Celebrity activism: Does it help or hurt?

I recently spoke with a woman – I will call her Sally — who has been dealing with ongoing, serious sexual harassment and assault in her workplace. She was very angry, and rightly so: she had used the proper internal channels, including her union; she had gone to the police, and she had gone to the media, all in an attempt to obtain redress for what had happened to her but also to shine a light on her toxic workplace so other women might be spared her experiences.

Sally was angry with her coworkers for not speaking up; with her union for appearing to abandon her; with her employer for its lack of response; with the media for not covering her story.

Different kinds of courage

But her rage, at least on the day she spoke with me, was also directed at what she described as “the beautiful women” who, from her perspective were getting all the attention. 

Sally made it clear that she did not doubt the courage it took for women, even famous ones, to speak out about the sexual violence they had been subjected to. She agreed that what had been done to them was wrong and that the men who had done wrong should be held accountable.

But, she said, they were sucking up all the airspace, which made it harder for women like her, who had more to lose if they spoke publicly about what was happening to them at work. As she told me, she lives paycheque to paycheque. She has no savings to fall back on and cannot afford to take an unpaid leave.

We have just lived through the official awards ceremony season where, whether on-camera or off, this issue made headlines that sometimes surpassed those about the award winners. It’s a good opportunity to think about what all of this media attention to the issue of sexual violence has done or not done in terms of creating a world where all women can live safely and free from the threat and reality of violence and abuse.

Attention, attention!

There is no doubt that this issue is receiving unprecedented attention. Much of the credit for that goes to the group of women who initially spoke out about Harvey Weinstein last fall and those after them who spoke out again and again about the assaultive and harassing behaviours of far too many men in positions of power in the movie, stage, music and televisions industries.

Of course, women have been subjected to sexual harassment and violence since the beginning of time. The slogan “Me Too” was created by Tarana Burke, a Black activist who coined it in 2006 to raise public awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual violence throughout society. But not many people had heard it until it became a hashtag last fall in the flurry of disclosures about celebrity men.

And not many people had heard of Tarana Burke, either, who has since been on the red carpet at the Golden Globe and Academy Awards ceremonies.

It matters

It is important that the individual men who have been named by these women as being sexual assaulters and harassers be held to account for their actions.

It is important to see that rich, famous and beautiful women can be victimized by rich and famous men.

The changes that have been promised by the entertainment industry matter and may make things better for those who work there. We can hope there will be a sprinkler effect, with these changes being implemented in other workplaces as well.

But it is not enough

Sally’s rage has stayed with me. I understand her frustration. She wants to validate the experiences of celebrity women even as she understands all too well how privileged they are compared to her.

She also understands that solutions that work for celebrities may actually interfere in finding solutions that work for her. After all, finding meaningful solutions to sexual violence requires more than the sensationalized and fleeting attention span of the mainstream media can provide.

Sally’s story may not be the stuff of headlines, but it deserves a proper response and resolution just as much as do the stories of women who make the headlines.

How do we bring these two worlds together?

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