Washington never saw the Donald Trump presidency coming – but Hollywood did
I was eighteen when I heard Margaret Atwood tell an interviewer that none of the details of daily life in her patriarchal dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale—the militarized religious state, the religiously-prescribed and ritualized rape, the policed pregnancy, the enforced prostitution, the absence of basic human autonomy—were made up. These, Atwood asserted in her deadpan, deal-with-it delivery, were all things that had taken place sometime, somewhere in human history, that in some cases were taking place as she spoke. I can only report what happened next, cliché or not, because the hair actually did stand up on the back of my neck.
When we talk about “feminist awakening”—or any political awakening, really—the emotion that’s often being awakened is panic. It’s the feeling of being abruptly and extremely destabilized, as if a rug is pulled out from underneath you and you realize there hasn’t been a floor this whole time.
In early 2012, in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, I began to experience again that same panicked where’s-the-floor-gone sensation. The American culture wars had allowed for many a self-satisfied Canadian chuckle over the last decade or so, but now, watching former moderate turned Stepford Tea-Partier Mitt Romney closing in on the presidency—avowing his abrupt desire to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood, and declining to tell a reporter whether or not he supported equal pay for women—my once secure-feeling seat on the sidelines of Tea Party America was starting to feel a bit too close to the battlefield for comfort. It felt as if almost overnight a real patriarchal madness was hitting top gear in the nation next door. Every day seemed to deliver a fresh outrage: rape apologism, slut-shaming, more rape apologism, and not just from the neo-con bullhorns on television, but from senators and congressmen. New laws based on medically-illiterate suppositions about women’s bodies were being proposed and, in some cases, passed. Protestors took to the streets brandishing signs that trumpeted not high-blown rhetoric, but basic, exasperated facts: “Women vote!” and “This is 2012!”
Witnessing the co-ordinated attacks on Planned Parenthood, I realized how mad it was that I was considering sending money to women fighting for their rights in the wealthiest, most powerful democracy in the world. In the early 2000s, I was supporting women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, fuelled by precisely the same female unease: There but for the grace of God…
This realization was followed by the news that a pro-life, pro-gun rights judge in Texas had all but declared pre-emptive civil war if Obama was elected to a second term. “I’m not talking just riots here and there. I’m talking take up arms, get rid of the dictator.” Next came the news that a militia group arrested in Seattle had stockpiled hundreds of thousands of dollars of military-grade weapons to overthrow the Obama government.
It would be easy to dismiss these as isolated incidences of lunacy. Except one was a judge. Except every news day demonstrated that lunatics can buy guns as easily as gumballs in the United States. Except that just over the border there were men and women with the power to pass laws saying inflammatory, violent, shockingly anti-democratic things from sea to shining sea.
Except that it began to feel as if the better part of the lunacy was directed at women.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, the narrator, didn’t head for the hills when she should have. One day, whispered a deadpan, deal-with-it voice in my head, her credit cards were all cancelled and her bank accounts were closed, and the next thing she knows the tanks are in the streets and she’s a brood mare for God and country.
No rug. No floor. Now, I felt, might be the time to panic.
But wait—it turned out the floor was still there. Obama was re-elected, the Tea Party came out of the election at an all-time low in the polls and even the GOP appears to be starting to recognize that extreme social conservatism is lowering the party into a grave. But what was that, exactly? Those seismic tremors down south? Those bellowing, gnashing noises that reverberated world-wide, that nearly shook the continent apart? Something culturally significant happened through, if not because of, the US election of 2012.
What we witnessed, it seems to me, were death throes—the kind of violent spasms to be expected when the (once) most powerful creatures of the land come to a tail-thrashing demise. What we saw was nothing less than the beginning of the end of the patriarchy in the United States, an evolution that surely had to be inevitable for any nation calling itself a democracy. Of course, the world’s most powerful democracy also happens to be the land of fervent evangelical Christianity, the Koch brothers, and Superpacs—a landscape where the patriarchy’s power and influence has traditionally been greatest. Hence the violence of the beast’s death.
