When the #MeToo movement made headlines in fall 2017, a group of people from entertainment and cosmetic industries signed a statement declaring that “the clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace.” Journalists swiftly dubbed this “the reckoning”—a word that reflected their sense of some seismic shift in public awareness about how sexual violence is reflected and refracted in policies, politics, work cultures and the stories media tell about the worlds around us.
As a media historian, I have been struck, if not surprised, by how little media have had to say about the long history of resistance to sexual and racial violence in their own industries. Much coverage suggests that, with a creak and a groan, media industries have opened their eyes to a new and dawning awareness of the presence and prevalence of sexual violence—like robots in some science fiction thriller, a light was thrown on, a switch was flipped and consciousness followed.
In the wake of contemporary understanding, the Silence Breakers, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, raised their voices and were embraced as heroes by the very media industries that had long harassed and then vilified them when they had the temerity to object. But denying women and people of color’s long history of protest against their treatment in studios, offices and on-screen for over a century downplays the extent to which sexual violence is built into the very structures of media industries.
Women working in media in New York City before 1950 protested sexual harassment; toxic stereotyping in film, radio and television; and anti-immigrant bias. Many of them left accounts of the harassment they had experienced over the course of long careers.
Vera Caspary wrote novels and screenplays about independent women standing up to studio heads, producers and directors who insisted that the film industry was about “c**t and horses.” Fredi Washington, who starred in the 1939 version of Imitation of Life, fought “writers on lines like: ‘If only I had been born white,'” noting that “they didn’t seem to realize that a decent life, not white skin, was the issue.” Women struggled with notable successes to create hospitable work places and content challenging bigotry and discrimination, like Gertrude Berg’s The Goldbergs, which for decades mentored some of the best and brightest progressive talent in New York City.
Actor and writer Ruth Gordon recalled an early encounter with sexual harassment in theater with her director at the time: “‘We’ll read from this. Stand here.’ He pointed to a space beyond his desk. ‘It’s with your husband in Act One.’ He gently put his lips to mine. I had to have the part. ‘You’re sweet. Shall we begin?’ He leaned over and covered my mouth with his lips. His tongue went slowly in, out, in.”
Many women fled the industry as soon as they could. “It’s unbearable to any civilized person as a mere visitor,” writer Lillian Hellman said of Hollywood, “but with something to do it’s no worse than being in jail.” Her friend, Dorothy Parker, was characteristically blunter: “I can’t talk about Hollywood. It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on. I can’t imagine how I did it. When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. Out there, I called it.”
In the late 1940s, the Cold War closed in around a small but potentially powerful cohort of successful women in film and broadcasting, and a conservative backlash began to take shape. “When women of independence and purpose are consistently presented not only as subject to anguish and neurosis (as in the past), but as degraded and murderous,” writer Sylvia Jarrico warned then, “the complacent theme that submission is the natural state of women has given way to the aggressive theme that submission is the necessary state of women.”
On screen, Jarrico pointed out, independent women were presented as pathological messes, a trend still observable today. Women who rebelled against media practices of sexism and racism were branded “difficult” and “nightmares”—terms now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein used more recently against actor Ashley Judd.
Hellman, one of the most infamously difficult of a generation of defiant women, said that “rebels are nuisances,” especially from the perspective of men and industries intent on preserving privileges that gave them pleasure. Perpetrators, on the other hand, were dubbed “eccentric” and “geniuses,” even when—as in the case of film magnate, industrialist and inventor Howard Hughes—they were notorious for beating up women (a notoriety apparently unworthy of mention in the 2004 film The Aviator) or, in the case of Alfred Hitchcock, allegedly stalking and sexual assaulting women like Tippi Hedren who starred in their films.
In her one-woman show, written long years after she was blacklisted for her civil rights activism and self-described feminism, the indefatigable Lena Horne could have spoken for all these women when she told the audience: “I’m just a survivor.”
Now, a new backlash is coalescing in response to the #MeToo movement and the reports of sexual and racial violence in the White House, Wall Street, Hollywood, businesses, college campuses and public places it has unleashed around the world. The stories of those who spoke up years before activists took to social media to force institutions to listen tells us much about repression, resistance and resilience.
“The reckoning”—and history will determine the degree to which this balance sheet of wrongs has been clearly assessed and added up—has been slow in coming. The stories of those who fought against discrimination in mass media in the twentieth century and the successive backlashes against their struggles show us just how bitterly media industries have fought to suppress knowledge of toxic cultures and the resistance of the women who championed change.
“History is not going to be kind to this administration,” U.S. Representative Maxine Waters said of the Trump administration’s cruel family separation policy, “but we want history to report that we stood up. That we pushed back. That we fought. That we did not consider ourselves victims.” Remembering those who stood up, pushed back and fought in the past reminds us of our place in a long line of rebels and resistors and offers precious insights into the tactics and strategies of forces intent on denying our resistance a past and a future.