BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the #MeToo campaign first went viral a month ago, it was largely credited to a white Hollywood actress.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The campaign began with actress Alyssa Milano who tweeted, quote, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While Milano amplified the campaign and likely made it go viral, it was, in fact, founded more than a decade ago by black activist Tarana Burke to offer help to disadvantaged and unsupported women and girls. Burke has said that the movement is, quote, “bigger than me and bigger than Alyssa Milano. Neither one of us should be centered in this work.” But, as she cautioned on CNN last week --
TARANA BURKE: I definitely want women of color, black women and girls, Native women and girls, I want them to know that they are heard, I want them to know that this movement and this work is for them. Sexual violence knows no race, no color, no gender or class but the response to sexual violence does, and I don't want us to get pigeonholed into a racialized or, or classist or, or sexist or gendered response to this moment because often, when that happens, we get left out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amidst the wall-to-wall coverage of the assaults and the #MeToo outpouring on Twitter, there's a nagging question. Whose stories of sexual harassment get airtime and what is the impact of all of this coverage outside the coastal bubble?
Sarah Smarsh is a journalist from rural Kansas. She writes about class, gender and what the media get wrong about working class middle America. She says that the #MeToo moment is having an impact, even on the coverage of the Topeka statehouse.
SARAH SMARSH: The Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas City Star have both reported in depth on harassment, assault on former female campaign staffers, lobbyists and interns and failure to address those issues on both sides of the aisle in the state legislature. So the broader discussion is definitely happening on the ground here in a way that is both disturbing and heartening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, for once, it seems [LAUGHS] as if a coastal elite story has legs and value outside of our own echo chambers.
SARAH SMARSH: We’re talking about 50% of the population, women on both sides of the aisle uniting to say no more about this and, for that matter, some of the accused men are on both sides of the aisle. So while recent social movements like Black Lives Matter or discussions about transgender rights definitely were covered here and, for that matter, had local activists bravely speaking out, there perhaps is something to be said for a movement that involves rich white women, so [LAUGHS] --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about real life, has the discussion permeated there? I mean, have you heard from your friends or family about this?
SARAH SMARSH: Yeah, so my dad is a lifelong construction worker and an open-minded progressive guy. My dad was helping me hang a new pair of French doors, and I went and got him a glass of iced tea and he said, you know, I've been thinking about all this and I'm noticing you brought me an iced tea, should I have offered to get you an iced tea?
You know, I think somehow this national story, it's making it into discussion in corners of America that don't necessarily have political agency but they do have ability to make decisions thoughtfully in their own lives, like my dad, and I was really touched by that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So many of the accused, Weinstein, Louis C.K. or the Democratic lawmakers that were investigated by the Kansas City Star championed feminist causes. And you’ve come across this contradiction yourself as a young journalist working at supposedly progressive media outlets.
SARAH SMARSH: Well, having begun in agricultural work and then in my teens I started about a seven- or eight-year journey of working in the service industry and being a young bartender and waitress, I once had this frequent customer who would literally tell me he was going to rape me when I left my work, and my male boss just thought it was funny. That assault didn't come to pass but it was, it was a kind of climate of terror. My first job in a print newsroom, one of the male editors took a very special interest in me, lurking around and in my space and telling me about his personal life. And I didn't even understand what was going on but I dreaded going to work every day. I had an internship at WNBC. I remember someone in the investigative news unit asking if I would serve as like a physical distraction for some of the undercover investigation that was going on.
I remember also being criticized for ordering pasta over lunch because I, that whole summer, got a lot of signals that I needed to make sure that I stayed thin or got thinner, maybe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: God!
SARAH SMARSH: You know, one of the incredible things about this MeToo movement is that you would think that I have been consciously processing all of these things all along but it's really -- even I who very intentionally became a freelance writer to, in part, distance myself from that sort of toxicity, even I, with all of that mindfulness, didn't realize the length of the list that [LAUGHS] I could make. We all have that list and until this recent national conversation, I had been carrying it around with me but I, I hadn't yet really taken stock of the extent to which my own profession has sort of terrorized me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the story has relevance all across the country, but I wonder if it has in every class. What are the stakes for the food service worker, as you were, as I was, the 16-year-old who depends on, whose family may rely on that income?
SARAH SMARSH: Mm-hmm. The onus for bringing forth the stories that are now unheard, bigger stories than actresses on casting couches in sheer numbers, that onus is going to be on reporters to go find them. You know, I can think of a couple of stories of women in less privileged class situations. Earlier this year, there was a huge scandal in the Marine Corps. Hundreds of male Marines were sharing nude photos, I understand, most of which were obtained without consent, of female Marines, along with rape and assault threats, plans to stalk and menace them. When that story came out, and it did get national attention, I remember a wave of just very brave female Marines and former Marines coming forward and sharing their stories but, for some reason, [LAUGHS] that story didn't ultimately light a fire in the public consciousness, and I think it's probably safe to say that's because it isn’t affluent young women who end up in military.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SARAH SMARSH: A couple of years ago, the AP reported -- it was like a six-year analysis -- about a thousand police officers had lost their badges for raping and propositioning citizens and other sex crimes, and the victims were, by and large, young, poor females, I would say disproportionately women of color. They were sometimes compromised by addiction or they had criminal records. They were women who were unlikely to file a complaint because of their economic and social vulnerability.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And certainly unlikely to generate a headline.
SARAH SMARSH: Absolutely, in, in particular because having criminal records, some of their life stories in the American mind correlate with the bad guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, they only have themselves to blame.
SARAH SMARSH: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a, a common trope applied to women, in any case. But you’ve suggested that the attention that is being shined on white people of privilege, that's how much social progress begins.
SARAH SMARSH: Those with the most relative power within an oppressed group are often the first to be heard and validated and gain traction. With the suffrage movement, that happened to be white middle-class women who got most of the attention, while, of course, there were women of all backgrounds and, and colors doing the work. And currently, within groups that are fighting for racial equality or LGBTQ rights, other oppressed groups that are fighting for progress, within those groups you can see some distinction along class lines about who is heard. So that doesn't make it right but it does seem to be sort of the way that history repeats itself.
I don't want to minimize the incredible gains that have been made by the sacrifices and brave risks that people with no economic agency or racial privilege took, but, but I do hope that this fascination America has with Hollywood that creates this empathy toward women who are talking about the casting couch will shift culture in such a way that a space will be made for less privileged women to be heard.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH SMARSH: Thank you so much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah Smarsh is a journalist. Her book on class, the American working poor and her upbringing in rural Kansas will be out in 2018.
Coming up, can we separate the art from the artist? What I mean is, can we still laugh at Louis C.K.? This is On the Media.