The Problem With “Silence Breakers” as TIME’s Person of the Year
Even if we can ignore that the runner-up was a proud misogynist accused of sexually harassing at least 20 women, TIME Magazine’s 2017 “Person of the Year” has got some problems.
First, a quick moment to celebrate. Let me say that when I heard that TIME had awarded a crew of whistleblowing women the title of “Person of the Year,” I felt warm with inspiration. Slumped on mass transit, having just left my sick baby at home to be tended by her sleep-deprived father, I appreciated the defiant faces staring directly at me. You will have no eyelash-batting from these ladies (and one man), and no coy expressions, either.
Some of the faces were recognizable, especially for those following the allegations aimed at Harvey Weinstein: actors and activists Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, and Alyssa Milano. Others were less familiar: Sandra Pezqueda, a 37-year-old dishwasher, Juana Melara, a 52-year-old housekeeper, and Blaise Godbe Lipman, a 28-year-old director. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with their stories, and, unsurprisingly, they took a backseat to the celebrity experiences.
As bold and beautiful as the images are, the message is a murky one. After the authors describe what President Donald Trump said in the Access Hollywood tape as “vulgar,” an insufficient description for unequivocally bragging about sexual assault, I decided to search for two words on the web page: “patriarchy” or “misogyny.” Zero results. So in the end it took three journalists, who knows how many editors and other staff, and more than a dozen sources to provide no context whatsoever.
It’s disappointing, to say the least, but the #MeToo movement has been deeply flawed, anyway. Actor, writer, and white feminist Lena Dunham recently came under fire for excluding women of color from her activism. Last month, she released a statement excusing a male writer on her show, Girls, from being accused of sexual assault by a woman of color, saying that the alleged victim represented “the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.” It diverged from this comment she had made shortly before: “Things women don’t lie about: rape.” This is the ugly side of white feminism: invisible privilege and covert racism lurking in massive blind spots.
This is a complicated movement, and one that naturally, and essentially, dredges up all kinds of inconvenient human contradictions.
In 80 years, no American woman has won TIME’s “Person of the Year” by herself.
This week, two more accusers have come out against Democratic Sen. Al Franken, a former Saturday Night Live comic. Franken was recently defended in a letter written by a host of SNL female comics, although his behavior was not denied, as in the Dunham case. But I don’t see why any emotionally progressive woman—not necessarily politically progressive—would feel moved to draft and sign a letter giving alternate testimony to a politically powerful man being investigated for “sexual misconduct.” Survivors of harassment and abuse represent the political minority, and they don’t need any extra barriers to justice, especially a portrait of Franken as “a devoted and dedicated family man.”
What makes it even easier to critique the TIME coverage of “silence breakers” is this simple fact: In 80 years, no American woman has won TIME’s “Person of the Year” by herself.
According to the Washington Post, in the past 91 years the magazine has selected only one American woman—Wallis Simpson, “who earned the title in 1936 thanks to her relationship with King Edward VIII, a relationship which eventually led to his giving up his throne.” Evidently, TIME uses a calculus that makes dozens of women equivalent to one Trump.
Then there’s this. TIME ends its story with Megyn Kelly, who, predictably, reveals some internalized misogyny. Her call to survivors of sexual harassment and assault? ““What if we did complain?’ proposes Megyn. ‘What if we didn’t whine, but we spoke our truth in our strongest voices and insisted that those around us did better?’” It is a tone-deaf choice in the context of this movement to grant the closing reflections to a former Fox News anchor who has been widely criticized for targeting Black activist groups and shaming women for plastic surgery.
So don’t go congratulating yourself yet for this so-called groundbreaking choice, TIME editors and publishers. But maybe, as our society is, you’re growing —slowly, excruciatingly slowly—toward wider understanding.
Erin Sagen is a freelancer and former associate editor at YES! She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability.