Arts & Culture / Health / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 2

In the Crawlspace: Hill, Franken, and #MeToo Pain

Mira Schor Wonder Woman

Image Credit: Mira Schor, Wonder Woman: The brush is mightier than the tie, 2017, oil and ink on gesso on canvas, 18″ x 24″. Courtesy of the artist

On December 6, 2017, a coalition of women Democrats led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—Senators Kamala Harris, Claire McCaskill, Patty Murray, Mazie Hirono, Tammy Baldwin, and Maggie Hassan—demanded that Al Franken give up his senatorial seat as a result of sexual misconduct accusations from eight different women.1 One day later, Franken announced that he would resign. On MSNBC and in response to Franken’s speech, Tom Brokaw commented that this “will be the century of women.” Time magazine named #MeToo “silence breakers” as its person of the year, which seems to support Brokaw’s claim. Perhaps this will be a woman’s century even though Tarana Burke, the creator of #MeToo, was conspicuously left off the cover of that same Time issue and Donald Trump was number three on the Time shortlist for person of the year. Since its 2006 inception by Burke, #MeToo remained under-recognized until, as Gabrielle Union aptly put it, “Hollywood white royalty” began to speak up about sexual harassment, earlier this year. Yet, despite these worrisome details, the unforgivable collateral damages of in this moment, women’s voices seem to have some power.

Serving as the apt counter to the “perfect victim” narrative that Union points to: Anita Hill will head the newly-formed Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, an initiative to address sexual harassment in Hollywood formed through the combined efforts of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, Nike Foundation co-chair Maria Eitel, attorney Nina Shaw, and venture capitalist Freada Kapor Klein. Hill’s story has long been placed in a legacy of slavery, first in the collection, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrsion in 1992, and in more depth by Patricia Hill Collins her 1998, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. Hill’s position in the Commission reverses her position in the 1990s, when she served testimony and was judged. Moreover, this new appointment undermines Hill’s “powerlessness” as identified by Hill Collins in the 1990s and the denial of sexual harassment by the US government: what “under[cut] the claims of other African-American [sic] women that racial and sexual discrimination persists” (42). As a result, this announcement feels like vindication for the infamous treatment of Hill during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings as well as the variety of ways that the sexual harassment and violence against black women has been not only historically ignored but also institutionally and systemically supported through government action.

On the other hand, positioning Hill in the front of an effort to interrogate the entertainment industry also echoes the use of black women’s labor for causes that do not uniquely benefit black women. It is, after all, the entertainment industry that continues to support R. Kelly and any number of men who have abused black women and girls and in which Harvey Weinstein strongly denied harassing only one actress in a list of 84 accusers, Lupita Nyong’o. Here and only as a very short list of examples, I evoke the names of Sojourner Truth and Pauli Murray, whose brilliance and labor were used in the name of feminist efforts that largely ignored issues of race; the reassignment of Rosa Parks from sexual violence investigator to anti-segregationist during Civil Rights; Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s language of “intersectionality” that trips from the lips of many white feminists, often in defense of white supremacy; and, the face of #MeToo given by Time to Taylor Swift and a variety of those other than Tarana Burke.

What began with an overt discussion of misogyny and “obscene” language and behavior during the 2016 presidential race, furthered through the January 2017 Women’s March, moved into an indictment of the entertainment industry, now reaches back into the US governing body: Vanity Fair reports that up to 40 members of Congress are currently at risk of allegations of sexual misconduct. This report comes after the resignations of John Conyers, Jr., Wes Goodman, and most recently, Franken who, during his emotional resignation announcement, refused responsibility for even the pictorial proof of his inappropriate behavior: “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently.” Even in the name of comedy and before his foray into politics, Franken’s hands on a sleeping soldier’s breasts, captured on film, surely constitute sexual harassment.

The most satisfying response by admitted harassers has been to take refuge and prepare to “listen” presumably to their women critics, à la Louis C.K and Russel Simmons. These responses couple with Franken’s and others’ disavowals of responsibility and passively gesture to back to the accusers. The most unproblematic answer would not increase the labor and pain of those already bearing the weight of gender oppression, but to actively work to relieve it. A more effective reaction would be to listen, yes, but also to actively seek psychological and emotional counseling as well as the artistic and scholarly production by critics of patriarchy and gender oppression. Through a deliberate engagement with personal and political efforts to actively interrogate their and their peers’ behaviors, recovering harassers might also adopt the goal of contributing to the advances of gender equality. It will take work. It would mean absorbing some of the pain. It requires ultimately a balance of interior and outwardly gestured work—the first step of which we are currently experiencing through the rapid unmasking of the perpetrators who control our governance and popular media.

Pointing to the level of sickness in our government, Franken cited the “irony” of his resignation while a sexual predator sits in the highest office in the country and while that same White House endorsed an Alabama senatorial candidate who preyed on girls. In this, Franken is not wholly wrong: a section of our elected government fiercely protects blatant unethical, immoral, and criminal behavior. However, his public disavowal of responsibility, even in light of visual documentation of his behavior, illustrates that the fight for justice for those victimized by sexual predators, agents of “toxic masculinity” (that which we once called ‘patriarchy’), and the confused and thoughtless, remains the responsibility of the victims or those made vulnerable by systems of gender oppression.

Franken evokes a conversation about which types of sexual harassment are acceptable and which are not—at best a fraught discussion, at worst a move to totalize and equate behaviors that will serve as evidence to keep sexual harassers in place. Moving so quickly that we miss justice and risk equating behaviors also enables the pussy-grabbing man sitting in the Oval Office to keep his seat, because his actions are less troublesome than others—“locker room talk” that remains unsubstantiated by his silenced accusers. We must be somewhat and painfully patient. We might become more ill before we begin to get better. For in our current moment, little differentiates the repercussions for one who steals kisses and comically gropes or the child rapist who runs for office—one must step down and one doesn’t get elected. Moreover, as Franken reminded us, he will be “OK.”

To be fair, a forcible adult-to-adult kiss is not the same as the violation of a child—and, we are going to have to do the uncomfortable and despicable work to define crimes and, therefrom, punishments that fit the crimes. Let’s also count the dollars that taxpayers have lost in cover-ups and will lose in the settlements for some of these cases. Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn recently called for an investigation into misappropriated hush funds allocated to cover up harassment allegations. In the meantime, the Democratic senators who called for Franken to step down set a bar of conduct that makes a child predator far less likely to hold his seat in Congress—that is, if the numbers of peers demanding him to leave can, indeed, force his resignation with or without his consent. And, wouldn’t that, too, serve a bit of irony.

If we return to Hortense J. Spillers’s oft quoted theory of “flesh,” we can define sexual harassment as the moment someone loses control of their flesh to another: the circumstances under which an outside party decides that the flesh may be touched or manipulated without the consent of the person inside of that flesh. This breach of personal choice lies as a foundation of gender and racial oppression in that this corruption of the flesh historically transformed and continues to transform people into slaves. Domination further manifests in the weaponization of the flesh: misusing another’s flesh or one’s own as a means of asserting power and achieving pleasure through this assertion. So, boys will not be boys, when they inappropriately wag their penises around in the name of ‘fun.’ Instead, boys will be gender and sexual oppressors.

At the least, sexual harassment manifests as a series of thoughtless, sexually-charged actions by one party that make a second party emotionally, psychologically, and/or physically uncomfortable. As it stands, we define sexual harassment as these behaviors appear in the workplace. In this best-case scenario, as supported by institutions and systems of gender oppression, and quite generously interpreted, one party may not recognize the harm done to the second party. Often, this particular scenario falls under the category of successful or failed romantic pursuit through which sexual harassment may be determined either through the actions of the first party, the power dynamic between the parties, or a combination of both of these.

From this, a scale of sexual harassment, misconduct, violence, and oppression could be mapped, the end of which might take a right turn into pathology as it intersects with history: serial rape, child molestation, sex trafficking and slavery. Of course, this evokes countless international and historical examples, including various Atlantic slave trade sites and most overtly in those places where enslaved women were bred for the express sexual pleasure of their enslavers. Harriet Ann Jacobs’s coming of age story sits at these pathological crossroads and demonstrates, in the words of Adrienne Davis: “the plantation complex… a vast workplace and one of the earliest American sites of institutionalized sexual harassment” (462). Jacobs reminds us of not her loss of virtue, but her loss of choice through Dr. and Mrs. Flint’s unyielding harassment—the recovery of which she gained through collusion with her community and her own ingenuity, creativity, persistence, and pain. Jacobs sacrificed her flesh in the name of her freedom: first by giving herself sexually to a white man as a means of escaping Dr. Flint’s sexual pursuit; then, through imprisonment in her grandmother’s attic, an act which causes her the emotional torment of separating from her children and physical harm as a result of muscular atrophy and weather exposure.

Jacobs’s multi-dimensional ache in a crawlspace, Anita Hill’s humiliation at the mention of a hair on a Coke can, the torture of trial testimony for the victim of rape, and the hurt and disappointment on Stephanie Kemplin’s face after hearing Franken’s resignation speech demonstrate that in this struggle to control women’s bodies, pain is unavoidable and ongoing. That pain, while surely performed in the rapidly, ever-increasing numbers of pinched and shame-filled faces of the accused, remains largely felt in the emotional, psychological, and physical bodies of the victims. As pointed out by any number of black critics, the faces of those victims largely need to be white in order to garner a full-scale movement to identify and punish perpetrators of this variety of sexual abuse.

