Rape culture and toxic masculinity led to Gretchen Carlson leaving Fox News
Admit it: when Gretchen Carlson announced that she was suing Fox News jefe Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, you did a mental check of what Carlson looked like. Satisfied that a pretty woman like Carlson could have been told by her boss that keeping her job required her performance of sexual acts, you either read further or moved on to another topic, at least satisfied that it could have happened. But what if the charge had been made by a woman who was not conventionally attractive? Would you have suspected that the complainant was making the story up? Because sexual harassment is about sex, right?
The myth exists that a pretty woman who works for a living should just “expect” to be hit on by her boss. In fact, on Carlson’s own Facebook page, she was scolded by some commenters, including this from another woman, “I am disappointed in your ability to handle the situation. If you don’t like the company you are working for, move on. Playing the gender card does not further women’s positions in the workplace. Grow a pair. Business, in general, is a hostile environment. You are going to have to toughen up.”
Besides the obvious irony of telling a woman who is facing sexual harassment to “grow a pair,” the idea that sexual harassment is just an ordinary part of the working environment that women must acclimate to — or else it’s up to them to change jobs — is yet another example of the normalization of rape culture and the poisoning of American culture with toxic masculinity.
While it is easy to think of Brock Turner as the poster boy for toxic masculinity, Roger Ailes and Steve Doocy are prime representatives. In addition to Ailes’ demand for sex, Carlson also says that Doocy created a terrible environment for her because he actively interfered with the performance of her job duties and made remarks that reminded Carlson on a regular basis that Doocy was superior to her by dint of his having been born a man. While Doocy may not have tried to sexually interfere with Carlson, he helped to poison the atmosphere, thus normalizing the idea that women were at Fox News for the benefit of men.
There is a tendency to think that toxic masculinity and rape culture are greater threats to women when they are in college, or perhaps when they are young women. Perhaps some think that the danger to women lessens when they couple up, have children, become domesticated. But our immediate reflex to “check” whether Gretchen Carlson was “pretty” enough to have attracted the attention of Roger Ailes is actually symptomatic of how thoroughly immersed our culture is in the idea that it’s natural for men to hit on women at all times, and it should give us a clue that it’s not just young women who feel its poisonous effects.
The confusion comes from the idea that harassment is about sex. It manifests itself as sex. Rape manifests itself as sex. But sexual harassment is a workplace form of power being exercised. Sexual harassment is a way of erasing a woman’s right to be in the workplace altogether. It is not the same experience as a powerful man demonstrating to a less powerful man that he knows more than the younger/weaker man. Jostling for position is part of the workplace experience. But sexual harassment isn’t out to prove that a man deserves his power because he knows more than his employees; sexual harassment says to female employees that their ability to maintain their jobs is dependent on their willingness to surrender her entire body to the boss. It says to the female employee: your only right to be here is because the boss wants access to your body.
My first experience of sexual harassment was as an undergraduate in college. At the time, one of my friends was working on a political campaign, and the candidate, who was married and had several children, made sexual advances toward her. We were both nineteen. Since then, I have been hit on many times by men who I had hoped were going to teach me something about my craft. Instead, I learned to not draw attention to myself. I only mention this because my experience is so common as to be unremarkable, and yet I can count on the idea that someone will dig up a photo of me in order to argue that there is no way that I could ever attract that sort of attention.
Sexual harassment is like rape in that it is the victim who most often feels responsible for having “caused” it. “Was it something I said?” “Did I wear the wrong thing to work?” When men join the boss after work for a drink, is a woman setting herself up if she also joins in? How many women have stopped mentioning the inappropriate touching and remarks because to do so is to be accused of being “politically correct?”
Rebecca Solnit has been generally credited with giving the English language the term “mansplaining.” But mansplaining is not simply when a man explains something to a woman who puts up with it. First of all, and I have to say this for the deliberately obtuse who will take exception otherwise, it’s not all men. Mansplaining is a combination of overconfidence and cluelessness on the part of some men, and feelings of inferiority on the parts of women. It’s a toxic combination. Solnit makes the argument that the right to speak up for women, to be heard in the workplace, is about more than putting up with being droned at by a bore at a cocktail party. Gretchen Carlson’s inability to be heard by Steve Doocy is directly linked to Roger Ailes’ belief that he was entitled to sleep with her. Silencing women and ownership of their bodies is always connected.
Solnit makes that connection when she wrote a new introduction to her essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.” She writes:
The battle for women to be treated like human beings with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of involvement in cultural and political arenas continues, and it is sometimes a pretty grim battle. When I wrote the essay below, I surprised myself in seeing that what starts out as minor social misery can expand into violent silencing and even violent death. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to women, two Liberians and a Yemeni, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Which is to say, that safety and full participation is only a goal.
This is a struggle that takes place in war-torn nations, but also in the bedroom, the dining room, the classroom, the workplace, and the streets. And in newspapers, magazines, and television, where women are dramatically underrepresented. Even in the online gaming arena women face furious harassment and threats of assault simply for daring to participate. That’s mostly symbolic violence. Real violence, the most extreme form of silencing and destroying rights, takes a far more dire toll in this country where domestic violence accounts for 30 percent of all homicides of women, annually creates about two million injuries, and prompts 18.5 million mental health care visits. It’s in Cairo’s Tahrir Square too, brutal gender violence where freedom and democracy had been claimed.
Gretchen Carlson had her voice taken away from her when she was fired by Roger Ailes for not agreeing to sleep with him. There are some out there who are experiencing a certain level of glee, wondering how it feels now to be a woman employed by Fox News getting the Fox News approach to the world. But I do not take pleasure in another person’s victimization, especially one who will now have to fight to have her claims taken seriously.
Roger Ailes has responded to Carlson’s lawsuit, “vigorously” denying the charges. Ailes alleges that the suit is in retaliation for Carlson’s firing, which Ailes says because Carlson was losing viewers, and her show was “dragging” down the afternoon lineup. Carlson says that Ailes fired her because he told her that she could keep her job if she slept with him, but that she refused. But since the lawsuit was initially filed on July 6, ten additional women have contacted Carlson’s attorneys to say that Ailes treated them in similarly reprehensible manners.