We stood near 66th Street at Central Park West in Manhattan, thousands of us, behind the police barricades, waiting. The first-anniversary NYC Women’s March crowd would reportedly hit 200,000, but many of us — too far away from the speeches, outcries, slogans and finally, the start of the marching — stood and waited for over two hours, patient and hopeful.
Then, finally, at the first real signs of restlessness on this unseasonably warm day: movement. It was slow at the beginning, like baby steps. The shouting got loudest as we passed cameras, then monitors, then Trump-branded hotels. The placard signs were winning: “Men of Quality Don’t Fear Equality,” “Girls With Dreams Become Women With Vision,” “Get Your Tiny Hands Off Mother Earth,” “The Fem-Pire Strikes Back,” and a personal favorite, “UGH Where Do I Even Start.” And then, after a turn at 59th Street and Columbus Circle, the crowd widened and we were off, moving quickly, walking 20 more blocks with a sense of exhausted relief and accomplishment, and a hope that it would contribute to positive change.
The pace of that day, in fact, seemed to mirror that of this current moment in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Last October wasn’t a week old when Harvey Weinstein turned from producer to pariah, and ever since, weekly revelations have drawn ire and more banishments in film and television — perhaps most notably on TV, once-invincible morning host Matt Lauer of Today. But real progress has proven slow, as patience battles restlessness.
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That pace is fine for history; social movements move slowly and broadly in a host of directions and take years, even decades, to unfold. What’s unique here and now is that this current women’s movement is playing out on the most relentlessly and constantly examined canvas in modern history; namely, the digital, multiplatform, obsessive 24-hour news cycle. And, as we’ve already witnessed, there’s no way to keep that impatient, ratings-hungry backdrop from reshaping what will be an historic, evolving narrative — especially given that the media itself is among the industries being examined.
The excessive punditry makes it difficult to parse what it all means going forward after a week that saw one woman’s intimately reported, aggressive dating encounter with Master of None star/co-creator Aziz Ansari balanced against Today, one of TV’s most popular shows, naming its first-ever female executive producer, Libby Leist. One thing’s for certain: It will be a challenge to make the right kind of continued progress while separating conversation from noise.
“The complexity of the topic itself is in part due to the fact that there’s never any pause in the cycle of reaction,” Isra Ali, clinical assistant professor in the department of media culture and communications at New York University, said. “There tends to be a trajectory of something reported, like with Aziz Ansari, and then immediate reaction online and then reactions of news reporting reacting not on just the event but also in reaction to the reaction. The question becomes, does it ever settle or is it just a continual cycle?”
A Maddening Pace
Also muddying the meaning in the movement are the competing narratives. One can argue that this current push for rights was born during the last presidential campaign and saw its first symbolic heights in the first Women’s March, with attendance that — White House reports aside — dwarfed the inauguration crowds. In the months since, the general goals have been about protecting reproductive rights and health care, putting more women in Congress and trying to climb back toward a balance of power lost when the electoral numbers tipped to Donald Trump.
But the goals widened in the months since the Weinstein revelations ripped the Band-Aid off the unattended wounds of Hollywood, leading to a re-examination of the American workplace and, in fact, culture itself. Questions of respect, disparity in pay and unfair hiring practices — matters that haven’t been “questions” for women for decades — received fresh consideration. And, thankfully, #MeToo, and its attendant call for an end to sexual assault, discrimination and harassment, saw a resurgence. What’s at play is how we as a culture define progress, and how one gets to it.
These questions now play out every moment in the media, courtesy of both news organizations and the social channels that have become bully pulpit forums. Revelations uncovered after months of dogged reporting share space with raw confessionals that go viral and are then fodder for mind-numbingly debated cable news topics.
So far, the change has come in individual gestures. Kevin Spacey, the Oscar and Emmy winner now regarded as a serial sexual predator based on multiple accusations, has lost his Netflix series House of Cards and was quite literally erased from the film All the Money in the World. Fellow bad actors Russell Simmons, Louis C.K., Lauer, CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose and others have each been professionally picked off; what remains is the development of some overall strategy that will make the content business, among others, adhere to ethical rules of sexuality and fairness.
“This moment has created this space for people to tell their stories but we’re only responding to these as individual stories rather than saying this is much bigger than that,” Ann Russo, professor of women and gender studies and director of the women’s center at DePaul University, said. “Without critical social analysis, this stays at this individual level versus what to do to change society. That’s what I’m wondering: Is this a moment or a movement?”
