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Ghomeshi, Trolls, and One Hopeful Thing

Joss Whedon said it best: 'It's an ugly time because change is happening.'

By Dorothy Woodend 8 Nov 2014 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

The conversations I've had this past week about Jian Ghomeshi have run the gamut from incredulity, to horror, to full-on flabbergasted. The fact that these discussions have taken place in the public square that is social media has made them more visible, but they're only a continuation of the stories that women have been telling each other for years.

Such stories range from being French-kissed by a hairdresser while your head is in a sink, to finding yourself faced with a famous penis that you never expected to see. We've all heard them, passed along from sister to friend to acquaintance. Even the whisper campaign at the CBC -- "Do you know about Jian?" -- was supposedly well known in certain circles.

This shit has been around a very long time, but it just collided with a rather large fan.

The Ghomeshi story continues to unfold by the hour it seems, with new allegations, new people coming forth to talk about their experiences and opinions. Some kind of floodgate has been opened, and out gushes a whole lot of frightening stuff.

In all frankness, I'm a little worn out by it. No doubt many people feel the same way, especially after a spring and summer of terrible stories featuring pain inflicted on women. There are many: the misogynistic killing spree in Isla Vista, California, Bill Cosby's resurfaced rape allegations, 200 hundred missing school girls, and ISIS killing women and children.

Even minor stuff like video games and films could elicit death threats towards women, as well as her family, friends and colleagues. The story of Anita Sarkeesian is perhaps the most well known example of "women versus trolls."

The story has been going for a while, but I first heard about it in documentary circles when Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project, which she launched to fund her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, became the target of an online harassment campaign. The attack had a somewhat different result than intended: the project's modest target of $6,000 swelled to over $150,000, as people donated to support Sarkeesian and spite the trolls.

Sarkeesian went on to become something of a lightning rod for seething vitriol that took on frightening proportions this summer when she had to cancel a lecture at Utah State University, after a series of emailed threats promised a massacre on the scale of that which took place at École Polytechnique.

Yet another bizarre situation erupted this summer when a failed relationship between two people who worked in the gaming industry took on a life of its own. Witness the weirdness that is Gamergate.

Rebecca Solnit's essay "Cassandra Among the Creeps," published in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine, is about the high cost of speaking out. From Anita Hill to Anita Sarkeesian, the essay describes what happens to women who have the temerity to voice their experiences, from being maligned and discredited to being threatened with death. Solnit herself endured the experience of speaking the truth and paying for it.

"Not uncommonly, when a woman says something that impugns a man, particularly a powerful one (not a black one unless he's just been nominated for the Supreme Court by a Republican president), or an institution, especially if it has to do with sex, the response will question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so. Generations of women have been told that they are delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once," she wrote.

Consider all this, and you may at some point be tempted to gently close the door on humanity. But hold off for one moment. There is something good to come out of the madness.

'An ugly time because change is happening'

I think filmmaker Joss Whedon summed it up best in a recent interview with Hollywood Reporter. Said Whedon: "When I see this hate bubbling up towards any kind of progress, my reaction is twofold. First, it's horror, and then, it's delight, because you don't get this kind of anger unless real change is actually happening. It is a chaotic time. It's an ugly time because change is happening. It would be lovely to be living after the change has happened."

In this post-Ghomeshi moment, something feels different. Here we all are, talking about these issues openly and with a new degree of honesty. The ability of a famous man to do creepy shit and get away with it -- as is alleged -- had been kind of a given up until, well, maybe a week ago. But women and plenty of men have apparently had enough.

Solnit published another piece this week in TomDispatch titled "The War is Over (If You Want It), Feminism and Men," almost as a follow-up to her Harper's essay, that took into consideration the changes that occurred in the last little while.

Writes Solnit: "Here's what it all means: the winds of change have reached our largest weathervanes. The highest powers in the country have begun calling on men to take responsibility not only for their own conduct, but for that of the men around them, to be agents of change. Feminism needs men. For one thing, the men who hate and despise women will be changed, if they change, by a culture in which doing horrible things to, or saying horrible things about, women will undermine rather than enhance a man's standing with other men."

It's a terrific piece, and I urge you to read it in its entirety and make TomDispatch a regular site to visit.

Braving the darkness

The biggest change that has taken place is just this -- it's as if everyone suddenly feels somehow less afraid to stand up and speak out. It's not only here but all over the damn place, from the U.K. to Ferguson, Missouri. Something has changed, and it mostly has to do with people speaking out together.

I see it dramatically in the world of documentary film since that is where I live most of the time. Filmmakers and their subjects risk everything they have to tell the truth, whether it's Laura Poitras being stopped at the U.S. border more than 40 times when making her film CitizenFour about Edward Snowden, or young South African filmmaker Jolynn Minnaar moving from documenting events to changing them through direct involvement in her film about fracking, Unearthed. Of course, some stories still struggle to see the light of day, as the recent situation when Amy Berg's film An Open Secret, about pedophilia in Hollywood, had its press screening cancelled.

But if women and men can unite to tell the truth, who knows what could happen? Climate change, poverty, injustice -- what teetering edifices could shudder into rubble with a good hard push? Change happens almost before you realize it has taken place, but all of a sudden the conversation is different. I refer you again to documentary, and a film called 1989, which tells the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall through a little known tragedy. Sometimes all it takes is one story.

For most people, women especially, it's hard to be angry all the time. It can feel like a bottomless pit that once you fall in, you'll just keep falling forever. But it's worth braving the darkness in the centre of you. If nothing else, the Ghomeshi story has forced a debate, started a discussion, and women seem unlikely to retreat back into darkness and silence.

In all of this, something else deeply unexpected has emerged, the possibility of doing and being different. I hope that's true.  [Tyee]

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