In the Labyrinth of #MeToo

Addressing sexual aggression and power in contemporary society also means questioning what the feminist movement has really been about

Photo illustration; iStock
Photo illustration; iStock

A big fat hairy man. A Boss-Beast. An Animal-God. Bluebeard? King Kong? No, more like the Minotaur at the center of the labyrinth of Hollywood. Or perhaps, as the #MeToo movement implies, the Male Beast at the center of the labyrinth of patriarchal culture.

The tale—not a myth!—is ancient. One lovely girl after another must sacrifice herself to a repellent, all-powerful Ruler, although a few among the bevy of beauties find ways to evade his advances, standing up to him with righteous passion or threatening him with the wrath of real or fictive knights-errant.

From the beginning, the stories of #MeToo were horrific—and riveting. Riveting because they weren’t just now, they were always. One of the first and most resonant tales was told by Gwyneth Paltrow, who, at 22, won our hearts starring in Emma, the adaptation of the Jane Austen novel beautifully produced by Harvey Weinstein’s company, Miramax. Blond, slim, willful Emma conquered and was conquered by the noble Mr. Knightley onscreen, but in real life, Paltrow went to a hotel-suite business meeting, at which the ignoble Weinstein allegedly suggested they move to the bedroom for massages. Then, in episode after episode recounted in The New York Times, The New Yorker, online, and on TV, victims alleged that he did more, much more, to others, demanding or forcing oral sex, raping them, exhibitionistically walking around naked while masturbating, and threatening them with career catastrophe if they were uncooperative.

We devoured these stories of assault and revenge like the audiences of Greek plays fixating on Olympian turmoil. When one celebrity (Weinstein) terrified another (Paltrow), the deific victim invoked vengeance upon him from yet another celebrity (her then boyfriend, Brad Pitt). But for a long time, as a range of famous women have attested, the fat hairy beast went unpunished, ruling the hills and dales of Miramax—and indeed Hollywood and Manhattan and sometimes even London—with an iron fist and a perpetual erection.

“I have nightmares about him to this day,” said Lucia Evans, an aspiring actress whom he allegedly forced to perform oral sex.

“A big fat man wanting to eat you. It’s a scary fairy tale,” according to Asia Argento, an Italian actress on whom, she said, he forcibly performed oral sex.

On October 10, 2017, the Times published a chronicle of Weinstein’s misdeeds, with portraits of some of the angry beauties who had come forward—Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Rosanna Arquette, Katherine Kendall, and others—all righteously severe, all gorgeously costumed. (Paltrow led the list in an entrepreneurial charcoal gray suit, as if she had metamorphosed from, say, Ariadne to Athena.) And The New Yorker too joined the jury, led by Ronan Farrow, the resentful son of Woody Allen, who was enraged by his father’s alleged assault on his sister Dylan when she was seven and was now investigating the perverted appetites of the Minotaur of Miramax. Both he and the Times writers covering the Weinstein case received the Pulitzer Prize for their work.

Of course, news outlets featured photos of Weinstein himself, with a particularly grotesque one appearing in The New Yorker, accompanying bits of a tape recording of his come-on to a Filipina-Italian model who just happened to be wearing a wire. Here he is bloated and unshaven, gazing at someone—perhaps the unwilling model—with a kind of lip-smacking eagerness. If he doesn’t have the head of a bull, how can he be the Minotaur? But wait, reread that myth. In some accounts, such as Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, the Minotaur has the head of a man and the body of a bull. Can this renversement of the usual tale explain the producer’s obsessive desire to disrobe in front of his victims, his incessant pleas that they watch him shower—before, presumably, “massaging” him? Did he long to reveal and revel in his bullish beastliness? If so, his revels now are ended. As are the revels of many others, or so we’ve been told.

The mythically resonant case of Harvey Weinstein, the Bull-Boss at the heart of the labyrinth of Hollywood/Manhattan/London, triggered the #MeToo movement—although the groundwork for that upwelling of women’s wrath had been laid by countless other trigger warnings.

Yes, here was the old myth in modern dress, and it was so real that within months, a horde of powerful abusers around the world had been felled by the testimony of female and male victims. It would be impossible to list all the famous names—from Kevin Spacey and John Conyers to Louis C. K., Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Leon Wieseltier, Alex Kozinski, John Searle, James Levine, Richard Meier, and so many more that it’s breathtaking, not to say nauseating. Some—O’Reilly and Ailes and Cosby—had been outed earlier, and their fates may have encouraged female rebellion. But the Weinstein case definitively dramatized a brutal truth: at the center of the labyrinthine swirl of patriarchal culture, in the courts, in the academy, in music, in business, in publishing, in architecture, just about everywhere, the Bull-Boss looms.

