In Adam Shankman’s film, “What Men Want,” Taraji P. Henson’s character solicits a compliment from a man. “My ass doesn’t look good in this skirt?” she asks rhetorically. The man replies, “In the current cultural climate it feels inappropriate for me to comment on your body.” A sharp reminder from her that she wants approval prompts his candor: “Tight as a snare drum; you could bounce a quarter off that thing!”
Henson’s callipygian talent agent is out to rebuke and conquer her white male bosses and rivals, though when she still wants flattery from males, she’ll ask for it — or demand it. But this is a comedy; in the real-life cultural climate, no rational man would risk making a remark about a woman’s backside in public.
360˚ Context: The Me Too Movement — Changing the Rules of the Game
Among the many questions #MeToo has raised is, How do we know whether praise or tactility is permitted? Notice how I don’t use “appropriate,” which has become arguably the least meaningful term in our lexicon. At least “permitted” has a specific implication: Somebody has to authorize an action, gesture or practice in particular contexts. Today, there are liberties men can’t take without permission.
#MeToo is challenging men is to navigate a safe passage across waters that have been charted but are now roiled by tempest. Established reference points have vanished, and men are lost in a seascape somewhere between Barbara Cartland and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” At the moment no one knows what course they’ll take. But expect change: Men’s behavior toward women will alter on every level.
There’s a vigorous firebrand of a trainer at my gym, and she leads a terrific class, which I do every week. At the end of the class, I make a point of thanking her, usually making physical contact at the same time: Typically, I’ll touch or gently grasp her arm as I say, “Thanks — see you next week.” I don’t consider myself an overly tactile person, and I believe a clasp, a touch or, in exceptional circumstances, a hug to be acceptable forms of salutation. I also still favor the old-fashioned handshake.
Practically all cultures practice some sort of physical contact, especially when greeting. Not all, but many: brushing, holding, even kissing are prescribed. Young men nowadays clutch each other as if they were long-lost friends, even though they might have seen each other the day before. Air kissing too has become de rigeur, not only among females either. This typically involves hands on upper arms or even shoulders. But men are not so bold with women nowadays — and they’re likely to grow more timorous.
How about compliments? Another gym story, this time from a few years ago, when again a trainer, again a female, showed up in a shimmering outfit aesthetically more suited to a club than a gym. “Too good for the gym,” was my observation, which was taken in the right spirit. “What, this old thing?” she laughed. That was about 10 years ago. I doubt if a man would risk praising a woman in a gym nowadays, unless it’s for lifting weights or repping pull-ups.
It may be unnerving for men of my generation to have to think about every gesture they use and every word they say in the company of women they know, but not intimately. Apart from the tidal change brought about by #MeToo, other innovations have brought us to this point. Social media provides power literally at anyone’s fingertips. Even before the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a woman could embarrass a man online with a carefully worded accusation. Then the term “slut-shaming” came into being and effectively denied the accused men the credibility traditionally afforded them.
In the early years of social media, circa 2006-12, an accused man might retaliate by counterattacking his accuser as a “lying bitch bent on revenge for being jilted” or something comparably sickening and malicious. Slut-shaming reversed this: With one stinging, resonant phrase women discovered a way of undermining any attempt to stigmatize a woman for allegedly engaging in behavior than could be in some circumstances be regarded as promiscuous or provocative. The shamers have become the shamed.
The cultural changes have cascaded, leaving us today with an environment in which uncertainty prevails and the only sensible response from men is to do nothing. A man need not intentionally harass, intimidate, assault or abuse a woman to land in trouble. An ill-chosen phrase or gesture can be just as fatal. I’m not privy to the kind of organizational culture fostered by Ray Kelvin at the company he founded, Ted Baker. But employees at the publicly-listed fashion house were clearly upset that he promoted hugging among personnel.
“Promoted” isn’t the word they chose: They argued he enforced it to the point where they became uncomfortable. Kelvin had to resign, and the share price of the company dipped.
Were behavior like this reported 10 years ago, people would just laugh and shrug it off as the moans of a few easily offended troublemakers who were too frigid for their own good. Twenty years ago, people would have dismissed the suggestion that stand-up comedians should stop cracking jokes about mothers-in-law. But they don’t now, and, of course, they don’t tell sexist gags at all.
It is just over two years since #MeToo leapt into the popular imagination on a grand scale. The movement sought and succeeded in drawing attention to sexual harassment and assault, mainly, though not exclusively, perpetrated by men on women. It forced people to reflect back, not just on recent history, but on abuses stretching back decades. But it also concentrated minds on the here and now. Approval for #MeToo has been unmitigated.
Prominent actors, singers, politicians and other public figures have been shamed and punished, and thousands of people have shared their experience of abuse. There have been a few false accusations and allegations without corroborating evidence. And it would be misleading to state that #MeToo has been a totally unqualified success. But its impact is going to be so profound that men will have to appraise no only their behavior, but their emotions and responses conjured by daily life.
Even the words we use to describe daily life don’t just reflect changing times — they direct it. A recent episode of the US legal drama “The Good Fight” concerned the errant practices of a now-deceased colleague who was popularly regarded as an African American icon, a man of great rectitude and a personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. Only after his death did female colleagues reveal that he habitually compromised them and secured their silence with nondisclosure agreements. While his transgressions are not detailed, his behavior is described as “rape” — the term used to refer to forcing another person to have sex (not necessarily penetrative) against their will.
Only yesterday, I noticed a poster urging passengers traveling on trains to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. “This includes rubbing, leering, sexual comments, indecent acts, groping, masturbation, taking photos of a sexual nature without your consent.” I wonder if these will soon be regarded as comparable or even synonymous with rape.
Men — straight, gay, cis, trans or whatever — are wondering whether the kind of habits they used to follow without thinking are now liable to land them in trouble. Not just shallow trouble either: The chances of getting dragged into potentially career-ending morasses is greater than ever. A claim, however spurious, can bring stigma. An errant remark, a clumsy signal or the right action in the wrong place can be fatal. Would most men know intuitively whether an instance of behavior qualifies as friendly or annoyingly over-familiar? I’d venture most do. Yet the unwritten rules are changing.
It seems manifestly obvious to me that deliberately placing a hand on a fellow train passenger’s knee without their consent is invasive. But it’s not rape and, for me at least, should not be considered anywhere near the same part of the spectrum of unpermitted behavior. Obviously at different times, in different places, the entire context changes, and the same pieces of behavior are rendered innocuous, welcome even.
Men won’t be cowed into despair or faintheartedness. But are men likely to establish ground rules before they initiate intimacy? We’d have never got Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”or D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” if men had always been so proper. And, of course, they won’t change — at least not that much. But spontaneity might well be a casualty of the new sensibility. Some will be wrong-footed. We’ll learn of devastated men claiming they meant no malice when they groped or pawed women and find themselves guilty of sexual assault. “I was only joking,” somebody will inform a court when accused of actual bodily harm for grabbing a woman’s arm too harshly when asking to buy her a drink in a nightclub. There will be self-humbling admissions like, “I got it wrong,” when a man stands condemned after planting an uninvited kiss on the mouth of a bartender.
I’m guessing, of course. In truth, I have no idea how the change will take shape, but I am sure it will happen. In a sense, there is no way the rough-hewn rules that loosely govern how men approach, associate and fraternize with women can remain unchanged after #MeToo. Many of the men populating the lengthening list of those charged with offences against women have done little different from what other men do habitually. The difference is that they happen to live in the human terrarium we call the entertainment industry. What’s happening in there today will be happening out here tomorrow.
*[Ellis Cashmore’s “Kardashian Kulture” was published earlier this year.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.