Sure, roll your eyes: The very idea of the patriarchy provokes eye-rolls. After all, today a “patriarch”is an innately cartoonish figure, like the Monopoly man in his top hat and monocle. Caricaturize as ruthlessly as you like and what do you come up with? A fat, rich, powerful, loud buffoon. Oblivious to his privilege, a moral hypocrite. An ex-wife collector, who yet deplores how the venerable institution of marriage has been besmirched in these dark times. A glass of scotch in one hand, the obligatory phallic symbol cigar in the other, bloviating from his comfy perch.
But of course it’s not a caricature; in fact, it’s a real person. Rush Limbaugh, the man who fired the shot heard round the world in the conflict that’s come to be called the War on Women. And what a poorly aimed and anachronistic shot it was, having wound up in the proverbial patriarchal foot.
It was in 2007 that the panic—the patriarchal panic, that is—kicked into high gear, when a woman and an African-American emerged as the top two Democratic presidential contenders. This historical first electrified the race with the collective thrill that comes from witnessing a decisive turn of history’s wheel. Barack Obama was chosen as the Democratic candidate, and then voted into office on a wave of exhilaration experienced across the globe. The two words that came to be associated with his campaign were “Hope” and “Change” and everyone seemed to understand instinctively the kind of change Americans—and invested onlookers—were hoping for. Namely, a country no longer run by and for the white male elite.
That was 2008. Once a population has experienced progress on such a visible, influential scale, a layer of cynicism and defeatism gets scrubbed away, or so we like to hope. Universal suffrage, the emancipation of the slaves, the fall of the Berlin Wall—doors open in our minds, light floods in. The political fight at such points always shifts from the effort it took to pry those doors open in the first place, to the struggle to keep them open and opening wider. Which brings us back to 2012, to a struggle that turned out to be by no means over, and to three social issues that relate to the patriarchy and which are in different stages of cultural evolution: abortion, rape, and the female presence on the internet.
The patriarchal skirmishes of the 2012 U.S. election can be traced back to the abrupt onslaught of legislative attacks on women’s health and reproductive rights that took place, according to the president of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards, “the day after” the Tea Party swept the mid-term elections. Planned Parenthood itself, an organization once lauded by Barry Goldwater, was suddenly public enemy number one according to the GOP. Things steamrolled from there, cumulating in a much-mocked congressional hearing on the subject of insurance coverage for birth control—a hearing to which no representatives of the birth-control taking population were invited. A hearing from which one such representative, Sandra Fluke, was rudely turned away.
And this is where we return to Rush Limbaugh and his ineptly aimed shot heard round the world. There was something about the Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke and her poised, articulate testimony that tipped Limbaugh, and his entire patriarchal club, into a frenzy. Six days after Fluke spoke at an alternative hearing, Limbaugh took to the airwaves in high dudgeon. Fluke, he insisted, had testified that she wanted to “be paid to have sex.” He then uttered his now-famous summation: “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”
Fluke had simply testified about a friend who lost an ovary as the result of being denied insurance coverage for contraceptive pills.
Despite widespread condemnation and a looming mass advertising boycott, Limbaugh’s ire was not to be restrained. He ranted for three full days about Sandra Fluke on his show, exclaiming, “She’s having so much sex it’s amazing she can still walk!”
In her book, Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America, Nancy L. Cohen examines how sexual hysteria has hijacked American conservative politics in recent decades. She begins her story with the arrival of the contraceptive pill in 1965, demonstrating how the new era of sexual freedom led directly to the women’s and gay liberation movements. “Although it is easy to grasp why ‘women’s lib’ and gays coming out of the closet might have ticked off a lot of people,” writes Cohen in her opening chapter, “it is hard to imagine how it could have sparked the delirium that has consumed American politics for four decades.”
