I remember a woman who screamed like a feral animal. She was leather tan and sinewy. Spiked bleached blonde hair, sculpted biceps, low-slung cargo pants with Doc Martens, veins bursting from her neck, eyes bugging from her drawn face.
She stood on the sidewalks of New York City with a folding table covered with poster-size images from hardcore pornography: women wearing dog collars, women on leashes, women leaned over and viewed from behind, their backs crosshatched with scars. Much of the time she displayed a blowup of the famous Hustler magazine cover showing a naked woman being fed upside down into a meat grinder.
“This is what your husbands are masturbating to,” she shouted in a barking monotone. “Wake up, women! Don’t be passive! Sign the petition!”
Most everyone turned away or just kept walking. This was back in 1990. I was 20.
To be 20 years old in 1990 in New York City was, as far as I was concerned, to own the world. I owned practically nothing of material value back then, but somehow this was all part of a magical transaction in which I knew I’d eventually get ahead even if it seemed, for the moment, like I could barely keep up. The city was still a wild kingdom, a stone-and-steel fortress with rage burning inside. The crack epidemic was long under way and also a long way from ending. Aids was everywhere – ravaging the bodies of the visibly ill and beckoning from public service announcements that preached condoms or death. The graffiti was only beginning to come off the subway cars.
Every man, woman and, yes, many children (including those commuting to fancy prep schools) had been mugged or knew someone who had. Every woman knew what it was like to be creepily rubbed against by some dude in a crowded space, and when this happened many of us either jammed our elbows into his abdomen or rolled our eyes and moved away.
One time, as I walked down a mostly empty Columbus Avenue around midnight, a man walked up to me – a redheaded, bearded man perhaps 10 years my senior – reached his hand out, and shoved me just below my left collarbone. It was a fairly hard shove, and I almost lifted my arm to shove him back. Instead, the moment passed and I just looked at him in disgust and confusion as we both continued along our way. I remember feeling grateful that the situation hadn’t escalated into anything worse.
What I don’t remember is connecting the incident to anything like what would now be called institutionalized misogyny. This was not systemic oppression of women. This was simply life in the big city.
Today, the angry, ranting woman with the folding table is gone from the sidewalk. In her place are millions of angry women marching in the streets and, even more so, ranting online. We are tiny pixels coalescing into a giant portrait of rage in all its definitions.
Twenty years after the redheaded man shoved me on Columbus Avenue, men were going down like bowling pins against the unstoppable forces of #MeToo. What could you call the fall of 2017 other than the Fall of the Fall of Man. It was a season of hurricanes and rapid soil erosion, namely the mudslide that began with Harvey Weinstein and quickly pulled more men down with it than anyone could reasonably keep up with.
Or maybe that’s the wrong metaphor. Maybe it wasn’t a mudslide as much as a giant oil spill from the tanker on which contemporary western society had been carrying its assumptions about male behavior. Like fossil fuels themselves, this behavior had long been construed as a necessary evil, one for which any purported cure seemed as futile and flimsy as a reusable shopping bag. (Hit him with your stiletto if he gets handsy! Make him get in touch with his feelings! Pry his eyes open and force him to read the Scum Manifesto!)
I’m not going to even try to summarize the events of that fall or list the men who went down in the spill of #MeToo. Entire books will be written about that movement, the best of which probably can’t be embarked upon until enough years have passed to allow authors even a modicum of perspective. What I can tell you about the fall of 2017 is that it coincided with a downward slope of my youth that was far steeper than I had any grasp of at the time.
The autumn of 2017 marked my second year back in New York City after being away for the better part of two decades, most of it in California. Though I’d left California in 2015 in the wake of irremediable, if mercifully amicable, marital separation, it had taken nearly two years to officially get divorced, and this new status carried a sting whose effects sometimes proved paralytic. How could I have imagined that replacing the license plates on your car could feel like a death? (Somehow I’d managed to keep my car registered in California until the last possible minute.) Who knew that shopping for a new health insurance policy could make you feel like you’re on a plastic pool raft floating aimlessly in the Dead Sea? (OK, I guess everyone knows that.)
I’d left New York when I was nearly 30. I was now 47. Whereas my chief experience of the city was that of a young woman, I was now faced with re-entering it as a middle-aged one.
It wasn’t just that I had been young in New York; New York was my youth. It was the place where I’d spent my entire 20s. It was the place where I figured out what kind of person I wanted to be. That’s a different thing from actually figuring out how to be that person, and it took leaving New York to accomplish that task, but as they like to say in California, setting your intention is the most important phase of the journey.
