Who We Believe
A woman's word weighs less than a man's. But when violent men tell us who they are, we don't believe them, either.
Scenes from another life (Yogyakarta, Indonesia, November 2015)
This week, I’ve written two pieces on women who survived terrifying attacks: Evan Rachel Wood, who says she was groomed and abused by her ex boyfriend Marilyn Manson for years, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who says she feared for her life as pro-Trump rioters descended on the Capitol building on January 6th.
There’s a clear unifying thread here: The people who are doing the lying and manipulating, who intentionally ratchet up the tensions that predictably culminate in violence and assault, told us exactly who they were and what they had planned, and later what they did and how they were evading responsibility. Those in power chose to ignore all of it. At the same time, the people who suffered — Wood, Ocasio Cortez, all of us who watched our Capitol get ransacked and wondered if America as we knew it would live another day — weren’t so much ignored as intentionally disbelieved, undermined, blamed, and made suspect.
These are two different kinds of choosing not to believe. There are the (mostly) men we don’t believe because it allows them to avoid consequences, and it allows us to shirk our own responsibilities and deny our own culpability — for them, our disbelief manifests as excuses. And there are the (mostly) women we don’t believe because they’re asking for consequences, responsibility, and culpability — onto them we heap blame, and we accuse them of lying.
I wrote about this at length in the context of Manson for NBC Think. Here’s a guy who was pretty open about his harassment of Wood — he said that after they broke up, he called her more than 100 times in a single day while he self-mutilated and blamed her for it. He was open about his violent fantasies about her (“I have fantasies every day about smashing her skull in with a sledgehammer,” he told one interviewer). Did I mention that Wood was a teenager while Manson was 36? And Wood wasn’t the only woman he said he harmed. He wrote in his 1995 memoir that he intentionally got a woman (who he called his “victim”) so drunk she passed out, then, along with his friend Trent Reznor, tied her up and proceeded to sexually assault her (that link is very detailed and stomach-turning, just FYI).
And yet the resounding chorus was that, no matter what Manson admitted to doing, he didn’t mean it. His team told one music blog that Manson’s comments about sledgehammering Wood’s head in were “obviously a theatrical rock star interview promoting a new record, and not a factual account.” His whole thing was being shocking and disgusting, and it was very convenient for the many people making a lot of money off of him, or enjoying his music, to insist that all of the shocking and disgusting antics were just that — antics, an act, not real life. This was the story no matter how many times Manson himself said, actually no, this is exactly what I’m doing and exactly who I am.
We see the same dynamic play out with Donald Trump and his supporters. How many bits of half-baked analysis were we treated to about Trump’s real beliefs and his real motivations as he gained popularity within the Republican Party, and then as he ascended to the presidency? How many times were we told by his enablers that sure, the president did say that, but it’s not what he really meant? How many times did Trump tell us exactly who he was and exactly what he was going to do, but those of us who believed him were told to calm down, told that we were being Chicken Littles and hysterical alarmists?
It should not be lost on any of us that the most organized force against Trump, and the group that has been the most consistently correct about him and the threat he posed, has also been wholly denigrated, largely ignored, successfully caricatured into an embarrassing joke. These are the middle-aged wine moms of the #Resistance. These thoroughly uncool women knew what was at stake, and they organized the largest single-day protest in American history (and possibly in world history), while the too-cool kids on the left and right mocked their pink hats and, from podcasting couches, questioned their political commitments and organizing capacities.
When these same women were the force behind huge midterm election wins for Democrats, their role barely registered; they were certainly not the subjects of unending interviews and help-me-understand journalistic fascination, and they weren’t given much of the credit for their work, either. It seems that just about every Trump voter in the country was interviewed in a diner somewhere, and no matter what they said about immigrants or the Black Lives Matter movement or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, a great many journalists didn’t want to believe that these voters were who they said they were, and were motivated by exactly what they said they were motivated by. More astute and honest reporters simply let them reveal their motivations, which largely came down to racism, sexism, and resentment at what they believed to be the waning of their deserved dominance. But in the early days of the Trump presidency, a narrative of “economic insecurity” took hold in the nation’s leading newspapers.
Trump supporters told us who they were, but a lot of folks simply didn’t believe them. Some reporters and analysts simply made up their own story and sold it as the truth.
And the women who did believe them — who believed Trump was exactly who he said he was, too — were mocked and scorned. Some of the men on the left who were the most dismissive of the pussy-hat-wearing Resistance ladies are now wondering how they can make common cause with the angry, violent men who stormed the Capitol, and those who support them. Because, after all, those guys are probably just economically insecure.
We’re seeing this again today, after Alexandria Ocasio Cortez talked at length about her experience during the Capitol riot. Self-styled journalist (or more accurately, under-employed Twitter personality) Michael Tracey suggested that AOC’s account, which was corroborated by her staff and other members of Congress, was a “loopy delusion” that the public only believed because AOC claimed “trauma.” How does Tracey, who was not at the Capitol riot, was certainly was not in AOC’s office with her, and appears to have conducted no reporting on what happened in that office, know that her account was a “delusion”? He doesn’t. He just doesn’t believe her, which is enough for him to label her version of events an objective lie — a delusion, something that did not happen — and his own beliefs about an event he did not witness the objective truth. He’s not alone. Glenn Greenwald mocked AOC for being afraid, saying that there was "not even a tiny little bruise on her body," as if physical injuries are the only legitimate evidence that may be introduced to the public. In talking about what happened from her perspective, Greenwald suggested, AOC was manipulating our sympathy, exaggerating her fear, and making the events all about her. He used a baby voice to make fun of her. There was not even a tiny little bruise on her body.
There is a very long history of women needing to show bruises, or broken bones, or bloody wounds to prove they were harmed; there is a long history of bruises and broken bones and bloody wounds not being enough. There’s always a reason: She was wearing tight jeans. Maybe she’s just confused. It’s “he said, she said.” There’s no physical evidence. A woman’s testimony is rarely evidence enough, which is why, throughout the #MeToo movement, men saw consequences only when they were accused by three, four, five, ten women — or, in the case of the former president, were accused by dozens and saw no consequences at all.
In both the Capitol riot and the Manson story, it is indeed a he said / she said — but he and she are saying pretty close to the same things. The Capitol rioters told us what they planned to do. They told us they were storming DC at the encouragement of the president. They told us they wanted to hang Mike Pence, to kill Nancy Pelosi, to kill Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. They erected a damn noose.
Oh, they didn’t really mean it, goes the chorus on the right (with a few disgraceful leftist voices in there, too).
Oh, she’s hysterical, she’s delusional, says the same group when a woman who members of the mob say they set out to kill says she feared for her life.
Sometimes the stories about who we believe and who we don’t are about wrongdoers obfuscating, successfully hiding their bad acts behind the facade of upstanding public behavior. Not here. Here, there are people being entirely up-front about what they’re doing. Here, there are women saying “this happened.” And here, there remains a chorus of powerful voices saying, he didn’t mean what he said and he didn’t mean any harm and she’s a hysterical liar and don’t believe what’s right in front of you.
But it’s right in front of you. Believe it.
p.s. If you’re enjoying this newsletter and want even more news and analysis on politics, feminism, law, and global affairs, please do consider upgrading to a paid subscription.