The “sexual counter-revolution” started not in response to Roe vs. Wade, says Cohen, but as a conservative backlash against the Pill. The new sexual freedoms the Pill represented ran counter to cherished patriarchal ideals about the family, exposing it as “a petty tyranny,” and setting “itself against fundamental assumptions about American culture.” Assumptions such as the idea that women (well-bred women, at least) were indifferent to sexual pleasure, or that their natural and preferred domain was at home with children. More than a generation later, in his nonsensical leap from insurance-covered contraception to sluts and prostitutes, Rush Limbaugh was merely reframing the original patriarchal panic attack over women’s sexual freedom.
Late in 2012, after the U.S. election, I called Cohen at her home. I was feeling suffused with relief and elation at the decisive Republican defeat, but still shaken by the woman-hating leading up to it. In 2012 alone, by way of example, congressional Republicans introduced an astounding sixty-seven bills that focused squarely on restricting legal access to abortion. Matters were even worse at the state level, with forty-three new restrictions enacted in nineteen states, the one most resonant of The Handmaid’s Tale being a Virginia “informed consent” bill that conveniently left out the consent.
This bill in particular warrants detailed examination. In the online magazine Slate, Dahlia Lithwick wrote about the bill, which mandated transvaginal (meaning, internal) ultrasounds prior to a woman receiving an abortion. An amendment had been proposed before the bill was passed, Lithwick noted, specifying that women would have to give their written consent to an internal ultrasound if that was what their doctor determined was necessary to obtain images of the fetus—essentially allowing them to opt-out of being penetrated unnecessarily—but this amendment was voted down. Therefore, wrote Lithwick, “the law provides that women seeking an abortion in Virginia will be forcibly penetrated for no medical reason. I am not the first person to note that under any other set of facts, that would constitute rape under the federal definition.”
Eventually the Virginia law was amended due to media attention and public outcry (including counter-amendments tabled by female legislators that would have done Jonathan Swift proud, such as one requiring men have rectal exams before they could get prescriptions for erectile dysfunction medication). Women would still have to sit through unnecessary ultrasounds, but at least now would not be penetrated. The dystopian irony here is that it meant the mandated procedure was not just medically unnecessary, but pointless; external ultrasounds produce no images in the early stages of pregnancy. These legislated ultrasounds, then, were pure theatre—a legally-enforced ritual straight out of an Atwood-inspired nightmare.
This was all icing on the large and unappetizing cake being served by the Tea Party in the lead-up to the 2012 election. But the Democratic victory in November did stand as a decisive repudiation of their policy menu. Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times that defeated Republican candidate Mitt Romney had “resoundingly won the election of the country he was wooing…white male America,” noting, as did others, that the 2012 election featured the largest gender gap in history. The feminist website Jezebel credited “team rape,” Todd Akin, and a cadre of other gaffe-prone Republicans for making such a mess of the abortion issue that they actually helped to increase support for abortion rights across the United States.
When I called Cohen, she told me she was still in the process of getting her thoughts together, post-election. As an expert on sexual delirium in American politics she had been much in demand leading up to perhaps its most delirious political race to date. Recalling the images of women protestors holding signs that read, “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit!” I asked Cohen how America could have come so ridiculously close to turning back the clock to the days when sex was, in her own words, “risky, dangerous and, in many situations, completely illegal.”
“The Tea Party has always operated under the radar,” Cohen told me. For all its avowed obsession with taxes and the economy, it’s telling that the highest-profile Tea Party candidates tend to be anti-abortion and anti-gay rights evangelical Christians—what Cohen calls the newest generation of “sexual counterrevolutionaries.”
“That’s their pattern,” says Cohen. “When they’re losing, they tend to rebrand themselves as something other than the religious right.”
Many pundits have expressed bafflement that, despite clear evidence that the Republican “war on women” was in large part responsible for the defeat of the GOP, Tea Party Republicans have by no means powered down their war machine. In a late November editorial, the New York Times took Republicans to task for stonewalling the Violence Against Women Act, patiently explaining how heartless such indifference to women’s suffering was making the party look, especially in the wake of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks, and asking, “Is that really what Republicans want to stand for?” Why, we might well wonder, isn’t the GOP leadership doing an about face on women’s issues now that it has proven to be their Achilles Heel?
