Harvey Weinstein is a noted liberal feminist.
He marched in the Park City, Utah, Women's March and endowed a faculty chair at Rutgers University in the name of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. He's said all the right things and spoke truth to power, supported liberal causes, and once raised nearly $8 million to fight HIV/AIDS in a single night.
Harvey Weinstein is also taking a leave of absence from his position atop the entertainment elite, after realizing that “the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain.”
“I so respect all women and regret what happened,” he wrote in a letter to the New York Times, in response to its report on Thursday detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment against him, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements reached with eight of his accusers.
Dan Lyons, the tech author and journalist, warned New York Times readers this April that “toxic bro culture” is ruining the tech industry, creating an environment where women are harassed and minorities excluded. On Thursday night, he wrote that he “felt sick” when he was reminded of messages he sent to right-wing culture warrior Milo Yiannopoulos, speculating about the true genders of two prominent tech industry women being targeted by misogynist hordes online.
“I feel awful. I made a mistake,” he said of the emails uncovered by BuzzFeed News, including one which read, “Is this feminist a dude? I honestly can’t tell.”
You never have to look too far when searching for hypocrisy in American public life. Sometimes, it's a pro-life Republican representative trying to convince his mistress to have an abortion via text message. But other times, it's a self-described "male feminist" academic who writes at length about "being a good man" while trying to sleep with his female students.
This kind of hypocrisy is all too common at a time when being a feminist — or anti-racist, or accepting of LGBTQ people — is a cultural identifier, not just another way of being a decent human being, like signaling a left turn or replacing the toilet paper roll. Some people want to be feminists. Others just want to show up and get the T-shirt.
A lot of people want T-shirts these days. There's cultural cachet in appearing awakened to the struggles of others — just as there's cultural cachet, apparently, in being a racist, or in pretending that racism just doesn't matter to you at all. If you can wear the shirts, or talk about "intersectionality," or maybe even get yourself a Black Lives Matter poster and wander the streets with it, you can get kudos from friends and strangers alike. Hell, you might even get verified on Twitter because of it. Moreover, you and your conscience will be soothed, without having to do any real work, take on any real self-examination, ask any real questions about why you think the way you think or believe what you believe. You won't have to change, you'll just have to change clothes.
Even as you reap those rewards, you can carry on being a terrible person to others, emailing neo-Nazi-adjacent media figures and groping women, because hey, you're committed to the cause. You just don't believe in it.
You saw this kind of performance feminism in an SNL sketch last year, with Cecily Strong trying to fend off dude after dude who tell her that wearing a "THE FUTURE IS FEMALE" shirt and going to the Women's March means that they deserve the right to go home with her, bitch.
Clearly, Harvey Weinstein wanted to be known as a feminist. He wanted to say all the right things, make the right movies with the right prominent actresses (such as Jennifer Lawrence, for example), and give large sums of money to liberal politicians. But Harvey Weinstein clearly did not want to be a feminist, or else he wouldn't have spent the past 30 years treating women over whom he had significant economic, social, and political power like garbage.
But feminism doesn't require donating large sums of money or creating a scholarship fund. It does not necessitate a shirt or a button or a sticker or even shared cultural interests. Rather, it simply requires what appears to be near-Herculean action for some people: treating women like people. Not groping them. Not speculating if they’re really men in disguise. Not quietly asking the misogynists at Breitbart to “mock this fat feminist,” as Mitchell Sunderland, a senior writer for Vice’s women-focused site Broadly, did last year.
Feminism requires treating women as you would hope someone would treat you: as if their bodies belong to them (and only them) and have very little to do with the work at hand, whether you’re a film executive or a journalist.
People fail at this for all sorts of reasons, but often it’s because they believe that being a feminist involves writing checks or hosting dinners or criticizing bros online. It doesn't. It only requires being a decent human being. And apparently, that’s too much of an ask for some men who manage to tick the other boxes.
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Jane Coaston is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. covering politics with a focus on political history, the American right wing and the GOP.
Contact Jane Coaston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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