Questions swirl about how the subject will be treated in 2018
BY CHUCK RAASCH
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/TNS
WASHINGTON – Speaking at a forum on the new movie “The Post,” about the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, the actress Meryl Streep predicted a backlash to the cases of sexual harassment that had brought down a cluster of powerful men.
“I don’t think we move in an easy trajectory toward an enlightened future,” said Streep, who plays Graham in the movie. “We’re gonna hit the wall on this one soon.”
Days later, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, said he believed his colleague, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., had announced his resignation prematurely after sexual misconduct claims — some denied by Franken — were aimed against the former comedian.
Another senator, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said he regretted asking for Franken’s resignation before an ethics committee investigation had a chance to proceed.
‘Always a backlash’
And PBS host Tavis Smiley took to the talk-show circuit to defend himself after he had been fired and accused of sexual improprieties in what he described as consensual relationships with subordinates.
“There is always a backlash, there is always a setback,” said Mary Ann Dzuback, chair of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Dzuback portrayed what has been called the #MeToo movement — named for the hashtag adopted by women telling public stories of private harassment — as a pushback to a pushback in the American culture, a reaction to the election of President Donald Trump, who himself has been accused by 20 women of sexual misconduct.
In politics, pendulums perpetually swing.
And so it was no coincidence that the spate of sexual harassment claims against powerful men like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, NBC’s Matt Lauer and a cluster of Hollywood actors, came in the months after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes catching Trump bragging about how his celebrity allowed him to sexually assault women.
And that Trump, himself, personified a pushback against the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama.
“A lot of people are frightened that society is changing in ways that they are not prepared to deal with, and so they go with somebody who is going to bring them back to some mythical Golden Age,” Dzuback said.
After the initial shock of the big-name allegations, many of them accompanied by sordid details, will 2018 host a more long-term conversation on gender relations and sexual violence, including a broader vetting of allegations and accusations in workplaces involving people who are not famous?
Or is this a one-time shock that will be reversed in a pendulum swinging back toward “due process” for the accused?
Dzuback said Americans who did not vote for Trump “are feeling quite beleaguered.”
“We thought we had reached, especially after eight years of the Obama presidency, despite all the battles he had in trying to get anything addressed in Congress and the courts, and so on — we thought that there was some sort of consensus around his message, which is we need to make society more inclusive and opening and welcoming, and that we need to … take care of our fellow citizens,” she said.
“And that kind of thing, the fact that there was such a severe reversal to all that (in Trump’s election), has awakened people to this notion that things can change very quickly.”
Smiley fights back
Had anyone predicted at the dawn of the Trump era that two recent combatants in the culture wars — O’Reilly on the right, Franken on the left — would be brought down by allegations like those Trump survived, few would have believed them.
Unlike many of the others accused, Smiley has been all over the media to argue that he had been let go from the end of a pendulum that had now swung too far — that he had never assaulted or harassed women, but merely had had relationships with people he worked with.
“The problem here is we are starting to criminalize legitimate relationships between consenting adults and that’s a real problem for me,” Smiley said on Fox News.
Will voters react?
Dzuback said she was troubled by the firing of “Prairie Home Companion” creator Garrison Keillor, based on what he said publicly about the anonymous allegations against him made by a single woman.
But she predicted that the sum total of all the focus on men behaving badly — in some cases, potentially criminally — could resound in the ballot box in 2018.
Key congressional races, including Republican efforts to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will determine which party controls Congress in the second half of Trump’s current term.
Some have predicted that more women will run, and win, in 2018, as a result of the “#MeToo” movement on sexual harassment.
“I believe that is the case, and I believe we are also going to see more women gaining positions of power in all aspects of American life,” Dzuback said.