They tumble one after another like pieces in a Rube Goldberg machine—Bill, Roger, Harvey, Kevin, Louis, Al, and now Charlie. Tomorrow or the next day a new name will score the newsfeeds and Internet searches. Lately, I open my browser murmuring a thin prayer that it won’t be Hanks or Clooney. Gentleman, if either of you have those kinds of bones buried under your back porch, please make the suicide pact now. Speaking on behalf of humanity: we are strong, but not unbreakable.
Each freshly-outted man becomes an invitation to solve the same puzzle as if it were a Nancy Drew mystery—The Clue of the Creepy Patriarchy! Charlie Rose felt like a curveball. I didn’t think he was that kind of guy. That phrase sticks with me. Language is power; words call things into being. Don’t be fooled by the nursery rhyme, they can break more than your bones. In the discussions about power and race and privilege and politics that all contribute to this blooming fungus of toxic sexual miscreancy, it seems like a small thing to throw language onto the heap. It’s not. The way we talk about women matters.
I’m reminded of a dinner I had about ten years ago with my boyfriend at the time and three other guys–all former co-workers. At one point, one of the guys brought up the story of a girl from his high school who had gotten pregnant during her junior year.
“There’s always at least one,” I said neutrally, thinking of my own high school and the girls I remembered who dropped out to have babies, finishing up their diplomas in night school. Another guy, a person who came from privilege and access, chimed in.
“Yeah, we never had any at my school. There weren’t any of those kinds of girls there.” I stabbed my French fry into the pool of ketchup on my plate. “What kind of girls do you mean?” I asked. I could feel my boyfriend’s eyes on me. Here we go, he was thinking.
“You know, the kind of girls who get themselves in trouble. Girls like that.” He seemed pretty satisfied with his definition.
“ ‘Who get themselves in trouble?’” I repeated, still jamming what was left of my masticated fry into the ketchup “It takes two people to make a baby, last time I checked,” I said, shaking my head and glancing around at the rest of the table. Was anyone else hearing this arrogant nonsense? No one met my eyes. An anxious silence fell on the table. He shrugged, unconcerned.
“Yeah, well all I know is if there were girls like that, they didn’t go to my school.” I opened my mouth to reply when another guy snatched the conversation out of the jaws of a full-blown argument by bringing up the time when so-and-so got wasted at a holiday office party and passed out in the elevator.
There it was. Girls like that. Generations of misogynist, Hemmingway-macho bullshit culture baked into books, movies, TV shows, advertisements, sporting events, and Thanksgiving dinners reinforce the belief that not only are men and women not created equal, but women and women are unequal as well. There are “good girls,” “nice girls,” “pure girls,” “sisterly and motherly girls” and then there are “girls like that.” Those are the ones that men determine are readily available to them, a collection of parts to be had or taken. The culture of heterosexual sex is lousy with language that perpetuates violent, demeaning ways to dehumanize women: screw, nail, bang, or drill. Memo: we’re women, not construction sites, jackass. This perception of women and girls girded by language makes it permissible and preferable for men to beg willful ignorance and maneuver in tacit ethical blindness. It insulates men from culpability and, even more crucially, empathy and understanding.
There’s nothing novel about the way we label women. It’s been going on for a millennia (amiright, Virgin Mary?). But in the same way that women are refusing to stay silent, we are reclaiming language, calling out the way it is used against us, repurposing it into our own weapons of defense and resistance. We are burning down the walls of the village that keep us from knowing one another as fellow humans, instead of competition prizes.
I don’t excuse these men. I don’t believe their tailored apologies where they confess “I now know my actions were harmful” or “I understand that what I did then was wrong and inexcusable.” Only now are they forced to choose their words carefully when the tide of power amassed against them is an unbearable undertow, demanding their participation. They always knew. The reptilian DNA of male privilege kept them dimly aware of what they did and what they said-to themselves or their victims–to justify those actions. Because before there was the money and the power and the title and the reputation and the celebrity and the accolades and the public office there were only boys like them and girls like that.