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Why 'The Weinstein Effect' Seems Like A Tipping Point

Nov 4, 2017
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Now back to the U.S., where the list of man accused is growing and the conversation around sexual harassment and assault is raging. Not that this is new. Ask Anita Hill or any of the women who say they were harassed by Roger Ailes. The question is, why now? Why does it seem like Harvey Weinstein is a tipping point? To try and answer this question, we're joined by Mary Schmich. She's a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, and she's joining us from WBEZ in Chicago. Hi, Mary.

MARY SCHMICH: Hi. I'm old enough to remember Anita Hill.

KING: (Laughter) We all are at this point. Alexandra Schwartz is also with us. She's a staff writer at The New Yorker. Hi, Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA SCHWARTZ: Hi. Glad to be here.

KING: And we're lucky to have NPR's Elizabeth Blair, who's been reporting on this for the network. Hi, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So, Elizabeth, can you run through some of the big moments that have led to where we are today?

BLAIR: Sure. I think - I mean, there are many, many smaller moments and conversations that have gone on. But if you were to sort of look at some key moments, I think you start with Anita Hill. I mean, her testimony shocked people. It led to some pretty important changes in the culture. The next big moment would be Bill Cosby because even though we haven't had the same ripple effect of Harvey Weinstein, certainly it got the country's attention. If someone like Bill Cosby is accused of these things, you know, we need to pay attention.

And then I think another very, very important piece of this - and this is what everyone said to me when I talked to them - was President Trump, the allegations against him for sexual misconduct and then the release of the of the "Access Hollywood" tape. So I think those, I mean, there are certainly other moments, but those are some three pretty important moments.

KING: Now, Mary, you write that you joined the workforce in 1980. Eleven years later, 1991, Anita Hill hits the news. And I wonder, at that time, did her story resonate with you as a woman in the workplace in a newsroom?

SCHMICH: Oh my God, yes. I mean, it's one of those I-remember-where-I-was times, just transfixed by her testimony on the television and thinking - before there was a hash tag, before there was Twitter - me too. And I remember even getting in touch with the editorial board at the Tribune, saying, hey - I wasn't a columnist at the time. I was a national correspondent. And I said, I'd really like to write something about, you know, the things that have happened to me. And they said, well, we think we have enough.

KING: Wow, meaning there were enough women that were already complaining or meaning they didn't want to hear you?

SCHMICH: They're actually just - I think there was not the same kind of interest in it. I mean, there was interest in the audience, you know, those of us who were transfixed by it on the television. But I think that it was really just the beginning of the wider culture understanding not only that this happens but that it matters.

KING: Well, Elizabeth, you reported that after Anita Hill, after those hearings, there was a spike in reports of harassment. How big a spike? What'd you find?

BLAIR: That's right. The complaints to the EEOC doubled after Anita Hill.

KING: Wow.

BLAIR: And something else that happened that I think is really worth noting is that more women ran for Congress after Anita Hill and won. And many of them have said they were motivated by the hearings and how she was treated during them. So sexual harassment, I mean, she did put it on the country's radar in ways that are pretty deep.

KING: Alexandra, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this feels like a tipping point. The thing we can't really figure out is, why now? Why not with Roger Ailes or Bill Cosby?

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I think it does feel like a watershed moment. One thing that's helped is all the other cases you've mentioned just having entered the public awareness. I also think in this case, one thing that helped enormously was that the women who were coming forward were already very high-profile women. They were nationally, and in many cases, internationally recognized actresses.

And, you know, the public has a very intimate relationship with big movie stars. We see them on screen all the time. We - they come into our living rooms on our TV sets or on our computers. We know these women really well. And to have women who are already so high profile and so famous coming forward, rather than to have women, as in the case of Anita Hill or, you know, the Cosby accusers, for example, become famous because they were bringing accusations I think made an enormous difference.

KING: Yeah. It's almost like somebody you know coming forward. I mean, we don't know movie stars but we often feel like we do.

SCHWARTZ: Exactly, yeah.

KING: Elizabeth, I want to play a piece of tape from your reporting last week. This is from a press conference that was held by the high-profile attorney Gloria Allred.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GLORIA ALLRED: The more women speak out, the more other women want to speak out. And those who have, in their view, perpetrated wrongs against them now are facing accountability in the court of public opinion. The wrongdoers or the alleged wrongdoers have faced very serious consequences themselves.

KING: Elizabeth, how do you see this playing out in the court of public opinion?

