In the space of a few weeks, giants in the entertainment industry toppled as those previously thought to be untouchable were pulled down from their perches of power and abandoned to headlined infamy. Every day, more women found the bravery to come forward and bring their stories to light; to detail the abuse, harassment, and mistreatment they suffered at the hands of their leaders, idols, and icons. This period of revelation began with the fall of Harvey Weinstein, a celebrated film producer who used his considerable power to abuse the women in his orbit and further create a culture where his mistreatment was overlooked – and in some cases, facilitated – by his colleagues.
According to a report published by the New York Times, Weinstein’s pattern of behavior stretches back for more than thirty years; kept under wraps by carefully calculated payoffs and intimidations. When the truth of his abusive behaviors finally came to the public’s attention, he was fired – thereby shattering the illusion of untouchability that had previously protected him and other abusers in the entertainment industry. Weinstein fell, and others followed. Directors, actors, writers, producers – powerful men who were no longer protected by a silence they had previously taken for granted – began to resign in waves. For the women impacted by the abusive culture, the widespread public movement Weinstein’s fall sparked finally made justice a real possibility, rather than a career-killing dream.
So where do we find ourselves in a post-Weinstein world? Are we in the middle of a happy ending, watching Hollywood’s real villains fall from grace? If this was a movie, I might think so – but we aren’t. It might be cynical, but I honestly fear that if we don’t make a real, concrete change while the metaphorical door is still open, the calls for change will fizzle out in a stream of news headlines and firings. I worry that when the public furor fades and the movement moves on, we might find ourselves back where we started: unaware and complacent. What we forget in the details of a single story is that this is a societal problem. We aren’t up against a few isolated abusers; we’re facing a cultural trend that allows – and conceals – habitual abuse against women and girls. Bringing the crimes of a few to light is a great first step. But if we only bring down abusers after the fact and don’t make a concerted effort to change the culture, we’re only treating the symptoms – not the problem.
As a societal concern, the issue of abuse is not limited to the entertainment industry. As a former professional athlete, I have a deep love for sports – but I know that the industry has dire systemic flaws. We hold up our female athletes as feminist heroes and celebrate their successes, but our current system does not protect them as it should. Take the case of Aly Raisman, an Olympic gold medalist for the US; with six medals won at the 2012 and 2016 Games, Raisman is the second-most decorated female Olympic gymnast in America. What many didn’t realize until recently, however, is that Raisman faced ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of her team’s doctor. The man’s system was twisted; he acted as though he was on the girl’s side by giving her encouragement and gifts in the isolating, high-pressure environment, then passed off his sexual abuses as medical “massages.” His manipulation was so complete that when he was finally investigated, it took a few interviews for Raisman to fully process the breach of trust and the harm that was done to her.
As a mother, athlete, and human, this story enrages me – not only for its occurrence, but also for the fact that Raisman felt as though she had to keep quiet while and after it happened to remain a competing athlete. For many high-level athletes, sports is a key part of identity. Victims should never have to choose between bringing their abuser to justice or chasing their dreams – and yet, many are forced into that very position. As a writer for TIME puts it, we have a “culture of success at all costs” which convinces victims that it’s easier – beneficial, even – to sweep abuses under the rug rather than bring them to light and potentially destroy the dreams the athletes worked so hard to achieve. The isolating environment many young athletes find themselves immersed in protects abusers and places young female athletes in a position of untenable risk.
We need a better system with greater accountability. We need to create a culture where safety doesn’t come second to success and those in positions of authority aren’t quietly permitted to abuse those who place their trust in them. Real change doesn’t come overnight in a flurry of headlines, but in a focused reevaluation of our systemic problems. It may take months – years, even – to enact changes, but we eventually need to be in a place where female athletes know who to report their concerns to before abuse occurs; where female leaders are no longer in the minority; where harassment isn’t accepted as “coming with the job.” We need to change the way we talk about women and shift conversations about a competitor’s marital status or body to their professional accomplishments. Otherwise, we will continue to place women in sports within an overly sexualized context that subtly accepts abuse.
We are at a crossroads. With the current media fervor, we stand a chance to enact real change in systems that allow for abuse and make our young athletes and entertainers safer. I believe that we can make a difference – but we need to make the step. We need to speak up and make sure that this doesn’t fade into the archives. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves exactly where we are now: wondering how we missed what was in front of us all along.