And then, at the center of the center, there are the Ultimate Minotaurs—Bill Clinton, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi, and now, most terrifyingly, Donald J. Trump. His, surely, is the ontological story, his claim the claim against which the millions of #MeToo witnesses are struggling: “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

You can do anything. Yes, if you’re the star, the Minotaur at the center of the maze.

And what can they do to you? So far, nothing. No one can dislodge you. They let you do it.

Porn stars, Playboy playgirls, Apprentice alums all lodge complaints and peddle salacious stories, but for the longest time, not a speck of dirt settled in the Oval Office at the center of the political labyrinth.

But what about the other male celebrities falling like bowling pins? Arguably, each case is different. As quite a few columnists protested, Al Franken is no Harvey Weinstein; neither is he a Donald Trump. But when the #MeToo movement crested, a onetime nude model for Playboy who was also a TV personality on Fox News and a “birther” accused Franken of kissing her lubriciously in a rehearsal for a USO show and then of posing for a photograph with his hands above her breasts as she slept on an airplane. Then a woman accused Franken of groping her at the Minnesota State Fair. And there were the off-color jokes—and worse, rape fantasies—he’d come up with as a comedian on Saturday Night Live.

Franken insisted on his innocence. “I, of all people,” he declared in his resignation speech, “am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office.”

And all over the country, really all over the world, the Bull-Boss still squats at the center of the labyrinth. Little girls are “married” to older men in India and Africa and even Appalachia. Their genitalia are mutilated in some cultures—clitoridectomies designed to mute or entirely suppress female desire. Desperate girls and women are trafficked to brothels almost everywhere. And as a recent story in the Times documented, women trying to make a scant living from tips in diners, taverns, and restaurants around our country struggle to smile while fending off passes from horny male customers who feel perfectly entitled to “stiff” them—interesting word!—if they aren’t responsive to flirtatious gestures.

If there was a problem about the #MeToo movement, at least until quite recently, it was its focus on celebrities harassing celebrities. Because—as the rapid acceleration of the movement suggests—the main victims aren’t models, actresses, and other glamour types (though they too are victims) who have always had to cope with the casting couch. Thousands and thousands of victims are cafeteria workers, file clerks, undergraduate and graduate students, ambitious young paralegals and overworked line cooks, electricians and rookie cops, junior high school students, and even, God help us, younger girls, sometimes even kindergartners. The labyrinth is the quotidian workplace—the winding corridors of the school or the office, where sexual aggression all too often accompanies power.


Me too. When I first heard the magic words and saw that countless women were signing on to this new movement, I wasn’t sure whether I belonged in it. I have been fortunate in academia. No matter how I wrack my brains, I can’t remember any of my male colleagues coming on to me in an offensively sexual way. But oh yes, I know about vulnerability. I can remember being “felt up” by a total stranger on the subway when I was 13 years old.

It was rush hour in a closely packed car. I was a high school freshman taking the F train home. A hand, a preternatural hand, came out of nowhere and landed on the lower part of my body, what my mother would call my “private parts,” and began eerily moving around down there. I looked up and found myself staring at an utterly bland face, blank eyes—you would think he didn’t know what his hand was doing. Yet though I tried to squirm away, I was being uncannily moved closer and closer to the train door, as the blank-faced man—a rather little man, I remember—moved closer and closer to me, so there was no escape.

I went home and wrote a story about it, didn’t tell my parents or my friends, had bad dreams for weeks. As though it had been my fault. Me with my heavy dark red winter coat, my school bag, my knee socks, my eyeglasses, my wool beret! How was I responsible? Me too?

I had a schoolmate who told a similar story, but she was ever so much bolder than I—and maybe she had been in a less jam-packed subway car. As the hand descended toward her private parts, she managed to grasp it and raise it high over her head, shouting at her assailant, “Does this belong to you?  

This friend—I’ll call her Marguerite—must have been the sort of person who helped the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements spread around the world. We were in our early teens, but she (who planned to study nursing) used to carry a condom in her purse, planning to offer it to any rapist she couldn’t fight off: “At least, here, use this!”

When I talk about Marguerite and me, I’m talking about the ’50s, the decade of my high school and college years, which shaped me into a person who does and doesn’t understand #MeToo.