Because, says Cohen, their goal is not to win the hearts and minds of the American public. Nor has it ever been. “These people are ideologues bordering on theocrats. The war on women was never a distraction—it was a main issue for them.”
In other words, it’s not so much about winning over public opinion as it is about achieving an overarching theocratic agenda. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s vendetta against Planned Parenthood illustrates Cohen’s point. He has scrap-ped the federally-funded Women’s Health Program and created a new program of the same name, state-funded, for no reason other than to keep Planned Parenthood out, leaving over fifty thousand uninsured women in need of a new primary care doctor. Perry turned down federal money and absorbed the costs of creating this new program. This is not a politician hoping to win hearts and minds across a spectrum. This is someone playing to his (largely evangelical) base.
Accordingly, hearts and minds across that broad spectrum have indeed not been won. Americans have shown themselves to be in full revolt against the old-school patriarchal values the Tea Party represents. A Washington Post/ABC News poll noted that socialism is currently pulling more favourable numbers than the Tea Party. On the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade last January, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that for the first time in its history, a majority of Americans supported legalized abortion.
One of the common tropes of discussing Canadian identity is contrast with the United States: we’re like them, but not like them. Certainly, the abortion issue—which is so central to analyzing and understanding the path of the patriarchy—was as wrenching for Canadians as it currently is in the U.S. before abortion was decriminalized here in 1988. Since then, the procedure has been regulated only by the Canada Health Act and, following a brief but horrific spate of anti-abortion violence between 1994 and 2000 (where, among other incidents, three doctors in three different provinces came under sniper fire), Canadians seem to have decisively lost their taste for the debate.
Occasionally, however—and increasingly during Stephen Harper’s leadership—a weather balloon gets sent up in Parliament. In 2012, a balloon was launched by the Conservative backbencher Stephen Woodworth, who tabled a motion that called for a special committee to determine when life begins—in essence, opening the door to Canadian personhood legislation.
During the run up to the American election, Planned Parenthood employed a new slogan meant as a warning to right-wing politicians: “Women are Watching.” Women were watching in Canada, too—clearly the machinations taking place in the U.S. sent people such as myself into hypervigilance. Woodworth’s motion 312 was pounced upon as a none-too-subtle effort to put the criminalization of abortion back on the table, making headlines and sparking protests and petitions from the moment it was put forth.
Harper told the media he did not support the motion—one of his explicit election vows being that he would not re-open the abortion debate. Nonetheless, he allowed a free vote on the motion, an action NDP opposition leader Thomas Mulcair called Harper’s “backdoor way of signaling to (his) base.” The motion was voted down 203-91, as predicted, but eight Conservative cabinet ministers, and nearly half the party’s caucus, voted in its favour, including Rona Ambrose, the Minister for the Status of Women.
The weather balloon deflated and fell back to earth, but perhaps the true impact of having launched it in the first place was realized a few months later when the National Post conducted a poll asking 1,735 randomly selected Canadians over the age of eighteen when abortion should be legal. Researchers were startled when a full sixty percent of those polled replied, “Always.” Only a year previously, that number had been fifty-one percent. Stephen Woodworth was credited with having entrenched public opinion in favour of legalized abortion. Not to mention that his motion was “happening alongside a U.S. election campaign in which abortion played a very prominent, contentious part,” as the National Post’s Matt Gurney observed. “Canadians seem to have responded by becoming even more pro-choice.”
Alberta, my home province, is typically viewed as the Canadian hotbed of U.S.-style social conservative values, but the 2012 provincial election threw that stereotype into question. When the “bozo eruptions” of extreme-right Wild Rose Party candidates began leaking into the media—one candidate talked about the “advantage” of being caucasian, another (an evangelical pastor) blogged about gays “burning in a lake of fire”—the Wild Rose landslide predicted in the polls was reversed, and the Conservative Party, with its first female leader in history, continued its forty-one-year power monopoly, taking sixty-one seats to the Wild Rose’s seventeen.
