The ‘Click’ Moment: How the Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami
In 1991, women wore “I Believe Anita” buttons. Now they post #metoo. Social media, famous accusers and generational change add up to a profound shift.
Forty years ago this month, Ms. magazine put sexual harassment on its cover for the first time. Understanding the sensitivity of the topic, the editors used puppets for the cover image — a male hand reaching into a woman’s blouse — rather than a photograph. It was banned from some supermarkets nonetheless.
In 1977, the term sexual harassment had not been defined in the law and had barely entered the public lexicon. And yet, to read that Ms. article today, amid a profound shift in discourse, is to feel haunted by its familiarity.
It describes an executive assistant who quit after her boss asked for oral sex; a student who dropped out after being assaulted by her adviser; a black medical administrator whose white supervisor asked if the women in her neighborhood were prostitutes — and, subsequently, if she would have group sex with him and several colleagues.
Citing a survey in which 88 percent of women said they were harassed at work, the author said the problem permeated almost every profession, but was particularly pernicious “in the supposedly glamorous profession of acting,” in which Hollywood’s casting couch remained a “strong convention.”
“What we have so far seen,” the article stated, “is only the tip of a very large and very destructive iceberg.”
Four decades later, as allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others continue to metastasize, it feels as if we have crashed into the iceberg. Disaster metaphors — tsunami, hurricane, avalanche, landslide — seem to be in endless rotation to describe the moment, but the point is that a great many powerful men have seen their careers disintegrate, and with astonishing speed.
A great many women — and some men, too — have also spoken out more openly and more forcefully than ever before about what happens behind closed doors or even in the open spaces of studios, newsrooms and other workplaces. Companies have rushed to reassert zero-tolerance policies and whipped together training programs.
We have seen this movie before. Sexual harassment complaints to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased 73 percent in the year after Anita Hill’s televised testimony about Clarence Thomas’s behavior in 1991. Still, Mr. Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, while Ms. Hill went quietly back to being a law professor in Oklahoma. In the ensuing years, the issue cycled between headlines and whispers in a seemingly endless loop.
But this sequel seems to have a surprise ending, or at least a plot twist: The public outrage is deeper and more sustained, and the dominoes continue to fall.
Maybe it’s that the accusers this time were famous, media-savvy and mostly white actors with more star power than the accused (unlike, say, Paula Jones vs. Bill Clinton). Maybe it’s reflective of a specific period in American history, in which working women of a new generation — those who had grown up with working mothers — decided that enough was enough.
Certainly the endlessly expanding power of social media plays a role: The #metoo hashtag has been used in millions of posts over the past few weeks; been translated into Italian (#QuellaVoltaChe, or “that time when”) and French (#BalanceTonPorc, or “out your pig”); and inspired a congressional spinoff.
Several experts likened it to a dam breaking, the cumulative effect of harassment claims over decades and especially the last few years. Some see it as the other shoe dropping after Donald J. Trump’s taped boasting about offensive behavior did not block his path to the presidency: He may have gotten away with it, but women were no longer going to let that boss, that mentor, that colleague get away with it, too.
“There is no doubt that having an accused sexual predator in the White House is hanging over this,” said Jaclyn Friedman, the author of “Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All,” scheduled for publication this month. “People feel like they can’t do anything about that right now, but at least they can do something about this.”