Yes, of course I understand #MeToo, not just because of my freaky experience on the F train but also because, growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, I was warned of endless dangers by my Sicilian-born mother. She was so persuasive that when my friend Claudia and I went out for milkshakes at the local soda shop—a block away from where I lived—we carried forks in our pockets so we could defend ourselves against any nasty would-be Weinstein who leaped out of the shadows with evil intentions. And my own real-life efforts to ward off the advances of horny dates in my apartment house’s elevator also convince me that the movement is necessary.

At the same time, I’m a bit alienated from #MeToo because parts of it seem to be rooted in a sometimes problematic culture of date rape that coexists with an equally problematic hookup culture. When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, a “coed” had to sign out of her dorm when she went on a date, then sign in by 10:30 P.M. on weekdays, 12:30 or one A.M. on weekends. Plenty of time for date rape, I suppose, but I more vividly recall trying to find time and space for romance, including whatever sexual experiences we allowed ourselves. I remember wanting to fight for the erotic, tiptoeing up the stairs of a boyfriend’s rooming house (being caught there would mean instant expulsion!) and sneaking banned copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into the country. Yes, I wanted to be able to just say No, but I also wanted to be able to just say Yes, on terms that the campus authorities definitely forbade. Not to a rapist, not to a Harvey Weinstein, but to a man I had fallen in love with. Not to the Minotaur but to Theseus (with all his faults).

No doubt the sexual revolution of the ’60s, with its promise of easy access to birth control and, in the next decade, abortion, both instigated a liberated hookup culture on college campuses (and even in high schools) and prefigured the anxieties of the date-rape pamphlets now available in so many academic crisis centers. Quite early, now, young women are warned that they must learn to say no, that no means NO, and yes can only be defined as enthusiastic consent. Not simply passive availability, but enthusiastic consent. It would appear, in other words, that words must be exchanged—“Do you …?” “I do …”—or otherwise the erotic contract is somehow invalid. All of which is perfectly reasonable as long as both parties involved clearly understand the assumptions of the exchange in which they’re involved. If one doesn’t (and that’s usually a young man who hasn’t read the date-rape pamphlets), any misguided advance can catapult him into the toils of punitive censors.

Two recent stories that went viral confirm my queasiness about what such commentators as Masha Gessen, Katie Roiphe, and Daphne Merkin have basically defined as a new puritanism. In the first, which takes place on the Stanford campus, a male freshman gets drunk and flirtatious with a woman at a party and is found on top of her unconscious body next to a Dumpster. It will be later ascertained that she had been penetrated by a foreign object—his fingers. She has imbibed three times the legal limit of alcohol. He has had twice the legal limit. When passersby rebuke him, he tries to run away, claiming he needs to vomit. The victim remembers nothing, not even a drunken phone call to her boyfriend. The young man is convicted of sexual assault with the intent to commit rape, sent to jail for six months, and released after three (a scandalously light punishment, claim some), and is forever listed as a sex offender. A movement is still afoot to defrock the judge for handing down too light a sentence.

In the second, a woman known only as Grace tells the story of her dinner date with the comedian Aziz Ansari. They dine, drink, retire to his apartment. She allows him to undress her, and he seats her, naked, on his kitchen counter, then undresses himself. Each performs oral sex on the other. Then, not surprisingly, he wants to go further. But she is disturbed, and though they get dressed, sit on the sofa, and watch an episode of Seinfeld, he allegedly “kissed her again … and moved to undo her pants.” She goes home in a huff—no, in an Uber—and tells her tale online.

Because of when I came of age, I may be too old to understand either of these stories. The Stanford victim, I forgot to mention, had downed four whiskies before she went to the frat party where she met the young man; her mother drove her to the party, perhaps because she was too sloshed to drive herself? She was older than the guy (she was 22, he 19), had a boyfriend in Philadelphia, and had chosen to drink herself into oblivion.

Grace, in the story, was perfectly willing to take off her clothes and sit on the kitchen counter of a strange man (it was their first date) and to engage in mutual oral sex. Was that not, too, a choice to make herself available?

Please, I’m not a Victorian moralist. I’m a 21st-century feminist (well, basically, a 1970s feminist) who wants women to make choices and who has fought to make choices myself. Perhaps I’m not with-it enough to understand a culture in which you can drink too much and suppose that other equally drunken strangers will just take care of you—a hookup culture in which even if you take off your clothes and hang out on someone’s kitchen counter, you shouldn’t expect him to expect something more from you.

To the extent that stories like this get entangled in #MeToo, we might expect young men to say #Who, me?


But are these ambiguous traumas what feminism has actually been about?