“The lesson here,” the National Post quoted strategist Goldy Hyder as saying, “is that the Alberta voter, and certainly the Canadian voter, has decided that issues that have already been settled are best left alone.” Canada’s conservative newspaper of record went on to sound the death knell for social conservatism in this country, pronouncing it “an electorally toxic Pandora’s Box.”
“Rape is having a moment.”
When I Googled that exact phrase to look up a story on Salon.com this past January, I was surprised, albeit not particularly shocked, to notice how many other instances of it came up. At the time, it was undeniable that sexual violence had become high profile. The first wave came as a result of international shock in response to a gang rape in India. And then, closer to home in Ohio, a story about high school football players allegedly toting an unconscious teenage girl from party to party and sexually assaulting her.
Prior to this, I had been corresponding with writer Kate Harding a pioneering feminist blogger whose book about rape, Asking for It, will be published in 2013. She also maintains a Tumblr called “Don’t Get Raped,” a wry commentary on the pervasive idea that it’s a woman’s job to prevent her own rape, as opposed to being the responsibility of a civil society.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to be Kate Harding in present-day western culture, arduously documenting every instance of not just rape but the attitudes towards it we encounter every day—a premiere example of this being the incident that sparked the international phenomenon of Slutwalk, in which a Toronto police officer told a group of female university students, as a part of a rape prevention talk, that they should avoid “dressing like sluts.” It seemed to me that Harding had given herself perhaps the most miserable job in the world.
“Yes, it’s really hard to be optimistic right now,” admitted Harding in an e-mail dialogue. The story of the football players and the unconscious girl from Steubenville, Ohio had particularly appalled her. The narrative of sports-playing golden boys sexually assaulting women with impunity is one that Harding sees played out over and over again in her research. “It keeps happening and we keep pretending there’s no pattern.”
This may be true, but Steubenville is itself an example of how the pattern has recently shifted, thanks in large part to the internet and social media. The internet has profoundly altered the conversation about rape, and maybe even its prosecution and punishment. It’s unlikely the Steubenville case would have made international news if not for social media. It began with tweets from party-going bystanders and the football players themselves that featured such insights as, “Song of the night is clearly Rape Me by Nirvana.” A photo of two boys carrying an unconscious girl by her arms and feet was posted on Instagram.
The tweets and the photo were quickly deleted, but enough were captured in screenshots and posted by a crusading blogger that the case exploded online. Soon it was picked up by the New York Times, and hit the blogs in earnest, becoming impossible to sweep under the rug, as some prominent members of the local community had been accused of attempting to do.
The most notable of these accusers was the online hacker group Anonymous, which swept in like avenging superheroes, launching an online campaign to expose the putative cover-up and initiating Occupy Steubenville, a watchdog-cum-protest movement. Someday someone will write a story about how Anonymous appears to have appointed itself Anti-Sexism Sheriff of Internet Town, stepping in when suicidal girls are being goaded by Twitter-trolls and launching an online attack on “revenge porn” merchants like Hunter Moore (the creator of the website “Is Anyone Up?” which posted photos and videos of women who had not consented to having their images online). Anonymous’s crusade marks the current high point of an increasing online resistance to, and backlash against, sexism both virtual and IRL (in real life).
Slutwalk is yet another example of this increasing resistance. While the mindset exemplified by the Toronto police officer’s words was telling and depressing, the movement it sparked in response has been awe-inspiring, and it is clearly a movement that would not have, could not have, spread so quickly and immediately without the connective power of social media. In the space of a year, a protest that started in Queen’s Park has been multiplied exponentially from India to Hong Kong to Australia.
