At first it was a lot of enormous media potentates crashing to earth, followed by a bunch of lesser despots and lords, many employed in the media industries too, and it soon expanded to include half the men in Hollywood and ancillary trades like politics. The accompanying din was the clamor of pundits (those who hadn’t yet been felled themselves) attempting to explain what had happened—then reexplain, then explain some more—because the picture kept changing: soon the not-so-powerful were under fire too (freelance writers and experimental novelists were among those anonymously charged in an online list), and it was becoming unclear whether it was “toxic masculinity” or masculine panic we were talking about.
But at the beginning, the story seemed plain enough. It turns out that in the tallest skyscrapers and plushest hotels of the most advanced economies, many high-profile men have been acting the part of feudal lords, demanding droit du seigneur from their vassals, the vassals in this case being their female employees and others wishing entry into their fiefdoms. Evidently there’s been a covert system of taxation on female advancement in the work world, with the unluckier among us obligated to render not just the usual fealty demanded by overweening bosses but varying degrees of sexual homage too, from ego-stroking and fluffing (which is gross enough), to being grabbed and groped, to the expectation of silence about full-on rape.
From a political standpoint the exposés about the current extent of sexual harassment look like a significant cultural upheaval: a major victory in the centuries-long fight for women’s equality. This time the battleground is career, and the opponents being slain are the career gatekeepers. A struggle over careers is, to be sure, a bourgeois revolution—I mean this in the historical rather than the disparaging sense. If women’s bodies are still being treated as property, then another Reign of Terror was long overdue. If women are stuck with the task of overthrowing aristocratic privilege a few hundred years late, it’s because this social stratum needs to be liquidated before all genders can achieve civic and economic equality.
That the agents of destruction have been women simply telling their stories in public is nothing less than delicious. Women were gossiping, complaining, name-calling, and suddenly the world was listening. (In fact, historians have written extensively on the importance of gossip and its venues, such as coffeehouses, in fomenting previous revolutions.) Each tale that came tumbling out was more sordid than the last: infinite variations on the theme of sexual scumminess. The revelations weren’t exactly new, but the frame had shifted: the handsy boss, the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.