The events of Jan. 20, 2017, seemed to be a given: Polls, public opinion and the apparent steady flow of history itself had aligned, setting the date for a woman to be sworn in as president. A year later, such female leadership resonates only as a fever dream. During a year’s orbit around that orange fireball at the center of our system (the sun ― did you think I meant someone else?), the story of a woman in charge of not just the East Wing, but the West itself, has been usurped by a very different kind of triumph for women.
The narrative so many thought would unfurl over the year was about a woman elected to the highest position of power in the world. In this narrative, a woman was subject, not object. At the center of the story was a woman who was the embodiment of the active voice, not the passive one ― someone defined by doing things of consequence, not someone to whom things are done. Regardless of what you thought of this protagonist, these were the facts of the tale many believed was about to begin.
But that script got sent to rewrite. Instead of the new twist on the old story — frigid harpy schoolmarm wields power over homestead/boarding school — we expected, we got a different one. In this one, women were objects, not subjects. Young and desirable bodies to conquer, firm flesh to be despoiled by modern day Caligulas. (I’ll never forget the image of Brett Ratner with his penis in one hand and a bowl of shrimp cocktail in another, an image that was lost among the tales of Weinstein’s many gilded hotel rooms.)
As always, women are cast as one thing or another, never both. And this year we’ve gone from the heights of heretofore unknown leadership, desexualized and fearsome, to the ancient trope of sexualized victimhood. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, in talking about what she calls “the danger of the single story,” the trouble with stereotypes isn’t that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re incomplete. This year, we traded in one incomplete story, albeit one of extraordinary power, for another ― this one of extraordinary (and all too ordinary) victimhood. We flooded our prismatic channels of conversation with stories of abuse and harassment, drowning some of the most powerful men who shape our very culture.
For all that these stories, bravely shared by domestic box office stars and domestic workers alike, have done to lay bare injustice, they’ve also, inescapably, returned us to the old ways of talking about what it means to be a woman. The big public feminist victory of the past year has both advanced our discourse and banished us, clutching our torn bodices, back to a narrative of powerlessness it seemed we’d finally, well, trumped. All those pink hats from the Women’s March have been packed away as mementos; it’s the talk of pussy that remains.
Surely exposing widespread abuse and harassment of women is a revolutionary act, especially when done en masse. But it has also lent a new primacy to an old definition of what women are. That definition, that story of abused objects, cannot be the story that defines, once again, what it means to be a woman ― a woman who can police her own body, in regards to power, policy and pleasure alike. Victimhood and leadership are not mutually exclusive; indeed, many of our greatest leaders have known great victimhood. But tales of women victimized by powerful men cannot be the only stories that have, and allow us to wield, power.
In a sense, all revolutions are led by victims; the overturning of power necessitates the victory of those without it. And it is indeed revolutionary to set fire to the “locker room” (or boardroom, or situation room). But it’s also important to remember that sexual victimhood has long been synonymous with women’s public voices. Indeed, it has mainly been all society will tolerate hearing. Mary Beard is not the first historian, but is certainly the latest and loudest to note that for millennia, when women speak to power it is to decry their own martyrdom to men’s genitals, usually as a precursor to their own death. The rape of Lucretia, for example, became a trope of European art, from Shakespeare to Titian to Britten, because, as the ancient story goes, the daughter of a Roman prefect denounced a monarchical prince named Sextus — making nominal the conflation of sex and abusive power. He brutalized her before she took her own life.
The narrative arc must bend back from prey toward powerful leadership once more. We must learn to braid these notions together and find a place for progress within them, to build a reality for women and men alike that reflects our truth and our potential. (We saw an excellent example of this when Oprah Winfrey spoke at the Golden Globes this month, connecting Recy Taylor’s rape to Rosa Parks’s radicalism to her own place on that stage. Such personified leadership aroused the public’s vapors clamoring for a presidential run from, yes, another television star.) We’ve got a lot more to break than just silence: We must redefine the very notion of what women are and what men are, and how we can share not just our bedrooms and break rooms, but power itself.
The narrative we must revise is as old as the very existence of narrative. And it will require what women have been acculturated to resist most of all: to make a mess. Not just the expression of pristine black gowns or neat hashtags, but embracing of the sort of complicated characters we’ve long said we want to see. Our stories will require nuance and contradictions if we want them to truly rewrite the world ― a panoply of desire and ambition and fury, as varied as we are.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.