The disparity in the ways media has covered progress and hysteria were on display both at the Today show and in the coverage of Ansari. From that day in late November, when Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb announced Lauer’s dismissal from Today, the show has seemingly run a two-prong approach to the issue: execs keeping a wary eye on public reaction and the ratings of Guthrie and Kotb, and having the co-anchors report on Lauer with only the necessary probing, while offering general coverage of the state of sexual harassment.
The new arrangement worked: On Jan. 2, Kotb was named official co-anchor of one of the most powerful, popular shows on television. And in a nod to this new normal, longtime executive producer of the show, and Lauer favorite, Don Nash, announced his departure; he was replaced by Libby Leist, a senior producer on Today, now the first woman to hold this exalted place in the business. Ad revenue at the show fell in December 24% year-over-year, but viewers are pleased with the pairing.
How this will change the show, and the industry, or whether this becomes simply another individual story, remains to be seen.
“When people say, we need to get more women in power and office, that doesn’t necessarily change the culture or our underlying structure,” Russo said. “It could make a difference but it also depends on what the [Today] show itself allows for. Media depends on making money. They’re not going to allow a lot of critical analysis of pervasive sexual issues. Some of these moves are good but it’s about having a bigger commitment than these symbolic gestures, especially since those gestures might deflect people’s attention and make them think, ‘Oh, everything’s OK.’ ”
That raw feelings remain pervasive, and divisive, has been obvious, and nowhere more so than in the case of Ansari, and “Grace,” the woman whose graphic account of their aggressive sexual encounter remains a focal point of discussion. Ansari, in some circles, is now regarded as disingenuous and hypocritical, a seeming feminist who sported a Time’s Up button during the Golden Globes, and whose 2015 book is titled, Modern Romance: An Investigation.
Date With Destiny
Others, however, angrily suggest Grace’s story reads like date porn, detailing an encounter that could have been avoided — or, at least, not reported on with such vigor and, in some views, vengeance. Ansari is well-liked and respected, and the concern is that Netflix — much as NBC did — will wait out the public opinion, and then decide whether or not he deserves to be heaped in with the likes of Spacey and Lauer for what is acknowledged to be less of an offense.
What’s concerning, too, is the part the media is playing in moving this narrative forward, even influencing it. Sources on polar opposites of the cultural agenda — Fox News Channel on one hand, The New York Times and The Atlantic on the other — lined up to delegitimize what felt, to them, like an attempt by the writer of Grace’s story to undercut the entire women’s movement with the account.
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson wondered if the movement is now hurting whom it meant to help; Ashleigh Banfield on HLN argued that Grace had little more than a bad date that she’s now elevated into a weapon in the greater narrative. “The #MeToo movement has righted a lot of wrongs and … [you] chiseled away at that powerful movement with your public accusation,” she said.
Samantha Bee took on the issue on Full Frontal, offering a “#sorrynotsorry” rebuttal, saying, in part, “a lot of people are worried about Aziz [Ansari]’s career — which no one is trying to end because we know the difference between a rapist, a workplace harasser and an Aziz Ansari. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about any of them.”
Ali suggested that beyond the bitter recrimination, the talk is good. “There are levels,” she said, referring to the acknowledged difference between Ansari and, say, Louis C.K. and Weinstein. “It’s good to see there is a scale; when people say the movement has made things very black and white, that’s actually not the case. … It may seem like a witch hunt with immediate negative consequences but I do think there’s room for a little bit more subtlety.”
It’s that attempt to make reasonable decisions about something as unreasonable as sexual discrimination that — once the media noise dies down — could ultimately shape this movement into something extraordinarily powerful. Swifter, more historic movement will come about, Russo said, if these reported events “become less of a spectacle and more something we’re concerned about.”
It’s an opinion voiced with stunning validity by Ann Curry, whose career as a Today co-anchor was arguably cut short in part due to Lauer’s influence. “We’re a long way from fixing the problem; it’s more than a conversation,” she told Stephen Colbert during a recent visit to The Late Show. “It’s about action. It’s about not just telling people they can’t do certain things, it’s about changing the dynamic and the power balance within companies so that women are not seen as people who can’t rise to the top. Once we figure that out, we might have a chance to figure [it all] out.”
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