For those who liken this moment to a “witch hunt” or the lynching era, let us be reminded that the power dynamics of this particular moment diametrically oppose the hunting of white women and black men in the name of economic and social power. This is a complicated and massive unearthing of at best accidental hurt supported by patriarchal institutions and at worst the very mechanisms by which women who sought economic, social, and bodily freedoms were hunted, labeled “witch,” tortured, raped, and lynched in the name of God and Christ. Still, there is cause to keep a sharp eye on the pace with which actions against the accused happen.

This particular wave of fast-moving action heightens our sense of chaos and instability within our government and in our culture writ large. And like the frog-boil that has been repeatedly cited since the current presidential administration began signing orders, with every accusation of sexual harassment or misconduct, new mention of Russia, anti-Islamic statement, taunt to North Korea, proposed economic restructuring, “lock her up,” trip to Mar-a-Lago, anti-Obama move, and inarticulate tweet, our senses seem to dull and make us less shocked by these behaviors. We should remain concerned about the pacing of this wave of justice because our current government seems uninterested in justice, generally. I do not, here, call to silence accusers—rather, I encourage all of us to also keep our other sights very clear as this is happening. For instance, we must also remain vigilant about calling our local and state representatives to put pressure on them about health care, tax “reform,” gerrymandering, and the investigation into the criminal activities of the presidential administration.

The irony, then, is not that Franken had to leave while Roy Moore unsuccessfully ran for office or while a self-identified champion of sexual violence sits in the Oval Office, but that in the quest for justice, women must (again and primarily) spearhead the fight against their own oppression and redouble the pain of the original violation. It is also highly ironic that Moore lost because of the black vote—and an outstanding turnout by both black men and, particularly, women. Black folks saved Alabama, and shortly thereafter, Anita Hill is asked to save Hollywood.

It seems that large swaths of white Americans willingly sacrifice their daughters to this current moment. But, before black folks get too self-congratulatory, and as a cautionary tale, let’s return to R. Kelly’s sold out concerts and the careers of James Brown, Ike Turner, Mike Tyson, Ray Rice, Chris Brown, Alan Iverson, and countless black men supported in the name of entertainment and at the sacrifice of black women and girls. Let’s woefully return to the claim of Bill Clinton as “the first black president.” Let us remember that President Clinton, too, was a sexual harasser whose camp coined “super predator.”

Moreover, and perhaps most ironically, this moral and ethical fight against gender oppression may lessen the ranks of the very Democratic party from which the battle emerges. And, as with any move to incise cancerous material, we will cut away adjacent healthier flesh. Some people will be falsely accused. Certainly, some people will get away with crimes. Some of these losses in the Democratic Party will hurt, whether or not they are the result of guilt.

Franken enthusiastically fought against the current presidential administration and its overt racism, Islamaphobia, xenophobia, and oligarchic restructuring. Many women, some self-proclaimed feminists, others who worked with Franken, including his staff persons and 36 women who worked on Saturday Night Live, came out in support of Franken—even if, as argued by Molly Roberts, this support meant, only: “Well, he didn’t do anything to me” (or, in my own words: #NotMeToo). I admit that I felt a sense of loss as I watched Franken give his speech. I did not mourn the man who thought violation was funny. I mourned then and mourn now for us all as I worry that we are losing the battle against a fascist administration and that the discomfort we currently feel only scratches the surface.

By the time that this article is published, more men will have been accused of sexual harassment. Let’s be honest, the list of men who have sexually harassed women is nearly infinite, because at every moment, someone else is being sexually harassed, and perhaps by someone in government. Largely, this is a list of men—although, women, too, are beginning to appear in the roll call. In part, we are experiencing a cultural unveiling—perhaps, unraveling—and one that women like Anita Hill might return to with new senses of power, having paved the way to this cultural moment. Regarding gender, this moment reveals some of the foundational and historical sickness that creeps into every corner of our society and simultaneously obliterates national, temporal, and cultural boundaries. That sickness already hurts, but we have just crawled above eye level, into the proverbial crawlspace above Jacobs’s grandmother’s storeroom from which we can survey the damage already done and suffer new hurt as we make a reach towards liberation. Below us, the Dr. Flints, Senators, entertainers, Presidents search for us and demand that we succumb to the way that it always has been. We must learn from Jacobs and get ready to feel the pain of atrophy, the struggle for fresh air, and relief of temperate weather. We have just begun.

Works Cited

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1This essay was written in late December and thus is not intended to be exhaustive of the ongoing revelations of sexual misconduct and harassment that has rocked the nation.

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