Most of us spend our childhoods learning repeatedly that when something bad happens — falling out of a tree, being bullied at school, getting wet-willied by a sibling — the person you call to fix it is Mom. Mom is qualified as a first responder, advocate, judge and jailer, depending on the problem at hand. She always seems to know what to do.
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that so many of us carry a version of this practice over into adulthood. When something bad happens, we look around for a powerful woman to step up and take care of it.
Hundreds of people involved in the movie industry covered up studio executive Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial abuses over decades, and we ask: What did Meryl Streep know, and when did she know it?
Director Woody Allen was accused of molesting his daughter Dylan Farrow more than 20 years ago. Not long after, he took nude photos of girlfriend Mia Farrow’s teenage daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, then left Mia Farrow for Soon-Yi, who was his own children’s sister. Between the time when he was in therapy for his alleged inappropriate relationship with Dylan and the advent of the #MeToo movement, he’s made two dozen films and been approved to adopt two girl children. But now that we as a society have suddenly decided to shun men who abuse and exploit girls and women, we keep asking women to answer for him. Greta Gerwig, Kate Winslet and Diane Keaton have all been publicly called to account for their collaborations with (and disappointing defenses of) Allen, but I’ve only seen two people ask the same of ”Wonder Wheel” star Justin Timberlake: alleged Weinstein victim Rose McGowan and Dylan Farrow herself.
And it’s not just female celebrities we expect to control the men around them. Tondalao Hall has been in prison for 13 years for “failing to protect” her children from her abusive partner. Hall, herself a victim of his abuse, was only 19 years old and a mother of three when a judge sentenced her to 30 years in prison. Her partner, Robert Braxton Jr., was released from custody on the same day. He finished his probation years ago and is a free man.
Moms are supposed to solve the problems other people create, no matter how much they suffer themselves or how little power they have relative to the men they’re expected to bring to heel. Naturally, that includes our national mom, Hillary Clinton, the woman we hope can fix everything and soothe our fears, even as we hurl sexist invective at her and insist she’s too old to understand anything.
Clinton, too, was asked to account for her relationship with Democratic Party donor Harvey Weinstein. During the 2016 campaign, she was accused of feminist hypocrisy because in 1975, while employed by a legal aid clinic, she defended a child rapist in court. For 30 years, she’s been held personally responsible for everything her husband has done or been accused of, including cheating on her in the most publicly humiliating way imaginable and allegedly assaulting three women. During a presidential debate, Donald Trump repeated a line frequently heard in both right- and left-wing circles, that Clinton not only stood by her man but “viciously attacked” the women who accused him of sexual assault. Politifact rated this claim “mostly false,” noting that, although Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign “deployed tough tactics to defend against stories of consensual sex,” Hillary was “largely silent” when it came to allegations of sexual violence. No matter. She was “just as responsible” as the alleged rapist, according to conservative commentator Tomi Lahren and seemingly half of Twitter.
And now, when the Oval Office is occupied by an admitted sexual predator accused of misconduct against 19 women, the burning question of the day is, “Why didn’t Hillary Clinton, who is not currently running for office and seems unlikely to ever again, fire an employee accused of sexual harassment 10 years ago?”
When Clinton answered the question at length in a Facebook post last week, she was pilloried again for her decisions, which include (1) listening to the victim, believing her and taking immediate measures to separate her from her harasser; (2) enacting non-firing but non-trivial consequences upon said harasser; (3) believing in second chances; and (4) having a different opinion in 2018 than she had in 2008.
It’s easy for all of us to say from our armchairs that we would have immediately fired a harasser, turned down a Woody Allen-adjacent paycheck (and its attendant promise of awards and cachet) or abandoned an old friend when the tide turned. But if #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that, prior to this unusual moment, real consequences for workplace sexual harassment were almost nonexistent.
Weinstein’s abuses went unchecked for years. The first allegation against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — who recently pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct for molesting young girls but has been accused of the same crime by 265 women at this writing — came in 1994. Bill Cosby’s alleged pattern of drugging and raping women dates back to the 1960s, but he was not publicly held to account until 2014.
For decades, these men traded not only on their power, privilege, money and networks of loyal friends, but also on cultural stereotypes of women as liars and gold diggers, to silence their accusers and bolster their own reputations. They felt emboldened to continue their abuse, safe in the belief that their voices would always be trusted over those of girls and women.
Although Clinton is the subject of so much ire in part because she has more power than nearly any other woman in the world, the reality remains that most women are not in a position to single-handedly fix the problems that men have created. Not Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet or Greta Gerwig, in an industry where last year only 1 percent of the top-grossing films “employed 10 or more women in key behind-the-scenes roles,” according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film. Not even Clinton herself, who despite winning nearly 3 million more votes overall, could not overcome Trump’s appeal to rural voters in crucial states and Russian interference in the election. And certainly not women like Tondalao Hall, who deserve community support, not punishment for a man’s actions.
This is the problem with blaming powerful women for men’s bad behavior. It’s never just about the powerful women.
Blaming Clinton for the harassment Burns Strider committed after he worked for her does nothing for his victims. Do we somehow think that if she had fired him 10 years ago he wouldn’t have worked again? It does, however, open the door to a pernicious victim-blaming argument: If you don’t report your own harassment or assault or rape, you’re leaving the perpetrator free to do it again. While many survivors do speak out in hopes of stopping serial predators, there is no guarantee that their courage will do anything but open them up to re-traumatization by the justice system. One need only look at the backlog of untested rape kits to understand that the structures needed to support victims in their efforts to prevent future assaults are simply not there. They are neither culpable for anyone else’s crimes nor capable of stopping them.
Holding women accountable for other people’s behavior is how we end up with laws in 29 states that criminalize victims of intimate partner violence who can’t protect their beloved children from abuse. Most of all, it’s a great way to avoid looking at the complicated systems of privilege and power that enable men to treat women and girls as sexual objects that their status entitles them to possess.
I’m not saying anyone has to forgive Hillary, or Meryl, or Diane Keaton, or Lena Dunham or Camille Cosby for standing by men who hurt women. They have all made deeply disappointing choices, and not all of them have expressed regret for it. But if our goal is really to move from a #MeToo world to a #TimesUp world, we ought to spend much less time looking for moms to absorb our rage and frustration. That time is better spent thinking about what structures need to come down and what just new systems we’ll build in their place.
Kate Harding is co-editor of Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, and author of Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It.