Time’s Up on what, exactly?

By Alfie Rosenbaum 

This is the name of the campaign against sexual violence being spearheaded by women in Hollywood. The main activity involved is the wearing of all black to the Golden Globes, and across the world people have set up mimic events to ‘stand in solidarity’ with the survivors of Hollywood sexual violence.

In Cambridge, an event has been set up on the 19th, whose organisers claim they hope to create further discussion around the issue of sexual violence on campus.

I’m unsure about this. Part of me feels that such public displays of defiance are important. Perhaps there is something powerful about people coming together to publicly make that statement. Perhaps this act will lead to further kinds of good. Perhaps it will create momentum and perhaps momentum will lead to change.

And yet part of me also wonders: what good, really, does wearing all black do for anyone? This is an issue that has appeared time and time again over the last few years. It was raised by people of colour when white people started wearing safety-pins in the wake of Brexit to signify their ‘alliance’. It was raised by Puerto Ricans when Americans responded to the Earthquake with ‘prayers’ on their Facebook statuses. Of course, unlike these two campaigns, survivors as well as non-survivors are taking part in the ‘Time’s Up’ campaign. I have no doubt that many of the women involved in writing and signing the ‘Time’s Up’ letter are genuine about their desire to affect change for people who are vulnerable to sexual violence. Nonetheless, I also believe it’s unlikely that the campaign is going to have any tangible impact on the lives of women outside of Hollywood. Like all movements centred around symbolism rather than activity, ‘Time’s Up’ has become an easy costume to put on, and many people are wearing it who shouldn’t be. Aside from the fact that the Hollywood element of the campaign feels very ‘Team America’ to me, the Cambridge off-shoot is self-congratulatory and pointless in its own frustrating way. I recognise that striking a balance between statement-making and policy shifting is difficult for all activists, but if our solution is just another black-tie protest, we’re doing it wrong.

What statement is being made by those people who choose to gather all in black on the 19th of January? From what I can gather, it is a very vague opposition to the issue of sexual assault/sexual misconduct as well as other manifestations of misogyny. On Time’s Up’s website, there is information about everything from unequal pay to rape statistics. Whilst I respect the need to make noise about these issues, protesting them like this seems to me to be like protesting for world peace, in the sense that it is not controversial to insist you are opposed to them. Perhaps the organisers of the solidarity protest believe that its non-specificity allows for discussions about the common themes of gender and power that underpin all of the abuses it aims to encompass. Perhaps they feel that its non-specificity makes it palatable to a wide range of people. Whatever they think, the non-specificity of this movement makes it ultimately un-critical and unchallenging of the status-quo. And whilst this could be seen nonetheless to be at least harmless, I would argue that tokenism of this sort is dangerous because of the role it plays in smoke screening a much deeper reluctance to change.

Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about a podcast episode she’d listened to by Malcolm Gladwell on his Revisionist History channel. The episode was about a painting the Royal Academy had exhibited by a female artist in the 19th century. It was massively well received in its day, but Butler (the artist) was not elected to the board of representatives. Whatever you think about Gladwell (or revisionist history for that matter) he raises an interesting point when he suggests that displaying the painting was an act of tokenism on behalf the Royal Academy. Whilst contemporaries saw it as a radical breakthrough, Gladwell claims that it allowed the board to hide their conservatism behind a superficial gesture of progression: Butler’s momentary success served ‘not to alleviate discrimination but perpetuate it’. Undoubtedly, a parallel can be drawn between the Royal Academy’s act of tokenism and the tokenism of a black-tie protest by Hollywood superstars, or by Cambridge students, against sexual assault. If James Franco can hide behind a ‘Time’s Up’ badge at the Oscars whilst denying multiple allegations against him, who’s to say thousands of others are not doing exactly the same?

I know first-hand people who are and have been rapists and abusers, and who have shielded themselves from accountability through tokenistic gestures like this one. Not only does wearing all black fail to offer tangible support to survivors, it also enables inactivity, and takes up space that should be occupied by genuinely critical discourse. This is not to say that all the people involved in the protest are bad people, or that everyone taking part is doing so simply to conceal their genuinely selfish or dangerous personalities. I am simply suggesting that enough people are doing this to make the whole movement entirely redundant. The energy of those students who do genuinely care to express solidarity could be far more productively directed. For starters, it could be directed inward: reflectively. People should ask themselves how they are complicit in rape culture. They should remind themselves to be careful about navigating consent in their day to day lives (something I have written about before for The Cambridge Student) and consider how they can support their friends who may have been victims of sexual violence, remembering that most people will not disclose this information to anyone.

If they are going to protest, they should do so with clear demands. They should be demanding better funding for student counselling, which would ideally offer longer term treatment and more specialist therapies for people who suffer from PTSD. They should be demanding a more comprehensive policy on reporting rape in college, and better support for victims. Whilst in Cambridge survivors are often forced to move college when they report a rape, a friend I know at an American university had her perpetrator take a month long course of intensive consent workshops after an attempted assault. Why does our university not offer something similar? And if it does, why have none of us heard about it?

Cambridge students could invest their time and energy in any of the above, and whilst none of them as individual actions would be enough, all would be better than dressing up in black for solidarity. My biggest grudge after the Harvey Weinstein scandal is simply that the rapists I know in real life remain unscathed by Weinstein’s downfall, and the survivors I know have not been uplifted by it. Whatever action we choose to invest our energies in, it must necessarily achieve at least one of these two goals if it is to have any meaning at all.

Image via i-D 

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