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Harvey Weinstein, Mitchell Sunderland and The Empty Promise of Fake Male Feminism

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‘Men who advocate for gender equality behaving badly’ has almost become its own category of news story. In the past 24 hours alone, two powerful white men in the media establishment have been revealed to be ‘fake feminists,’ saying all the right things in public but treating women with disrespect and disdain in private. Firstly, the New York Times published an exposé accusing film and television producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and impropriety over the past three decades, despite presenting himself as a feminist ally. Then, Mitchell Sunderland, a senior staff writer at Vice’s women’s channel Broadly, was revealed to have collaborated with white nationalist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, feeding Yiannopoulos articles and asking him to harass women and nonbinary people in the media. 

According to the New York Times, Weinstein has reached at least eight settlements with women who have accused him of sexual harassment. Weinstein allegedly exploited the power imbalance between himself and young, aspiring actresses and employees, inviting them into his hotel rooms and asking for naked massages, making unwanted physical advances or requesting that they watch him shower. However, Weinstein has also presented himself as a “champion of women.” His company distributed the campus sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground, and he hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton last year. He also helped endow a faculty chair at Rutgers University in Gloria Steinem’s name and joined in the 2017 Women’s March in Park City, Utah.

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Similarly, Sunderland’s work at Broadly is inherently associated with women’s rights, as it is a website “devoted to representing the multiplicity of women's experiences.” Sunderland has been working at Vice since 2013, becoming a senior staff writer at the start of this year, with a long list of bylines for Broadly including articles about sex workers, Amber Rose’s SlutWalk and, coincidentally, how college students should stop protesting the alt-right. In emails received by Buzzfeed, Sunderland wrote “Please mock this fat feminist,” to Yiannopoulos in May 2016, along with a link to an article by the New York Times columnist Lindy West. Vice’s credentials were already under question thanks to its practises of exploiting young, female and minority writers and artists as free labor, but this latest scandal is a blatant contradiction of Broadly’s mission.

These are just the two most recent instances of publicly progressive men failing to practice what they preach. In the last couple of months, Joss Whedon, writer of ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’, was publicly called out by his ex-wife, Kai Cole, as a hypocrite for using his relationship with her and his feminist ideals to hide the fact that he was undermining her and committing multiple affairs. The most explicitly ridiculous of the lot is Robbie Tripp, the man who devoted an Instagram post to how he loves his wife despite the fact that she’s “curvy” which subsequently went viral for all the wrong reasons. Hugo SchwyzerJamie Kilstein... the list goes on. 

The basis of this trend is a phenomenon has been referred to as the ‘Pedestal Effect’, where men are showered with praise for performing the most basic acts of human decency, while women who advocate for gender equality are abused, threatened and criticised, labelled ‘feminazis’ and man-haters. Weinstein has taken this one step further, seeking approval for supporting women while blatantly exploiting them whenever he had the chance. This is a trick experienced by women on social media and even advocated by so-called pick-up artists, when men use all the right language to ingratiate themselves, but turn to misogynistic slurs when they are ignored or rejected. Saturday Night Live aired a sketch last season called “Girl at a Bar” in which this situation plays out repeatedly in real life, dismantling the facade of fake male feminists who attempt to use the performance feminism in exchange for sex.

This is not to say that men cannot be feminist allies. Men are an integral part of the fight to achieve gender equality, as they currently hold the balance of power. However, as mainstream acceptance of feminist discourse increases, the standard of behaviour expected from men, both publicly and privately, is being raised. It is no longer acceptable to treat women as inferiors, playthings or novelties. If men want to be true feminist allies, they cannot simply declare themselves to be so. They must actually use the values of the movement to inform every aspect of their lives. Weinstein’s lawyer referred to him as “an old dinosaur learning new ways,” but he is obviously not learning fast enough. Weinstein, Sunderland, and men like them who espouse the values of gender equality but do not live by them must no longer reap the social benefits of simply talking about treating women like human beings. The fact that these are coming to light now is heartening, but there is still a long way to go before this behavior is completely unacceptable. And by calling out the fakers, men and women who truly believe in gender equality can help us get there.

Header image via SNL

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Molly McLaughin is a writer who likes pizza, politics and poetry. In that order. She tweets at @mollysgmcl. 

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