Mette Leonard

Women need to free themselves from permanent victimhood

Women need to free themselves from permanent victimhood
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If there is one thing the reactions to the Harvey Weinstein accusations have confirmed, other than the common knowledge that human beings are corruptible and will sometimes try to exploit their position of superiority, it is feminism's obsession with men in power.

When confronted with Björk’s accusations of sexual harassment by Danish director Lars von Trier on the set of Dancer in the Dark, Trier’s producer, Peter Aalbæk, rejected the claim, maintaining that if anyone was to be made responsible for harassment it was the singer, who, he claimed, had been bossing the two men around. The online response to this male perspective on Björk as a dominant female was outraged denial: Aalbæk’s statement was seen as intolerable and there was no doubt in the female mind that it must indeed have been von Trier, the male, who had the power and had misused it against a woman. The actual nature of what took place is still not publicly known, but whatever went on, the refusal to acknowledge the possibility that a strong woman could abuse a man is symptomatic of contemporary Western feminism.

The majority of women engaging actively in this movement, and certainly the majority of the women joining in the recent #MeToo campaign, wouldn’t recognise a woman of power and superiority if she was standing right in front of them; they wouldn’t, because they are not looking for strong female figures, but purely for examples of exploitative male power. At least one of the reasons for this is, quite logically, the reliance on the male villain for the rationalisation and validation of the position to which these women are clinging in order to avoid facing the most pressing issue for privileged women when it comes to the lack of gender equality: their own dependency issues.

The resourceful, privileged women who lead and determine feminism today cannot reconcile themselves with being the villain. They continue to prefer moral purity to agency. Not only do they hijack and distort the debate, exploiting real gender inequality problems at society’s bottom and periphery to improve their own already privileged middle-class position; they also forcefully arrest women in the morally irreproachable, but highly restrictive position of dependence that history and the narrations of history have given them: the role of the victim. What the women, who continue to assume the position of the victim with astonishing eagerness and without any critical self-awareness, are suppressing, is the problem that no one can become a complete human being or a full citizen – equal to other citizens not just in theory, but in practice – without leaving the victim position to assume personal agency.

The reason that this is a problem for many women is that assuming agency necessarily involves occasionally behaving immorally and, crucially, taking responsibility for and owning up to one’s occasional immoral behaviour. The fight for equality has naturally brought women to a point where they are realising that full equality necessarily comes with full ethical and moral responsibility for one’s own flawed, human character as well as for the miserable state of the world. And for many, the reaction is denial and an attempt to preserve their position as the morally pure victim through intensified fixation on the male villain.

That some, perhaps many, of the specific men being publicly accused in the #MeToo and #NameThem campaigns in the wake of the Weinstein accusations are indeed misusing their power-positions in a discriminatory manner is highly likely. These individuals should obviously be prosecuted. But in a courtroom – not in the public pillory of social media. The nature of the online reactions – the outrageously ethically irresponsible #NameHim initiatives; the regressive stereotyping and equation of catcalling and manspreading with rape of the #MeToo campaign; the complete effacing of female agency (their agency being reduced to speaking about the crime, the victim-as-witness, not, as it were, proper agency) – is obviously indicative of something else. It is not about the wish for justice or the rational demand for equality. The hysteria and irrationality of the reactions are revelatory of an obsession with male power. It should lead to immediate self-scrutiny, not to an intensification and further acceptance of the view that women (who are in fact normal human beings, not some special delicate species, though feminism today ignores this fact) need special protection, or the view that men are predators of an evil nature.

But it does not.

Incredibly, at the peak of gender equality in Western societies, women instead continue to actively reproduce the very pattern that they in other contexts purport – as a way of validating their behaviour – to be fighting, stubbornly insisting on and emphasising the opposition between the male perpetrator and the female victim. Willingly and fervently the majority of women engaged in feminism today retreat into a snow-white victim position. Victimhood is not only a well known role and thus seemingly comfortable, it has also never before been so sought-after and fetishised as in this faux-puritan age. It grants power unburdened by obligations, as it entitles the possessor to influence the agenda of the cultural and political debate and to receive special treatment, while at the same time absolving them of all responsibility. It grants them a higher moral position. It eliminates their individual agency and the inherent risks of individual agency: of moral compromise, bad conscience and responsibility for the pressing issues of the world today.

The downside to victimhood, which feminism seems to vehemently ignore, is that it is inherently unproductive and highly pacifying. This is the unavoidable incapaciting effect of extending victimhood from a juridical label in a clearly demarcated situation to a form of permanent identity or chronic condition. By continuing to fob off the primary responsibility for their troubles and issues on men, feminists continue to grant men the agency and superiority that they have historically possessed, neglecting their own possibility of agency.

Though men and women formally speaking have equal rights and equal opportunities in most Western societies today, there is still not full equality between the genders. One of the biggest obstacles to the realisation of full equality between men and women is the female dependence on the male villain and oppressor, and the unwillingness to take on full agency for the heavy responsibility that this necessarily entails. Obviously the recognition of the victim and the perpetrator is a crucial and necessary first step in any liberation process; but after this comes a process of liberation from that very position of victimhood, which is not just the responsibility of the perpetrator, but of the victims themselves.

When a society has reached a certain level of formal equality, it is up to the women to let go of the innocence narrative and, as complete and flawed human beings, start being a part of the shared narrative of society; to take responsibility for the consequences of their own aggressive behaviour, the online witch-hunts, public shaming, hijacking and distorting of the debate on gender inequality and the reproduction of the stereotype of the weak female. Such a shared responsibility is a crucial step in getting to a place where we, as a society, can begin to conceive the new, constructive visions for the future that we desperately need to start working on. Who knows, we might even find some truth to the statement that the future is female.

Mette Leonard is a Danish literary scholar and critic