Devious women: #MeToo and images of empty empowerment

Devious women: #MeToo and images of empty empowerment

Shira D. Epstein
Shira D. Epstein

It’s no wonder that even while the #MeToo and Times Up movements have been loud and strong, Brett Kavanaugh still was confirmed as an associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. Across the nation we’re seeing Hollywood blockbuster films that reflect the distrust of accounts and reposition of harassment as female ambition gone awry. These films show women advancing in male-dominated professions through manipulation and deceit, with the aid of magic, shape-shifting, and covert scheming for revenge (e.g., “What Men Want,” “Second Act,” “Widows”).

While the Hollywood “wily woman” construct is not unchartered territory, this new iteration adds a layered dimension. Susan Faludi’s 1991 “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” dissected the media images of the deranged female (e.g., “Fatal Attraction”) as a cautionary tale of financial independence — her desires make her frightening. Today, mass media markets use images of empowerment as a tool to appear to address concerns of sexual harassment — finding ways to be seen, to be heard, and to exact justice. But in doing so, they gloss over or outright ignore the power disparities and instead focus attention on “devious” women who gain status in underhanded ways.

Our society — supported by pop culture, Hollywood, and even elected officials — says that we do not have to interrogate the structures that impede female leadership and that the responsibility is squarely placed on the individual to find fantastical solutions. Likewise, a thin veneer of girl power suggests a false sense of possibilities for women to claim expertise in their own right, based on their own merit. The center-stage stories mirror the larger challenge — how can we have honest conversations about the ways we have failed to advance gender equity in leadership?

As accusations of harassment within all industries continue their steady stream, how might we supplant worn storylines with new visions for parity and treatment in the workplace? While conversations need to take place across the board, we must immediately focus on the education of children — the future. A newly released poll of 1,000 children and adolescents commissioned by Plan International USA reflects the Hollywood conundrum; while girls were slightly more likely than boys to aspire to be leaders, about three-quarters of females ages 14-19 reported feeling that mass culture positioned physical attractiveness as the most valued asset. This data reflects the need for spaces where young women can talk about this chasm between the aspiration for recognition of their intellect and merit, and the concern that they will never rise above being sexual objects or will only advance as men leverage their “unconventional beauty.” We see this all the time in Hollywood, this year in “A Star Is Born.”

We were launched into unchartered territory last fall when people, en masse, started to come out with their truths. The challenge now is to change the narrative. It is not up to individuals to fix broken hiring and promotion practices, and that change will not come through magical thinking. We can look to best practices of organizations that are sparking discussion about gender equity. The Jewish Theological Seminary launched a semester-long deep dive into Mary Beard’s “Women and Power: A Manifesto,” inspiring reading circles and one-on-one discussions to question what most often counts as “expertise” and “authority.” Other discussion groups on books dedicated to workplace parity are gaining momentum, such as Tara Mohr’s “Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message,” Iris Bohnet’s “What Works: Gender Equity by Design,” and Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.” Likewise, organizations such as Girls Inc., Global Girls Alliance, Girl Be Heard, and Moving Traditions are supporting female-identified participants in exploring visions for equity in leadership. New initiatives like The Gender Equity in Hiring in the Jewish Community Project are challenging organizations to create change by removing gender bias from hiring practices.

Hollywood does not have a monopoly on the scripts available to young women regarding their aspirations and avenues to advancement. We need to amplify and publicize models of substantive, expansive change and the communities that are striving for gender equity in the workplace. It is time to imagine new narratives. 

Shira D. Epstein is on faculty at the William Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is adviser to the Gender Equity and Leadership Initiative and is currently completing a book that examines power-talk and teens.

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