Even #MeToo, with its powerful and righteous emphasis on sexual assault—is this what feminism is about? Clearly Ansari and the 19-year-old Stanford freshman (who was, after all, jailed for his sozzled sexual efforts) aren’t even near cousins of the Bull-Boss Harvey Weinstein and his White House cousin Donald J. Trump. Distant cousins? Yes, maybe: like all the famous, infamous, and anonymous wielders of male sexual power, they are products of a culture of male entitlement that leads them, too, into a labyrinth of confusion.

Yet even lacking the imperial powers of the Bull-Boss, they have become targets of a feminism that has gotten derailed from its most serious goals—namely, addressing the severe injustices inherent in our sex-gender system. Abortion clinics close, countless women suffer from domestic abuse, women workers endure a significant gender pay gap (earning, on average, 80 percent of what men make), female CEOs fail to break through that glittery glass ceiling (making up just five percent of the Fortune 500 list). And let’s not forget that when Hillary Clinton ran for president, hordes of red-capped Trump supporters enthusiastically chanted Lock Her Up! at all those raucous rallies.

To be sure, the day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of women, in the United States and around the world, many of them sporting sardonic pink pussyhats, marched for feminism and for an insurgent anti-Trump resistance movement. But has #MeToo eclipsed all that? I’ve been worried—worried that what I consider relatively minor complaints about shoulder massages or pats on the butt might supplant tales of jobs lost, reputations ruined because women complained about employment inequality. George W. Bush gave Angela Merkel a shoulder massage. She looked back at him quizzically. She is still the most powerful woman in Europe. As for me, if someone pats me on the butt, I do spank him back, unless he’s a heavyweight boxer. Yet what about the culture in which we’ve been repeatedly admonished to be decorous, even silent—not to bother anyone with our sense of injustice?

Fortunately, #MeToo is broadening its scope to tell tales of people’s livelihoods, self-definitions, hopes, and dreams that expand our understanding of what sexual harassment means. One #MeToo witness complained that an important male boss told her he couldn’t hire her because she was married and might have children. Even if she didn’t have children, he said, being married meant she couldn’t devote all her time to her work. He wasn’t fondling her, but nonetheless he was fucking her up, wasn’t he? Would he have made such a remark to her brother?

Ah, nostalgia. I can tell the opposite side of that story. I was 25 and pregnant with my third child when I applied to a New York City campus for a job teaching remedial English. “Wonderful!” exclaimed the department head when I explained my situation. “We love mommies! They’re willing to work so much harder for so much less money!”

At least, in those days, they were honest. Things changed little in later days. When my husband and I and our three kids moved to California in the mid-’60s (the age of hippiedom, flower children, and civil rights marches), I wanted to apply for a job in the English department where he taught but was told that nepotism rules would make that impossible. Even when, after the passage of Title IX in 1972, I was ultimately appointed to a position in his department, colleagues would jokingly hound me in the halls: “How do you like your two salaries in one family?” And when I observed to an old “friend” that a man with credentials comparable to mine had been appointed at a higher rank, he chided me: “Why should you complain? Don’t you have a job in the same department as your husband?” As for my work in feminism, my husband summarized the critiques he heard from colleagues after appraisal meetings about me (which of course he didn’t attend) with two brief sentences: “My wife doesn’t feel that way” and “Men suffer too.” Do these little anecdotes qualify me as a member of #MeToo?

I hope so, for perhaps now, as #MeToo increasingly takes on the great issues of feminism—besides the sexual objectification of women and the profound links between professional power and male sexual entitlement, the gender inequities that build glass ceilings over girls and women—perhaps now another wave of feminism will rise like a tsunami.


But after this tidal wave of feminism has swept away the bosses and bullies, what will happen to their works? Certainly Roger Ailes and his ilk, along with Weinstein and his cohort—and maybe on some happy day, Trump and his trumpery—will disappear into the Inferno of history. But what about all those movies Weinstein produced? And what about Woody Allen’s films and James Levine’s recordings? How does the morality of #MeToo intersect with the aesthetic triumphs produced by accused sexual predators?

The intersection of aesthetics and morality goes back to Plato, who banned poets from the Republic because poetry “lets [the passions] rule, although they ought to be controlled.”

