Any time you beg another man to set you free, you will never be free. Freedom is something that you have to do for yourself.
– Malcolm X
Her childhood memory of Sidney Poitier at the Academy Awards, her sisterly tribute to Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks; her announcement that the TIME’S UP! for sexual predators and the men who are happy to ride along on their coat-tails – and her pronouncement of a new day on the horizon: Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes was stunning.
Winfrey’s speech achieved what attempts to speak universally by those in positions of power often fail to. It did not make women’s demand for freedom look like a demand of the consumer variety, which is what often happens when those who occupy positions of privilege try to appeal to the desire for freedom among the bigger number of us. It looks like public relations, like marketing – like virtue signalling.
Pornland author Gail Dines has asked whether, rather than turning up to the Golden Globes in designer black gowns, the women of Hollywood could not have refused to attend the ceremony altogether – exposing it as a boy’s club – or whether they could have turned up in regular clothing, no make up, not playing the game. “Is “Time’s Up” a new accessory with a sell-by date or will it have a longer life?” asks Dines. Her questions prompt us to think about the vested interests that mean feminist action in Hollywood will always happen with handbrakes and strict limitations, and that mean we therefore can’t just swallow what they dish us.
For instance. As Tarana Burke’s #metoo movement has rippled through Hollywood, increasingly bold statements have been made by women in the business: Anna Paquin went so far as to call Hollywood a “grooming industry”. The rest of us have followed these revelations of abuse with a sense of vicarious relief: it is happening. The silence is breaking. Yet which actress would use this phrase “grooming industry” to support silenced sisters in the trade that the phrase is designed to describe – prostitution? That is too threatening a step to make, and even Winfrey did not include brothels in her list of sites where women “have endured years of abuse and assault because they had… bills to pay and dreams to pursue.”
They are domestic workers and farm workers, they are working in factories and they work in restaurants, and they are in academia and engineering and medicine and science. They are part of the world of tech and politics and business. They are athletes in the Olympics and soldiers in the military.
My intention here is not to point out Winfrey’s omissions. That would be cynical. The inevitability of a backlash to a black woman speaking out about racialised sexism is already making many feminists feel protective, too, about Winfrey’s contribution to our collective cause. Af3irm Hawai’i sums up this feeling:
We will punch in the direction of neoliberalism every minute of the day but Oprah’s speech is not that moment. Give women survivors (redundant) ONE goddamn victory. We gave #Oprah the mic by wading through the thick silence together.
Yet welling up at Winfrey’s words did make me wonder what it is about celebrities acknowledging their own humanity, and therefore the legitimacy of our own struggles, that is as moving as it is. Why does it matter to us this much? Winfrey’s dedication of almost her entire speech to women “whose names we’ll never know” is an acknowledgement of the validity of this question. The greater number of woman resisters are fighting against greater obstacles than anyone in Hollywood, and Winfrey did name some: Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks. I know some, too, who are fighting today – like Simone Watson.
Simone is an activist and survivor of prostitution. Her testimony is recorded in Prostitution Narratives – her account of men
who believed they had a right to me because, well, I was there. On top of me, inside me, around me, touching me, grabbing at me, trying to kiss me, ignoring me if I was exhausted or upset and doing it anyway, or finding another woman who hadn’t forgotten to take her valium[.]
No wonder that Simone suffered panic attacks, and started benzodiazepines “the first moment I could get to a doctor for a script after my first day.”
Telling these stories about the sex industry does not win Watson, or any prostitution survivor, any standing ovations or spots on the cover of Time magazine. On the contrary, in 2016, seven out of ten readings and launches run by the contributors to Prostitution Narratives were picketed and disrupted. In some places the women had to engage security guards. When the Townsville event was held in a domestic violence shelter, the sex trade lobby threatened to go after the shelter’s funding, and intimated violence if the book launch went ahead. One lobbyist stood on a stool during a reading and interjected as survivors shared their stories – and then attempted to recruit the most recently exited woman, who had been trafficked from the age of five, back into prostitution. “There are lots of great opportunities for women like you,” she said, “you should really give it another go.”
The wider public – feminist identified or not – pays no attention to battles like this to speak truth to power waged by prostitution survivors.
This is a torment for survivors, and to me, uncovers the real meaning of trauma – that one suffers not only from an injury, a violation, and its memory – but the culture wide complicity that does not allow recovery, but adds insult after insult after obstacle until it turns the experience of rape into the definitive battle of many a woman’s life.
Yet. In August last year, despite what she knew would await her, again – Watson took a bus and then a plane to Adelaide from Western Australia to engage in a panel “debate” on prostitution. What this means for Watson is confronting the victim-blaming of sex trade lobbyists calmly and repeatedly, head on, with few people to recognise what is going on. When it comes to prostitution survivors, victim blaming reaches new levels of vileness: sex trade advocates argue, for instance, that criminalising the abuse of prostitution will cause outbreaks of rape. What this means for survivors is that assault is not only something they “asked for” or should expect or tolerate, but that it’s what they are for. There is a special class of woman who cannot be violated, because they have been designated for sexual use in order to spare “real” women.
