Pop Culture’s Complicity in Sexual Harassment

#me too


The word sounds vaguely menacing. Even if we’re not quite sure what complicity means, it sounds … bad.

To be complicit, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says, involves “helping someone commit a crime or a wrong in some way.” We’re hearing that word used a lot lately—albeit perhaps slightly less literally—in connection with the sexual harassment and abuse stories of Harvey Weinstein, especially, and to a lesser extent with Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer. In fact, there have been so many similar news stories recently that dictionary.com named complicit its 2017 Word of the Year.

Yesterday, for example, The New York Times published a story titled, “Weinstein’s Complicity Machine.” The blurb summarizing the article says, “The producer Harvey Weinstein relied on powerful relationships across industries to provide him with cover as accusations of sexual misconduct piled up for decades.”

Weinstein’s predatory behavior seems to have been a not-very-well-kept secret in Hollywood, with some female celebrities warning others not to be alone with him as far back as 2005. I have no problem believing there may very well have been others who enabled his immoral, potentially illegal behavior.

But I also think there’s another player that’s complicit in the unfolding scandal of sexual assault allegations as well: Our popular culture.

Our culture is complicit in creating an environment ripe for exploitation, I’d argue, in two ways: One, our society is deeply infatuated with the idea that we should have no rules or limits on much of anything. And, two, our entertainment culture embraces and reinforces the notion that a woman’s primary value is in her sexual appeal—something that then becomes a commodity they’re encouraged to use.

Let’s begin with my first point.

Have you seen an Outback Steakhouse commercial lately? The company’s motto is, “No rules, just right.” Now, this is a ridiculous slogan on multiple levels, not the least of which is the fact that this restaurant chain does have rules: You can’t stroll in barefoot or shirtless; you have to pay when you’re done; you don’t get to behave any way you’d like without being asked to leave. In other words, there’s nothing about this slogan that’s actually true.

What it does do effectively, I suppose, is play to our culture’s collective embrace of radical individuality. The only thing that matters, the motto subtly suggests, is doing what you want to do. No rules, just right.

Many other companies have embraced that idea—what you want is what matters most—for decades now. Burger King jingle writers had us singing, “Have it your way” for years. Nike built its empire on the suggestion, “Just Do It.” All of these messages flow through the ether of our culture, coalescing in the idea that we all deserve whatever we want, right now. No limits, no rules, no fear, I’m going to just do it.

When that message is combined with our culture’s objectifying attitudes toward female sexuality, the result can become toxic and abusive.

That brings me to my second point: Our entertainment culture sexually objectifies women as a matter of course.

Throughout these unfolding stories of sexual abuse by (almost exclusively) men in positions of power and influence, women have come forward to talk about how these men have shamelessly objectified, harassed and assaulted them. Their experiences have been horrific, beyond the pale. The things these men have been accused of perpetrating are categorically wrong and immoral.

That said, the entertainment world in which these men and women live is one that itself objectifies them constantly—so much so that many of these female entertainers become willing participants in a system that views and presents them primarily in sexual terms.

A few recent examples:

How many times have we seen or heard actresses called “brave” for roles that involved nudity and/or explicit sex scenes—sometimes for the first time in these actresses’ careers? Looking back over the list of Best Actress nominees over the last several decades, many of these women received Oscar noms or nods for graphic, sexually oriented roles. And it’s happening again this year for Sally Hawkins, who repeatedly sheds her clothes in The Shape of Water—and is being hailed as the frontrunner for Best Actress for that role. The argument could be made that the most reliable way for a woman to earn an Oscar is to “bravely” disrobe onscreen.

Back in 2015, former Disney star Selena Gomez posed nude (albeit strategically covered) on the front of her most recent album. She said of that choice, “At the end of the day, it’s respecting every female artist’s choice in how she expresses herself, because that’s what she wants.” Writing about that quote—and the frequency with which young stars like Gomez, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato ended up unclothed to promote their music—I said:

When female stars grow up in the entertainment business, the vast majority of the time they’re eventually assimilated into that business’s worldview. …. With rare exceptions, they usually end up talking about how empowered and adult and healthy they feel about exploiting their own bodies for financial gain. As if it were their idea instead of the industry’s. So not only does the entertainment industry exploit these young women, along the way it executes a breathtakingly clever triple con wherein these girls believe that a) they’re not being exploited, b) they’re the ones making the choices to take their clothes off and c) doing so is a statement of personal empowerment rather than conformity to an industry that’s predetermined to reduce them to this lowest common denominator.

Rap’s ongoing misogyny, meanwhile, represents another enormous stream of cultural influence, and that genre’s stars often treat women as so much chattel—to be used, abused and disposed of however these men please. Kendrick Lamar is arguably one of more socially aware rappers out there these days, for example, but even he spouts degrading messages about women. On his song “YAH.,” from his latest album D–N, he sums up the message so many rappers deliver about women: “Keep the family close, get money, f— b–ches/ … But it’s money to get, b–ches to hit.”

Despite such blatant misogyny, these artists continue to sell and stream millions of songs—music that sends a strong message that men are entitled to do whatever they please to the females in their thrall.

These are but a few examples of how, I’d argue, our culture in general and popular entertainment in particular exalt and reinforce an environment in which powerful men treat women horribly.

Obviously, many more ingredients play into these terrible stories of harassment and abuse. We can’t point the finger of blame at these ubiquitous messages alone. But are they complicit? I believe they are. And as long as we collectively celebrate damaging messages such as these, the specter of someone fully embracing them will never be far behind.

For more on this topic, check out Focus on the Family president Jim Daly’s blog here.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

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