In fact, it now seems clear that social media has taken over from the consciousness-raising groups of the Sixties as the new space for women to share thoughts, validate experiences, and mobilize for change. Back in 2005, the website Holla Back was one of the first sites to flex the power of collective female outrage, allowing women to post stories and photos depicting incidents of everyday street harassment. One of the most dispiriting things about sexism in daily life is the feeling of isolation it imparts—the idea that the entire culture is mobilized against you. Holla Back blew apart that isolation, giving women a graphic document proving how ubiquitous street harassment is while providing a sense of solidarity with other sufferers.
“I think a lot of what we’re seeing (on the internet) now,” says Harding, “is women who have been keeping their mouth shut for years finally going I’VE HAD ALL I CAN STANDS AND I CAN’T STANDS NO MORE! But I do think the courage to do that comes from seeing how bad it is for other women.”
Late in 2012, a Twitter meme initiated by women in the gaming industry called #1ReasonWhy became a phenomenon—tech and gaming being two bastions of male ‘brogrammer’ culture. But tech is also a young person’s industry, meaning an entire generation of female twenty-somethings entering the field are experiencing good-old fashioned sexism first hand and are, unsurprisingly, not standing for it. The #1ReasonWhy hashtag is just one of thousands of such memes being used to fight discrimination worldwide (in Germany recently an anti-sexism hashtag called #aufschrei (outcry) sent the popular media into a soul-searching tailspin). #1ReasonWhy arose inresponse to a male Kickstarter employee innocuously asking on Twitter: “Why are there so few lady game creators?”
“Because I’m told designing games to my POV is ‘niche’ … while male oriented design is ‘normal’,” tweeted one obviously female responder. “Because every disclosure of harassment feels like risking never being hired again,” posted another. Within twenty-four hours of the question being posed, thousands of women had responded in this vein and the hashtag made national news.
Another instance of online mobilization came in the early days of 2012 when the largest and best-known breast cancer research organization in the United States, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, blindsided its supporters by announcing it would be cutting its funding to Planned Parenthood. The online backlash Komen suffered following this announcement was so immediate and scathing that in the space of two days, Komen reversed its decision. Its once spotless corporate image has yet to recover.
For a long time, and for many of its users, the idea of the web as a safe, affirming place for women would have elicited cynical laugher. Women with blogs, high profile women on Twitter, and women in business, politics and tech with an active online presence have long been targeted and in many cases hounded off the internet by misogynist online campaigns.
This tendency started to be noticed around 2007, culminating with the case of Kathy Sierra, a technology blogger who eventually felt compelled to shut down her blog and cancel public appearances in response to an onslaught of anonymous death and rape threats she received courtesy of online trolls—who also took care to publish her address and social security number. It wasn’t as if Sierra had avowed her belief in white supremacy or pronounced herself a child pornographer. Her only transgression was what Kate Harding identified as “the crime of writing while female.” That is, she was a female writing authoritatively about the tech industry.
Harding was one of the first to tackle this phenomenon on her blog, Shapely Prose, in a post that she says ended up being one of the most highly trafficked things she has ever published. Harding noted how the conversation about Sierra’s harassment seemed dominated by those who condemned the attacks, but ultimately thought she should suck it up. Harding paraphrased the attitude as: “Hey, Welcome to the Internet, Sport!” She was startled by how many of her male correspondents seemed to have no idea of the depth and virulence of the abuse women with online presences have had to endure.
“I didn’t realize,” she told me, “how much [they] were invested in believing, a) men and women get exactly the same volume and nature of flack online, b) online harassment and abuse is basically meaningless, so the right thing to do is ignore it, and, c) if you don’t ignore it, if you dare to call it out as a real problem, you just don’t understand how the internet works.”
Harding was one of the first to insist that online harassment was a women’s issue, and needed to be repudiated continuously and vociferously. That thinking has since taken hold online, and it’s illuminating to consider how far we’ve come since Kathy Sierra. The 2012 version is Anita Sarkeesian, a woman who might as well have had troll-bait written all over her from the moment she appeared on the web. Sarkeesian, who produced a video blog about sexism in pop culture called Feminist Frequency, launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to raise funds to make a documentary exploring gender tropes in video games (here picture that bait being lowered into the shark tank).
