BROOKE GLADSTONE: The tensions, both outside and inside the #MeToo movement, reflects a long history of debate over what direction feminism should take. Back in 1994, the women's movement was drilling down on the workplace and issues of sex and sexuality. That January, now-disgraced-TV host Charlie Rose hosted a discussion about the new wave of pro-sexuality feminism that seemed to be taking hold. Here’s Naomi Wolf, who just published her book, Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use it.
NAOMI WOLF: All the things that used to be okay for men to do are now not so okay. These are things that many men grew up thinking was a normal way to behave. Things like sexual assault, which used to be part of the dating process, not questioned, are now being questioned and crisis, a sense of privilege being lost, a lost empire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another cultural shift was afoot, another evolution in the women's movement. Twenty-four-year-old Rebecca Walker was also at that table. Two years earlier, she'd written an article in Ms. Magazine called, “Becoming the Third Wave,” which gave rise to the term and movement known as “third wave feminism” I asked her how much the debate had changed since she was at that roundtable.
REBECCA WALKER: In some ways, I don't think it's changed that much. You know, when you hear Naomi talking about the importance of really interrogating the ways in which boys are raised, to think that they are entitled to transgress boundaries that women are asserting, and, and I think we, we were all -- we’ve all been talking about the, the need to revision masculinity and to have these conversations with men, for men to have them themselves, you know, really trying to understand what it means to be a human being with, with kind, with empathy, with a kind of sophisticated nuanced understanding of, sex and sexuality and being engaged with another human being in a way that's not coercive, that’s not damaging, that's not punitive, that's not unhealthy, women’s empowerment and women's sexual pleasure are synonymous and that part of what we need to be doing is claiming our sexual agency.
And I think that's something that's coming up right now in these more nuanced discussions, certainly, this discussion about the Aziz Ansari situation: How can we make sure that women are acting with a sense of clarity and purpose and understanding of, of how to set appropriate boundaries, of what sexual pleasure feels like and how to get it, of the importance of having communication and conversation about intimacy. That’s what we were talking about then and that’s what we’re talking about now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: HLN host Ashleigh Banfield said that the expanding of the #MeToo movement to include this grayer area of male-female dynamics undermines the movement.
ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all of my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades, a movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I too have struggled through at times over the last 30 years in broadcasting.
REBECCA WALKER: If, in fact, the discussion becomes so hyper focused on, say, micro-aggressions and all of a sudden we are not criminalizing rapists, all of a sudden we are not calling out men who are deeply engaged in sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, if all of that is somehow silenced and erased and all we’re doing is talking about this other thing, [LAUGHTER] then we should have a conversation about the dilution of the movement. The gray areas are where bad behaviors are learned, codified because they aren't examined closely. I think that the gray area here is where this disease festers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There has been another reaction to the Aziz Ansari [LAUGHS] situation, and this also echoed concerns from the ‘90s about infantilizing or re-victimizing women. It's something that I am getting schooled on, but here was Katie Roiphe back at that roundtable.
KATIE ROIPHE: I do think that we have to be careful when we teach people about issues like rape and sexual harassment, that what we aren't doing is teaching women about their vulnerability and teaching men that they are aggressive and teaching women not to form an identity, especially a sexual identity, around the idea of being victimized.
REBECCA WALKER: [LAUGHS] I think I remember staying out of -- a little bit of that because it was just so absurd. I mean, the idea that by talking about the dynamics of being victimized, of people being predators, that somehow you’re going to create an identity around that, to me, is absurd. When you begin to identify the ways in which you’ve been oppressed, in which some people are oppressors and how they operate, what usually happens is people stop feeling like victims and they start feeling like survivors, that there's nothing wrong with them personally; this is part of a systemic approach to controlling and manipulating the kinds of bodies that they happen to occupy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier, you mentioned that part of the discussion we need to be having now isn't just about the entitled behavior of someone like Ansari, you also talked about Grace’s agency and how she needed to think about using it.
REBECCA WALKER: We all don't feel the same level of agency --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
REBECCA WALKER: -- and that often the, the agency that we do feel is a result of, of our privilege.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
REBECCA WALKER: And that privilege is sometimes not about race or class but just about having taken a class and understanding different ideas [LAUGHS] or about having a woman in your family who told you stories about, you know, how to feel good about yourself or how to say no. I mean --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or being 22.
REBECCA WALKER: Exactly. And so, I think there should be room in this conversation to acknowledge that what we hope is that every “Grace” does begin to have the tools to articulate what she feels comfortable with and what she doesn't, in any given moment. But she clearly didn't have that at that moment and our job is not to say, oh hey, you should have just gotten out of there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
REBECCA WALKER: Our job is to say, imagine all of the young women who don't have the sense of agency, and how can we make sure that they do in the future? And that's why I love this conversation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So talking about this is the opposite of infantilizing. It’s empowering.
REBECCA WALKER: Absolutely! If that person is dismissed as a weak child, that is infantilizing. If she is heard as someone who is struggling to figure out how to do it better and we respond with helpful language and support, then, you know, we are not silencing her in the way she would be silenced in that encounter. We are actually contributing to her conversation and growth. That’s what feminism should be. We’re bringing voice. We’re not shutting people down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve said that you're happy and that you're delighted, and is that because it's so much easier to have conversations like this now than, [LAUGHS] than it was back in the ‘90s?
REBECCA WALKER: Yes! You know, even though there is a, quote, unquote, "backlash” and people are criticizing her, the power of the #MeToo movement, the dynamism of the multiple fronts of people who are speaking out against all kinds of micro aggressions, macro aggressions is much louder. We are dominating the space in a, in a way that was not happening in the ‘90s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charlie Rose couldn't help you with that?
REBECCA WALKER: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Oh, that was snotty, sorry.
REBECCA WALKER: [LAUGHING] No but I mean the irony is not lost, that when we look at that clip, it's very meaningful that Charlie Rose has been exposed, and so, he is no longer steering the discussion, he is the discussion. That was not happening then.
And also, what’s so encouraging, you know, men who are saying, I did things that were inappropriate, I am sorry, I support the women coming forward, I find that meaningful. I know a lot of people feel like they can pooh-pooh that but in my lifetime men have been denying what they've done, minimizing it. This -- third wave was a pillar, that men are our allies when they come forward willing to acknowledge the ways in which they have been shaped in their expectations and their confusion and upset around the masculinity they've been asked to assume, when they come forward and support our voices and our experiences and are willing to engage them, they need to be respected and included and understood as, as trying to be a part of a movement, as opposed to just quickly demonized and sort of shunted aside. This system that we’re currently living in is hard on all of us. It’s hard on white men. It’s hard on white women. It’s deeply hard on all of us on the margins. And yet, we have to understand that this system that's making white men into workaholics and people who have lost touch with empathy and with their own deep humanity, it's killing them, too.
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So I think there’s a much stronger sense of the need for all of us to get free, and I find that very, very encouraging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rebecca, thank you so much.
REBECCA WALKER: You are so welcome. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rebecca Walker is the author of many books, including, What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future. And she's cofounder of the Third Wave Fund, an organization that provides grants to individuals and projects that support young women. This is On the Media.