Varna Kodoth: We cannot continue to fail our survivors

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 12:59pm

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“Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing. I speak up to make certain that this is not the kind of misconduct that deserves a second chance. I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence.”

This is from the very end of actress Lupita Nyong’o’s op-ed on her one-on-one encounters with producer Harvey Weinstein in The New York Times published back in 2017. I reread it now and then to better understand her story, as it likely shaped her as a woman and actress. Maybe it’s because I feel that I owe her and all the women at least that much. No matter how many times I try to read it I find myself wondering: Where did we fail her? How do we continue to fail every single female warrior who has come forward with their truth? I struggle to read through all the #MeToo stories because I already know the sequence of events that follows extremely vulnerable, courageous acts like Nyong’o’s: The story gains plenty of traction, elicits a strong response (typically more so from women) but then is forgotten over time. Where is the justice in this? It is unimaginably difficult to offer the world your personal story and to speak up about a deeply personal experience. 

More specifically, the female voices stepping forward from the film industry to share their harrowing experiences with Weinstein deserve justice. There’s a power difference between these actresses and Weinstein here that cannot go unnoticed. It’s an unfortunate thematic element of most sexual assault narratives. So let’s call it exactly like it is: Harvey Weinstein is a white, heterosexual established male in a challenging industry who preys on young, early-professional women. It brings to light the disadvantaged position women — and women of color in particular — are placed in from the moment they choose to enter a career in Hollywood.

Every story I read, I am taken aback by the confidence Weinstein presumably held: the very same confidence that drove his ability to mentally manipulate budding stars and to toy with their passions and life paths. Based on the social identities he holds, it is not a coincidence that he also holds dominance in the industry and therefore he is cushioned by his success. The power dynamics are important here because what he did is worse than simply disrespecting women; he disrespected their hard work. It’s the same reason why Weinstein is able to plead not guilty despite the damning evidence and the same reason why he’s comfortable making a public appearance though he is soon to be on trial and faces rape allegations. 

Just the other week, at Rutgers University, a minor was arrested for sneaking into the Livingston dormitory on campus and sexually assaulting a college student. What scares me is that, as I read this, I didn’t feel phased by the story. It wasn’t until I read a follow-up on the case a few days later that I reflected and began to feel disturbed by the young age of the assailant and the fact that this took place in what’s supposed to be a safe, on-campus location with card swipes and security. Stories like this are happening all the time, all over the world, and while there is media coverage of higher-profile situations, it doesn’t seem there are any steps taken to prevent this from happening again and again. This is the crux of the situation. When, and how do we start making strides to fix it?

I particularly struggle to read the Weinstein-related sexual harassment stories because I always wonder how Weinstein changed the feelings of his victims toward their hard-earned work. I learn about the strong women behind the words and I want to help them in the only way that I can: I want their stories to be heard and I want it to be their narrative. Sharing stories is an incredible and powerful practice and I am proud that there are mediums and safe spaces for these stories to be shared, increasingly so in contrast to the rest of the world. Yet, there needs to be a purpose to sharing these stories. There needs to be some reciprocation from the social justice end. 

We cannot afford to let Weinstein slip through the cracks. We cannot let Weinstein re-enter the public sphere. We cannot continuously fail the victims of sexual assault. We cannot continue to only listen to these voices and then not confront reality. The justice system is absolutely failing our victims, but so are we. We must actively support and advocate for the victims, as victims shouldn’t be the only advocates. So until Weinstein goes to trial on Jan. 6, 2020, don’t just sit back and watch what happens. Educate yourself on the allegations, read the victim cases and actively support the survivors who bravely share a piece of themselves with us. 

Varna Kodoth can be reached at vkodoth@umich.edu.