The last four or five years have been rough going. It’s tempting to think of that time as one of seemingly endlessly awful, catastrophe piled atop catastrophe in some perverse game of Jenga. We’ve gotten used to everything being so fraught and high-stakes, the times themselves almost hostile to human thriving. So it can be easy to miss the good that happened as well. And there was so much good.
It may not seem like it. There was a whirlwind blowing around us, causing chaos and destruction in our culture, our families, and our households. But in the midst of that, a wonderful thing happened: so many people started paying attention, caring about things they may not have cared about before, and fighting for a better future for our country. The last year, for example, has forced us to look squarely at not only our politics but our democracy. Black Lives Matter exploded from a vocal activist group to a major force in American politics, wielding the rancor of the age to bring attention and energy to a problem that’s marred this country since its foundation. The Women’s March, prompted by a long list of accusations against the then newly elected former President, bled into #MeToo, precipitating the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, and the first major public discussion of the threat of sexual violence that women face every single day.
This is good. The circumstances that spurred these new waves of activism aren’t, but the change they’re fighting for was needed long before 2016. The explosion of these massive but oft-ignored issues into public consciousness might not have been possible without our amplified, raging divisions of the last few years. They became shibboleths of political loyalties; sitting comfortably on the sidelines was no longer an option. Many may have signed up more to show which side of the fence they fell on than to engage in concrete action, but that had a powerful knock-on effect: America had to hear what people they’d never bothered listening to before had to say. Issues surrounding women, LGBT, Black, and immigrant communities have at long last achieved a level of public saturation that we can build off of.
It would be unrealistic to expect that these concerns will maintain their national urgency long-term; people will, inevitably, move on if there is nothing else that triggers widespread public outrage, and I know that we are allexhausted. But I want you to take a moment and focus on the moment we’re in, and the opportunity we have to begin righting our wrongs.
Right now, dominating pop culture discussion is how our society treated Britney Spears. She rocketed to superstardom in 1999, and by 2007 we were done with her. The time in between, her years as an unstoppable pop culture juggernaut, were marked as much by mockery and dismissal as everything else. Despite topping the charts, interviewers treated her as a silly girl; audiences demanded her sexuality (as evidenced by what sold and what didn’t) and then turned around and punished her for it. She faced, on a massive scale very few of us can even conceive, backlash for simply being a young woman who achieved horrifying celebrity.
The fact that we are, at this moment, even having this conversation about how media abuses the women it profits from—the same way we have ongoing discussions about Tonya Harding, Anita Hill, Anna Nicole Smith (who literally died and was still the butt of jokes), and Kim Kardashian, to name just a few—was only possible because the cultural climate demanded it. And it means that women, the same way as other marginalized groups in this country, have a path forward. So what’s next?
It is absolutely critical we not waste this moment. We don’t know if or when this level of investment in the treatment of women might come again, which means we cannot afford to be quiet or stop making a fuss. But even beyond that, what we need to push for isn’t anger but leadership. From women in politics out there defending reproductive freedom to women in the C-suite and boardrooms, especially of media companies; we need to channel these public discussions on particular outrages into concrete opportunities for change.
Back in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson understood more than most that all the marches in the world could never do as much good as making sure Black Americans got the vote, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act that arose from his alliance with Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. indeed led to genuine change, if slowly and with resistance. What so much of the country didn’t understand, though, was that even the vote wasn’t enough; what Black Americans needed was power, which extends beyond politics and into every facet of the culture, because power demands respect.
Women, at this moment, are in a similar position. We have momentum on our side; for the first time ever, we have a woman serving as our nation’s vice president; we have the public conversation; we have been slowly building up representation in our media and forthrightly describing our lived experiences. But to move forward, we need power. More women hiring managers. More women CEOs. More women news directors. More women entrepreneurs. More women producers. And right now, thanks to the pandemic, we’re losing ground in almost every way we can measure practical power.
What’s next for us? To keep fighting, keep pushing, keep reminding the world that we matter, keep refusing to be ignored. Stay strong. Stay focused. Do your work. But don’t be quiet. We’re told our whole lives to be quiet. But now, more than ever, it’s time to get loud.