The notorious Index librorum prohibitorum of 1559 forbade a range of serious writings by the likes of Newton, Descartes, Kepler, and Kant. Other religious institutions and governments busied themselves in similar ways. In 1656, the young Spinoza was excommunicated by the Talmud Torah congregation of Amsterdam for “wrong opinions.” The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass were attacked as indecent in 19th-century America, with works by Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Swift—and (surprisingly) the Bible—bowdlerized, too. By the 20th century, the writings of such great modernists as D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Henry Miller were banned as if by fiat, in some cases until the 1960s. To be sure, there’s no evidence that any of these writers were sexual predators, even if their writings violated contemporary moral standards. Nonetheless, all three had written books that could not be published in Great Britain or in the United States until lengthy court cases in a sense absolved them of guilt.

What is odd, by comparison, is the current response to—for just two examples—the movies of Woody Allen and the recordings of James Levine. In a pained meditation on Allen, A. O. Scott, a film critic at The New York Times, brooded on the connection between Allen’s alleged sexual abuse of his seven-year-old daughter and the preoccupation with younger women that is dramatized in many of his movies, especially Manhattan. “What I find most ethically troubling about Mr. Allen’s work at present,” Scott wrote, “is the extent to which I and so many of my colleagues have ignored or minimized its uglier aspects.” Noting that Allen’s preoccupation with—even fetishization of—adolescent girls is recorded throughout the archive of his manuscripts held by the Princeton University Library, Scott wondered whether he’d want to keep on seeing even the greatest of the filmmaker’s works. Musing on Allen’s defenders, he noted that the “old defenses are being trotted out again. Like much else that used to sound like common sense, they have a tinny, clueless ring in present circumstances. The separation of art and artist is proclaimed—rather desperately, it seems to me—as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma.”

But are the “old defenses” really so tinny and clueless? It seems tiresome to have to go through that debate again. If films like Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Radio Days don’t have an autonomous existence as works of art—if we must send them to the prison in which we’d like to put their auteur—what must be done with other creations of the sometimes perverse human mind? If the Met can fire James Levine for his sexual misconduct, should we also incinerate his recordings of the Ring, Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger? And what about Wagner, anyway? Because he was an anti-Semite, should his operas too be banned? Just as there’s a strain of sexual predation in Allen’s movies, after all, there are at least hints—really more than hints—of anti-Semitism in, say, Die Meistersinger, where the foolishly ambitious Beckmesser is given Semitic-sounding music to sing, and the great Hans Sachs proclaims the greatness of “holy German art” in the opera’s final scene. And need I point to the representation of the dwarf Alberich and his henchmen, especially in Das Rheingold? Moreover, speaking of #MeToo, what about the situation of poor Eva in Meistersinger? A living, breathing young woman with passions of her own, she is destined to be a prize—a trophy wife, really, for the winner of the Meistersingers’ competition!

What do I reveal about myself if I confess that I still give my enthusiastic consent to Wagner’s problematically great operas, just as I do to Allen’s problematically interesting films? Perhaps, indeed, I find some of these works compelling precisely because they’re problematic: like Lawrence’s novels, and Miller’s works, they tell us more than even their creators perhaps intended to tell about the dynamics of human desire, and more specifically the dynamics of gender. They tell us, too, sometimes rather more than we’d like to know about the culture from which they arose. But we need to know those deeply unpleasant things: anti-Semitism, misogyny, sexual predation, and anxiety; we need to know all that if only to save ourselves from them.

For a famous definition of enthusiastic consent, it might be best to turn to Joyce, whose allegedly pornographic Ulysses instigated one of the earliest and most important censorship trials. One wonders what the most severe acolytes of #MeToo would think of the adulterous Molly Bloom, who never leaves her bed from the beginning of the novel to the end, as if she herself were an abject form of the “Plumtree’s potted meat” that is advertised throughout Dublin. Merely a sex object whom her slavish husband adores? Yet as everyone knows, she has the last word in the novel. Remembering her early lovemaking with Bloom, she replays her enthusiastic consent in her head:

and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Her lyrical interior monologue may be a male fantasy, but it models an affirmation that ought to be instructive to men and women today. Yet between Molly Bloom’s yes and the thunderous no we sometimes need to learn to say, we continue to wander through the ancient labyrinth. The Bull-Boss, the Minotaur, is still enthroned at the center, but more and more of his sacrificial victims are learning to defy him, to turn their backs and grope their way out of the hellish space he rules. After all, in the old myth it was a woman, Ariadne, whose thread led the way out of the maze and into the future. Everything didn’t go well for her—there was a problem when Theseus, willingly or not, abandoned her on Naxos—but she recovered, enthusiastically consented to a relationship with Dionysus, and her crown became a constellation.

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Sandra M. Gilbert is the author of nine books of poetry and of Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions. With Susan Gubar, she wrote The Madwoman in the Attic and Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1950-2020.


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