The backlash was immediate and nasty, reminiscent of that which Kathy Sierra received. Not only did Sarkeesian attract the obligatory death and rape threats, she also had her YouTube page, Wikipedia page, and webpage hacked and defaced in various threatening and pornographic ways.
But what distinguishes the attack on Sarkeesian from the one on Sierra is the pushback in response to the pushback. Online supporters flocked to Sarkeesian’s virtual side. The campaign to threaten her into silence was outed everywhere from Slate to Gamespot.com to the New York Times, and donations poured into her Kickstarter account. At the height of the hostilities, a Canadian named Ben Spurr created an online game allowing users to virtually “punch Anita Sarkeesian in the face.” Spurr’s identity was tracked down by Stephanie Guthrie, another Canadian, who promptly “sic(ed) the internet on him” via Twitter; now it was Spurr who had to defend himself against a mob of online adversaries. Guthrie, naturally, received her share of death and rape threats, which she promptly reported to the police. “The internet has become a place where these views have been able to fester and flower,” Guthrie told me when I spoke to her recently. Like countless others watching the Sarkeesian attack, Guthrie had had enough and acted on it.
In 2007, we were arguing about whether or not Kathy Sierra should have sucked it up. In 2012, the prevailing
wisdom changed from “don’t feed the trolls” to “chase down and expose the trolls.” Like Planned Parenthood reaping public support in the backlash against Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Anita Sarkeesian not only raised awareness of sexism online and in the gaming industry, but raised her Kickstarter fundraising goal of $6,000 within twenty-four hours—and then went on to raise $15,297 more.
There’s a feeling of a patriarchal endgame in the air. Ireland—so long the Catholic-dominated holdout of western democracies—is for the first time since 1992 debating its abortion laws. The horrific, lingering death suffered by Savita Halappanavar last October for want of an abortion in an Irish hospital led to public outrage, mass protests and calls for action that could no longer be ignored by those in power. Pope Benedict XVI, that last old-school patriarch, roused himself just before announcing his retirement to utter a condemnation of the potential new legislation, which pro-choice groups and Halappanavar’s parents are proposing should be called “Savita’s Law.”
The patriarchal grip has been so difficult to shake off because it’s had so many centuries to establish its hold on us. But real change is evident. According to Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book The End of Men (and the Rise of Women), women are making great inroads into the legal, medical and business professions and it is only a matter of time before the workplace starts to reflect this.
Historian Stephanie Coontz, however, disagrees with Rosin’s central premise that all these signs point to “the end of men.” What we are seeing, Coontz recently wrote, “is a convergence in economic fortunes, not female ascendance.” What is actually in decline, she says, is “institutionalized patriarchy” and “the tolerance for the forcible assertion of male privilege.”
Canada, as we know, has an unprecedented six female premiers, one of whom is openly gay. In his second term inauguration speech, Barack Obama evoked the phrase “gay rights”—another historical first, another door flung open to let in the light. These are real changes.
Not that the endgame is quite finished. Take our real-life caricature, Rush Limbaugh. He has his devotees, as steadfast as ever. But the hit Limbaugh took following his remarks about Sandra Fluke had real repercussions, not just for his own show but for the entire genre of right-wing talk radio and, therefore, right-wing culture. According to MediaMatters.org, Limbaugh’s words not only did “incalculable damage to his brand,” but led radio advertisers to reassess altogether the wisdom of associating themselves with a figure capable of provoking such a powerful consumer backlash. An internal memo revealed that 141 advertisers had requested their ads no longer be played during Limbaugh’s program. Programs similar to Limbaugh’s in tone, content, and philosophy—with hosts such as Mike Savage, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity—were alluded to as well.
Could all this mean curtains for the patriarchy? Perhaps not yet. But one thing seems certain: society is no longer buying what these men are selling.
• Lynn Coady is a co-founder of Eighteen Bridges an a Giller Prize-winning author.