BLAIR: Well, I would say that the largest court of public opinion happened the day after President Trump's inauguration. I mean, we saw thousands and thousands and thousands of women in pink hats, a direct response to his comments on the "Access Hollywood" tape. I mean, this is - the power of those images, even if you weren't at the march, really empowered a lot of women. Just seeing that, my gosh, a lot of - I'm angry, but look at all of these other women who not only made it to Washington, D.C., and other cities, but they wore these pink hats. You know, a direct response to some serious issues for them.

KING: Sheer numbers are so clearly a part of this. There's the #MeToo campaign, which I think astonished people because it was so ubiquitous. It felt like everybody in my Twitter feed was tweeting #MeToo. Now, Alexandra, I wanted to ask you about that because you wrote in a recent piece, quote, "there's no public remedy for a grievous harm committed in private" which is saying, you know, social media can't fix this. But I wonder, there's no question - right? - that social media is part of this why now moment.

SCHWARTZ: I think it absolutely is. What I was responding to in that line specifically was not so much the hashtag #MeToo, which I think has been an enormously powerful and moving and has allowed - or not the hashtag itself, but it's been a moment when, clearly, many, many, many women - and also men - have felt comfortable finally or maybe not necessarily comfortable but able to come forward and share stories. I was responding to other hashtags that have started to come up like #ItWasMe, things that people are using in order to take some kind of responsibility either for harassing themselves or for allowing respite to happen.

I think that's a much more complicated issue because harassment is not going to end because people, you know, on social media come forward and say, oh, I now realize I did something I shouldn't have done. I'm sorry everyone in general. It takes a real change in lived specific behavior. And if you've committed an offense against a specific person, that doesn't go away just because you come out in public apologizing and saying you're sorry. I think that's true for prominent individuals on social media. And I think that's very true for a number of men who are coming out in public issuing blanket apologies. It doesn't make the problem go away.

KING: Mary, what do you think about social media and the Weinstein effect?

SCHMICH: Well, I think social media is the big - to use a cliche - game-changer here. I mean, that's why we're seeing so many women being heard. That didn't happen, that didn't exist when Anita Hill was testifying. We could talk to our friends. We could call our friends on the phone back when you called people on the phone instead of posting it on social media and complain or lament one-on-one. One fascinating thing about this moment to me is that it's called so many women, not just young women but women of my generation, to think about why we didn't speak openly sooner. And the standard explanation of that is it was fear of retaliation. And that's part of it, but I think there's more to it than that.

For me, it was almost like it was a job skill, right? You just - this was what men did, and you did your best to deflect it. And you took - pride is not quite the right word, but you just - you knew this was just something you had to put up with. And you did your best to put up with it because coming forward would call upon you to publicly sexualize yourself. And that was the very thing you were trying to avoid, right?

KING: You know, I have to say, there is a generational divide here. And I experienced it myself this week. I am in my mid-30s. And I've been talking to women in our newsroom who are in their mid-20s. They see this differently than I do. For them, there is no spectrum. There is no varying degrees. For a lot of them, there is no tolerance at any level. And I've heard this a lot from women who are 24, 25, 26. I got to say, that really seems like progress. Alexandra, what do you think?

SCHWARTZ: I totally agree. I think it does seem like progress. I think one thing for, you know, women of my generation - late 20s, early 30s - is that we really were (inaudible) to - and I actually want to, you know, give some praise to my mother and her generation who taught us what was, you know, this is what you can ask for. And here is what you can say is OK. And here is where you can say this isn't all right in, you know, all kinds of behavior. I think I took those things seriously. Then there were moments when you learned that other people don't take them seriously.

But I think that we, you know, we want to be taken at our word. When we say something is all right or when you say something is not all right, that was it. There isn't really much wiggle room. We're not going to negotiate. And it does give me a lot of hope that not only that women are more and more able to articulate these boundaries but that we are demanding now that they be respected.

KING: And, Elizabeth, I heard - in the last couple of seconds we have - I heard some hopefulness in your reporting too, some people saying, look, there is a way to change this going forward. What did you hear?

BLAIR: Oh, I don't think it's simple though to fix it. I think it is very complicated. I think the roots of this are still very complicated. You know, the developmental psychology professor I interviewed, Niobe Way, has a theory that we need to change the way we raise boys, that we let boys - boys will be boys - right? - locker-room talk. Like, we excuse boys' behaviors in a way we don't excuse girls' behavior.

KING: And some of that does need to stop. I wish we could talk about this all day. That is NPR's Elizabeth Blair, Alexandra Schwartz of The New Yorker and Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune. Thank you all so much.

SCHMICH: Thanks, Noel.

BLAIR: Thank you.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.