“To the Core”: Recalling Michelle Obama’s Speech and Anita Hill in the “MeToo” Era
by Susan Bordo
“I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”
It was October of 2016, and the election was yet to be decided. Michelle Obama, in a televised speech in Manchester, New Hampshire[SB1] , was once again “speaking truth to power.” The truth: “It is cruel. It’s frightening. And…it hurts.” The power: Some words, captured by a hot mic as Donald Trump bragged to Billy Bush about being able to “do anything” with star-struck women :
“I did try & fuck her. She was married. I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. I just start kissing them. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything — grab them by the pussy. You can do anything[SB2] .”
At this point in the campaign, no actual allegations of abuse had been raised against Trump. Eventually, as many as twenty women came forward[SB3] . But for Michelle Obama, and for millions of women across the country, Trump’s words themselves felt like an assault. We were astounded when a week later they were seemingly forgotten, as the mass media rushed to cover the latest disclosures about Hillary Clinton’s emails. And even now, with the “Me Too” movement rising like a phoenix from the ashes of our suppressed experiences of sexual harassment and assault, we have yet to truly confront the deep meaning of the Access Hollywood revelation.
Instead, after a slew of firings and resignations that have failed to differentiate between the physically abusive husband, the child predator, the rape of an employee and the squeeze of a stranger’s waist, we’ve become so preoccupied with uninvited contact with women’s bodies, from the mildly uncomfortable to the seriously invasive, that we have lost sight of what really shook Michelle Obama to her core: Donald Trump — a candidate for Presidency of the United States — was a man intoxicated with denigrating women, a man for whom women were not even quite human, let alone equal to men, but toys, trophies, sex-flesh there for the taking, great fun to degrade, to belittle, to “do anything” with.
Those who argue, as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has, for a “zero tolerance” policy[SB4] in which there should be “no distinctions” between various forms of sexual misconduct, put us in danger of forgetting a key lesson that feminism taught throughout the sixties and seventies: the true abuser is not really after women’s bodies, but uses women’s bodies to show he is master. There is thus a world of difference between an Al Franken and a Donald Trump, and it’s not just because Franken faked a boob grab[SB5] while Trump, allegedly, did indeed go for vagina-groping. It’s not about a hierarchy of body-parts. It’s about the difference between a man who seems genuinely embarrassed to have crossed a line that he didn’t realize was an offense to the woman involved, and a man who habitually derives pleasure from crossing any and all lines that constitute a woman’s physical and emotional integrity — a man, in fact, who crows about it precisely because he knows what it means: that she may have the body parts, but he’s the one with the power.
We have to start making some distinctions. As an example, take sexual harassment. Lately, political commentators and feminist journalists have flung around the term as though it is simply equivalent to unwanted physical contact. Have they forgotten that we actually fought hard to have harassment recognized by the United States Supreme Court (in 1986) as a form of sexual discrimination? Under that rubric, uninvited touch by itself doesn’t constitute harassment, nor is it required for harassment to have occurred. Harassment can be physical in nature, but it can also include “quid pro quo” offers of pay/promotion, offensive discourse, and it doesn’t even have to be sexual — denigrating comments about women in general, for example, as well as racial slurs, can constitute harassment. The key is that the behavior in question either results in an adverse employment decision (such as firing or demotion of the victim) or is “so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment[SB6] .”
Clarence Thomas, recall, never touched Anita Hill. Rather, the coin of Thomas’s realm, as for many men, was sex-talk — about pornography, oral sex, group sex, breasts and penis size — and the harassment was motivated, as Hill reports, not by “romantic interest” but by “control and intimidation[SB7].” What set him off was the fact that she had refused to submit to his will. He had wanted to date her; she had said no. The imbalance of power was unbearable, and had to be righted. She told him repeatedly that she didn’t want to talk about “those kinds of things,” and she tried to change the subject. But her objections only “urged him on, as though my reaction of feeling ill at ease and vulnerable was what he wanted[SB8] .”