New York was the backdrop for my earliest triumphs and stupidities. It was the first and last place I ever lived where on any given night you could step outside and feel like absolutely anything could happen, that the course of your life could shift like a subway train switching from the local track to the express.
It was the place where I had my first real job, my first grown-up boyfriend, my first martini, my first call from a debt collector, my first call from a hospital pay phone telling me someone was in serious trouble. It was the site of my earliest rough drafts and rough treatments, the ones visited upon me as well as the ones I inflicted on others. Now that I had returned, it was as if my 20s were being handed back to me in used condition. What a strange remnant to hold in your hand; what a bittersweet walk down memory’s plank.
Here I was again, a girl alone and on the town. I was my most primordial self, a girl who was rabidly ambitious in some ways but inexplicably lazy in others. I was a girl who technically hadn’t been a girl for the better part of 30 years but who nonetheless felt a strange remove from the word “woman”, which seemed to convey a poise and seriousness I hadn’t yet attained.
I may have been in my mid-40s, but I was still all jokes and hammy self-deprecation, still unable to accept compliments, still flirting with men by defaulting to my best Diane Keaton in Manhattan impression, even though it had been decades since I was attracted to the kind of men who were attracted to that.
I was all the things I’d been when I was young except for the young part. I had a nicer apartment, a little more money, and a little more professional recognition. I had a dog (this I’d longed for in my 20s the way some women long for babies) and a car that I had to move for alternate-side street cleaning. But my days were more or less the same. I sat at my desk and drank coffee. I did my work when I could, but more often I stared into space and wondered what would become of my life. I surfed the internet at a connection speed that would have been unimaginable in 1995.
In part because of that connection speed, the space I stared into most of the time wasn’t my own physical space but some unholy rotation of social media, news media and floating junk courtesy of cyberspace. By the time Donald Trump entered office, I probably spent at least three-quarters of my waking hours with my head in this space. By the time #MeToo reached full force, my brain no longer felt connected to my body. At times, my brain no longer felt associated with my brain as I’d once known it. There were moments in which I couldn’t remember the names of people I’d been acquainted with for years.
In intense, animated conversations with friends and colleagues, I’d find myself revving up to some sort of grand insight and then suddenly sputtering out mid-sentence, like a rollercoaster propelled halfway up a loop but unable to make it all the way around. Bunched up in my desk chair, I would stare at the computer screen for hours, hunting for words as though tracking lions on safari and practically sweating from the exertion. More than a few times I wondered if I was experiencing some form of dementia.
I once read that there’s scientific proof of a correlation between increased nostalgia and creeping senility. And since returning to New York, I’d been soaking in nostalgia. Everywhere I went, my 20s played in my head like a song stuck there permanently. Every neighborhood, every subway station, in some areas every street corner, echoed with some memory from that time. There was John’s pizzeria on Bleecker, where, at 21 and playing hooky from college upstate, I sat with a man – a boy, really – who both was and wasn’t my boyfriend and listened to him reminisce about his old girlfriend, who, he said, was “sexy without being pretty, if that makes any sense”.
There, among the slabs of buildings of Midtown Sixth Avenue, were the offices of more temp jobs than I could count: banks, law firms, insurance companies, each with its own mini kitchen and passcode-protected employee restrooms. There, at 57th and Broadway is a Duane Reade pharmacy that was once Coliseum Books, a place where the feral woman had often stood and yelled: “Sign the petition!”
I remember being dumped on Delancey Street, kissed on Charles Street, having a strange and short-lived personal assistant job in a musty apartment on Sutton Place.
I remember standing on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street as hail rained down like shellfire one summer night following a long, somewhat drunken dinner with an older man in a powerful position whose meal invitations I dreaded but nonetheless felt obliged to accept.
Those meals had started out as business lunches but then migrated into semi-business dinners. During these dinners, the man would tell me certain details about his personal life, which was in a state of acute crisis. I didn’t particularly want to be there but I accepted the invitations because there was in this transaction the implicit notion that he could help my career, albeit in a rather vague, abstract way. I accepted them so because not doing so felt like a kind of professional self-sabotage, as foolish and irresponsible as missing deadlines.
