of Father John Misty’s superb album, noted. Even the cave women here were pondering the limitations of their society: “He says as soon as he gets back from the hunt, we can switch, It’s hard not to fall in love with something so helpless, Ladies, I hope we don’t end up regretting this.”

For much of the year, the music I most wanted to listen to was the third album by the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. El-P and Killer Mike’s blend of black humour, agita, pep talk, and political warfare was the ideal soundtrack to a dark and disheartening year, studded with occasional points of light. The song I returned to over and over was 2100, which began with Killer Mike anticipating the murderous neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and a president bending over backwards to apologise for racist bigotry, asking, “How long before the hate that we hold leads us to another holocaust?” But the line that stuck with me most was El-P’s: “Swear to God, They could barely even see the dog, They don’t see the size of the fight.”

When I first heard the song, I thought it was about the buds of the anti-Trump resistance sprouting around the country. Later in the year, it sounded like a song by two male old-heads of hip-hop about the plight of women in Trump’s America. Coming back to it now, it sounds like both. The story of American culture right now is about the consequences of blindness. The dogs are riled up now, and the fight is nowhere near over.