The fact that Thomas’s harassment of Hill began after she had rejected him is telling, and recalls my own experience when I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s, in the days when we didn’t have a word for such things[SB9] . It had begun with a professor’s expressing more than professional interest in me over lunch. I wasn’t interested, and I told him so, but I didn’t feel offended or compromised.
The situation rapidly changed for me, however, when my professor, having been turned down, began to sprinkle virtually every conversation we had with sexist comments (“Your comprehensive exams were so good I was amazed to see they were written by a woman”) and demeaning references to my personal life (suggesting, for example that I was studying Russian to please my boyfriend). I tolerated all of this. Like Anita Hill, I had learned to expect and endure such sexist comments, and I had been taught, along with many other women of my generation, that being nice to people, trying not to expose their failings or humiliate them, particularly if they were men, was more important than standing up for myself.
Then one day this professor jovially instructed me that it was “time for class, dear” and patted me on my rear end at the open doorway of a classroom full of other students, mostly male. Flushed with shame, I ran down the hall. With economy and precision he had reduced me, in front of my colleagues, from fellow philosopher-in-training to … to what? I’m not sure I can say exactly what. Perhaps to a child, perhaps to my “sex,” perhaps to someone so inconsequential that my personal boundaries and integrity were irrelevant. One thing I did know, though, even in those more naive times. My professor’s gesture, although it involved physical contact with my body, was not a sexual advance but an attempt — conscious or otherwise — to put me back in my place. To show me once and for all that although it was in my paltry power to turn him down for a date, I was still “less than” him (or the male students witnessing the event.)
Clarence Thomas’s actions, and those of my professor, were neither the actions of men confused about the rules of sexual courting, nor the behavior of sex addicts unable to control their hormones. They were the actions of gender bullies, trying to bring uppity women down to size, to restore a balance of power in which they were on top. Arguably, that was Donald Trump’s motivation, too, when he stalked Hillary Clinton on stage in debate. He didn’t lay a finger on her. But he so distracted her that even today, as she recounts in What Happened, she frets over whether or not she responded in the most effective way[SB10] .
I do think that there is a region of validity to the “no distinctions” reaction. It’s the recognition, once again — how many times do we have to go through this? — that we are sick and tired of it all. There are so many ways in which women are routinely demeaned, routinely sexualized, routinely treated as “less than” men. The movies. The videos. The ads. The frat culture that counts the conquest of women as notches separating the boys from the men. The double standards that plague the woman who aspires to power. The misogyny that ran rampant in the campaigns against Hillary Clinton. The message conveyed by the election — to the highest office in the land — of a man like Donald Trump.
The end to women’s and girls’s silence is way overdue. And so is the need for men to recognize that whether or not a gesture is “innocent” is not up to them alone. At the same time, the body is not some dictionary full of easily read definitions, there are vast differences in the meaning of gestures depending upon ethnicity, race, age, and context, and we can’t expect men to be mind-readers. To help bridge the communication gaps, we need more genuine conversation and less of “it’s all the same.” “No tolerance” doesn’t help with such a conversation; instead, it frightens young boys wondering what is permitted on a first date, it treats women as having no responsibility to convey their desires and aversions, and it’s fulfilling the old stereotypes of the “all men are the enemy” feminism that hasn’t actually been true in many decades.
Saying all this, as a recent Saturday Night Skit satirized, is treading on thin ice. In that skit, three couple try to discuss recent allegations against Azis Ansari, only to find themselves butting up against forbidden topics, ideas, and words that stop them from finishing their sentences, while Satanic images dance in their imaginations. It was extremely funny, and like the best comedy hit the nail on the head. Silencing comes in many forms; let’s not trade one for another.
Susan Bordo’s latest book, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election[SB11] , is now available in paperback, with a new Afterword.
[SB7]Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power, New York, Random House, 1997, p. 235
[SB8]Hill, p. 70
[SB9]I first recounted this incident in https://www.chronicle.com/article/Sexual-Harassment-Is-About/98434
[SB10]Hillary Clinton, What Happened, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2017, p. 136