At no time did the man make an ultimatum or proposition me directly. I never felt like I was being sexually harassed and obviously no one was kidnapping me from my apartment and forcibly escorting me to the Oyster Bar, where the man would sit waiting for me, smoking probably the fourth of 15 cigarettes he’d smoke that night. I’ll cop to a certain psychological gamesmanship on my part as well. I’d occasionally bum a cigarette from him, an act that gave me a sense of distance and control but that surely read to him as an intimate gesture.
At least a few times, after I probably had one too many glasses of wine, I became rather suggestive and flirtatious, inquiring into his personal life, seeing how much I could get him to disclose as he got drunker. I did this in part as a defense mechanism. The more we talked about him, the less we talked about me. But I also did it because I wanted to mess with his head, and I was young enough then to think that doing so would serve as some kind of tacit punishment for his behavior.
The truth, of course (which anyone but a young twerp would have the wisdom to realize), was that messing with his head was its own reward for him. I wasn’t censuring his behavior as much as reinforcing it. As for my own, I’ve been cringing about it ever since.
Looking back, it would be easy to say I behaved like this out of some instinctive subordination to the man’s power. There’s an element of truth to that, but there’s also an angle at which the situation could be viewed as quite the opposite. From this angle, I behaved the way I did because in some ways the power imbalance between the two of us was tipped in my favor.
I was young and the man was twice my age. He may have had professional power over me, but it was limited and in no way unilateral. In fact, thanks to the personal details I’d siphoned out of him, I probably could have placed one phone call and made his life very difficult. And so I carried on with my coquettishness until somehow the meals became fewer and farther between and then finally ended, probably because he took up with someone else. I carried on this way because my life was an open horizon and his was an overstuffed attic.
I behaved this way because I must have known on some unconscious level that, at 25, I had more of a certain kind of power than I was ever going to have in my life and that I might as well use it, even if the accompanying rush was laced with shame.
This was the summer of 1995. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill had come out that June, and I listened to it pretty much on constant repeat through August. One night, after doing my silly routine with this man and riding the subway home in self-disgust, I sat in my room and played Jagged Little Pill and then wandered into the kitchen to talk to my roommate. I remember grumbling to her about my dinner companion, complaining about his lechery while conveniently omitting the parts when I’d dramatically exhaled on my cigarette, looked him straight in the eye, and said something devastatingly witty and possibly a tiny bit dirty. (I’d like to add that I winked, but that wouldn’t past the truth test, since I’m physically unable to wink.)
Instead I said: “God, what a perv.”
“Sounds annoying,” my roommate said. “But hey, you keep showing up. You must be getting something out of it.”
During the Fall of the Fall of Man, I thought a lot about the showing up I’d done over the years. Every woman seemed to be taking this kind of inventory. It was like a novel everyone was reading, one with a plot that seemed easy enough to follow but whose underlying themes and messages amount to an abstruse thicket of personal projection and postmodern obfuscation.
Like any sentient being, I’d been shocked and disgusted by the Weinstein revelations and saw no reason to equivocate about the reliability of his accusers or the severity of his punishment. But as the list of perpetrators piled up and the public censure piled on, the conversation around #MeToo (lacking a specific category, each new scandal was not a story or an issue but a “conversation”) began to split down generational lines.
The first incident to put this divide in notably sharp relief involved a secret Google spreadsheet called the Shitty Media Men list. This was an anonymously sourced, living document meant to warn women about certain men in the media business, mostly publishing, who were known for inappropriate sexual or sexually charged behavior.
It included all kinds of men, from powerful editors to freelance writers, and described alleged misdeeds that ranged from “weird lunch dates” to inappropriate flirting to stalking to physical violence and all-out rape. And though the list was never officially published and disappeared from Google Docs almost as quickly as it emerged, enough screenshots were taken that the perpetrators became common knowledge almost immediately.
Within hours of the list’s discovery, the chief line of inquiry around it, even more so than “Who started it?”, was whether infractions like “weird lunches” should be lumped in with crimes like rape. Unsurprisingly, I found myself on the side of the oldsters who were deeply troubled not just by this “lumping” (again, there seemed to be only one operative word, and in this case it was “lump”) but by the idea that anonymously sourced accusations could be made against publicly named people without warning or any sort of due process.
“This is so wrong!” my same-age friends and I ranted. “You can’t just do this! These millennials don’t get it!” We said this as we forwarded the screenshots among each other, gawking at the names we recognized.
“Weird lunch!” I said to more than one person. “Welcome to publishing! I’m going to write a memoir about my early days in New York and call it Weird Lunch.”