Thinking about Simone Watson, I ask myself: how much gratitude should we feel, how indebted are we, toward someone in an ivory tower – however magnificent – for showing that they recognise that they are human, just like we are – and that they are on our side?
Again, not to be cynical. It’s just that, as Winfrey pointed out, the culture of resistance burgeoning in Hollywood is nothing more extraordinary than any resistance women have put up, largely invisibly, in the plantations, domestic households, and factories that Winfrey named – and in the sex trade that she didn’t – since they were established. Yet we tend to watch resistance waged above our heads with a much greater sense of impending change.
What is happening in Hollywood though, is really only that a group of women are beginning to do what they should be doing to further the cause of women’s liberaton as a whole, given the position that they occupy. That’s all. It’s marvellous – it is marvellous that Alicia Keys has stopped wearing make-up, that Jennifer Aniston has called out the paparazzi, that Natalie Portman can have the gall to announce the “all male nominees” for best director at the Globes – that Kim Kardashian has enlisted a lawyer to help free Cyntoia Brown, a young woman who was trafficked into prostitution before killing her pimp in self defense at sixteen and receiving a life sentence in 2004. All this resistance is marvellous. It is also ordinary. And it’s what they should do.
We need to be wary of falling into the trap that Winfrey herself implicitly warned against: sidelining the women without wealth and loud voices, guaranteed audiences, and worldwide broadcasters in favour of the glamorous.
The handbrake on my own response to speeches like Winfrey’s is not cynical. It is a concern that when we watch Winfrey pledge to young girls that “a better morning is coming”, at some deep level we hear a promise that perhaps will, or perhaps will not, be delivered to us. We can’t afford to respond like that, when women like Brown, and Watson, are fighting back every single day at their own risk and cost. It’s not a “maybe it will come, maybe it won’t” kind of situation.
Yet this desire to put our hope in promises and mercy from above is, really, one aspect of the socialisation girls and women are subjected to. “Feminine” psychology – the psychology girls are supposed to learn and women adopt – says that we do not take what we are not given, we do not look a gift horse in the mouth, we wait to accept what is offered us from on high in whatever form it comes, and we do not make demands or try to anticipate. And when hope is served us, we are to appreciate it for what it is: hope.
We know that Martin Luther King was right, though, when he said that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” That is true whether the oppressor is an oppressor by virtue of race, sex, or extraordinary wealth.
On the flipside of femininity, is male entitlement – the attitude that boys and men are encouraged to adopt, that does not expect to wait and see, or to grovel and apologise at all. In fact it drives men to be sexually selfish in the extreme, to “manspread”, to be happy to submit partners and wives to domestic servitude, and to dominate conversation along with political decision making and… everything else.
While entitlement leads to these behaviours, I have another association with it since I went to Melbourne in 2017 for International Women’s Day. It was a good time to also see the trade union protest against Turnbull government paycuts take over the city. I saw the march from the second floor of a bookstore in the central city before following it: this flood of physically strong, working class people, taking up the streets from footpath to footpath, yelling with booming voices in unison about what they expect of their country.
None of those things are things that women are supposed to do, even while protesting. We are supposed to be physically weak and take up small portions of space, considerately hushed. We are supposed to be content with an ultimately pluralistic and therefore indefineable movement of subjective “feminisms” in which making vital, collective demands becomes ultimately impossible. The 2017 Women’s March in Wellington was full of people preaching love, kindness, and making sure we stopped for traffic lights when there were no cars at the crossing.
What I saw when I watched the trade union march was, really, a picture of entitlement. These men were entitled to exist – ha! – to take up space, to make noise, to state clear demands without apology or making concessions for inconveniences caused. That day, the trade unions decided their needs were the most important thing on the table, and until those needs were addressed, Melbourne would deal with the noise.
I looked at that and thought about how we perhaps shoot ourselves in the foot when we demonise the notion of entitlement like it is a disease, or believe that there is nothing for us to learn from it.
Being told by a woman with the voice of Winfrey that a “new day is on the horizon” is a spine tingling thing. Yet believing a celebrity who tells us to hope for a “brighter morning”, even speculating about whether to believe her authenticity, is neither wise, nor Winfrey’s meaning.
If we want a brighter morning, we better all start feeling, and we better start behaving, like we are fucking entitled to a brighter morning, and we better start listening to the Simone Watsons of this world as much as we do – more than we do – to the Oprah Winfreys, and joining the dots. And until that happens, no bright morning is coming. It does not matter what the actresses do at the next awards ceremony. Liberation simply does not trickle down.
If there’s anything we can take from what Oprah Winfrey has done, it is her commitment to truth (not pluralism), her articulation of racialised sexism, her historic memory, her honouring of children and those who are doing the gruntwork for women’s liberation. But also, the fact that at the Golden Globes this year, she did what she should have for a person in her position. Especially well, and with her own magic – but still, what she should be doing, based on the opportunities she has however fraught with risk, and the sense of entitlement she has to living in a world free of sexual abuse.
We all need to develop that sense of entitlement, each from our own position, and to act on it. That is what this all hinges on. Winfrey’s brighter morning may come or it may not come – but let’s not kid ourselves. That depends on nobody but us.