And as the “conversation” lurched along and the narrative of the “generational divide” became the default narrative, I found myself reminded of this passage of time on a daily, even hourly, basis. When a scandal broke involving the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, I felt that my membership on Team Older Feminist was so official that I might as well take out a charge card at Eileen Fisher and call it a day (though has anyone under 40 ever used a “charge card”?)
And so the ground began to shake around the fault line. The older feminists scolded the younger ones for not being tough enough to take care of themselves. If the construction worker whistles at you, give him the finger! If the drunk guy sitting next to you at the wedding reception gets fresh, kick him in the shins!
In turn, the youngsters chastised the oldsters for enabling the oppressive status quo with cool-girl posturing. We shouldn’t have to suppress our humanity by letting insults roll off us! We shouldn’t have to risk our safety with physical violence because patriarchal norms have taught the drunk wedding guest he can act like that!
Neither side was entirely wrong, of course. But both sides were talking past each other in ways that suggested there was no meeting in the middle. In the New York Times, Daphne Merkin identified a gulf between what women said publicly about #MeToo and the eye-rolling that went on in private. “Publicly, they say the right things, expressing approval and joining in the chorus of voices that applaud the takedown of maleficent characters who prey on vulnerable women in the workplace,” she wrote. “In private it’s a different story. ‘Grow up, this is real life,’ I hear these same feminist friends say.”
In the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan, whose tendency toward a certain impish prudery has never made her popular among young feminists, wrote that the Ansari fracas, at least the version of it chronicled on Babe.net, constituted “3,000 words of revenge porn”. She decried the helplessness of “a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab”.
On cable news, the HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield looked straight into the camera and addressed “Grace” directly.
“What you have done in my opinion is appalling,” said Banfield, calling the allegations “reckless and hollow” and charging Grace with having “chiseled away at a movement that I along with all of my sisters in the workplace have been dreaming of for decades”.
This being cable news, Banfield’s producers invited Katie Way to appear on the show. And this being the digital era, Way declined the offer not with a “no thanks” but by popping off an email that called Banfield a “burgundy lipstick bad highlights second wave feminist has-been” and noted that “no woman my age would ever watch your network”.
As I watched all of this whiz past me on my computer screen, sharpened by the reading glasses I’d lately been forced to wear, I wondered if my real problem with young feminists was how little they seemed to need us older ones. As far as I could see, they didn’t even want to know us.
At 25, I not only wanted to know people like Daphne Merkin and Ashleigh Banfield, I wanted to be them. There were hundreds of women in my imaginative orbit – some of them over 50 or possibly even 60 – whom I felt this way about. I knew none of them, but I wanted to be all of them. Together, they formed a great phalanx of wise elders whose only duty to me was to be themselves. My duty, in turn, was to watch and learn. By which I mean that was my duty to myself.
But something was different back then. I shared a planet with those elders. We occupied the same universe. We breathed the same air. The same cannot be said for the relationship between my generation and those that are coming up behind us.
The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just 10 years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?
So this is where I find myself. Amid my exasperation and confusion, I have wandered into a devastating but oddly beautiful revelation: my generation will be the last to have known the world in its analog form. As a result, we’ve grown old before actually getting old. We’ve become dinosaurs before we’re even 50.
And it’s here, from this primitive-creature vantage point, that I find myself pressed up against yet another revelation: the questions we face now when it comes to men and women are questions that arose a split second ago. Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years. Civilization as we know it has been churning away for perhaps 6,000 years. Until the birth control pill came along in 1960, we were all essentially prisoners of nature, with women’s conditions being markedly worse, sometimes obscenely so.
Until 1960, the idea that women could compete with men in the job market, that men should do housework, that women had any purpose in life higher than having babies and men had any purpose higher than financially supporting those babies or going to war to protect them, was something close to unthinkable.
That we have come so far in so little time is a marvel. That we should expect all the kinks to have been worked out by now is insane.
In the scheme of things, the 59 years that have elapsed between 1960 and today is a nanosecond, a flash of time so imperceptible that it has passed in increments of billions by the time you have read this sentence. It was already nearly 30 years ago that the feral woman was out there with her folding table yelling: “Sign the petition.” It was already nearly 30 years ago that, as far as I was concerned, I owned the world. It feels like yesterday. Then again, every day feels like yesterday. Every day becomes yesterday before you know it.
Copyright 2019 by Meghan Daum. From the forthcoming book The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars by Meghan Daum to be published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Printed by permission
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