No Shame On You: Is Humiliation Gendered?

From the Garden of Eden to body shaming on Insta, shaming has been used to humiliate, silence, punish, deter and diminish anyone who strays outside the lines professionally or personally.

No Shame On You: Is Humiliation Gendered?
“Book of Hours” by Jean de Montauban. (Flickr)

“Shame on you.”

Many of us may have heard that diminishing scolding from a parent or grandparent as a child, perhaps as an adult. It is a scorching insult with a mean-spirited, finger-wagging damnation. 

Public shaming is having its cultural moment—again and still—while the gender divides appear distinct. More women are refusing to stay silently embalmed in shame for what has happened to them personally and professionally, while many men are declaring they are immune to feeling shame about their own acts.

At least seven women so far, including Lindsay Boylan, Charlotte Bennet, Anna Ruch and Jessica Bakeman, have transcended the intended shaming and told their stories of harassment and assault at the hands of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Even as he faces calls for his resignation, an impeachment investigation and a complaint filed to Albany police, Cuomo’s statements imply he is impervious to any shame—or accountability—for what he is accused of doing.

Boylan wrote, “I spontaneously decided to share a small part of the truth I had hidden for so long in shame and never planned to disclose.”

Cuomo had a notably shameless response: “I have never done anything like this.”

In her new book, Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence, award-winning filmmaker Tanya Selvaratnam writes of the abuse she endured from her intimate partner, former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.  “I hope that my book sparks more people to share their stories, so that we take the shame and the stigma out of it,” Selvaratnam said in a New Yorker interview.

A global chorus of voices upholds such humiliation as normative, while a counter offensive emboldened by the universal validation of global movements such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and #TimesUp stands for truth and eradicating shame. 

In her new book, Prey Tell: Why We Silence Women Who Tell the Truth and How Everyone Can Speak Up, author Tiffany Bluhm writes:

“If we are to care for women who’ve endured sexual misconduct, it will take a radical shift away from shameful theology that believes women are second, when in fact, they are created with equal dignity to share in authority over the earth (Genesis 1:26-28.)”

Yes, gender is fluid and non-binary—but the brutal violence, shaming and discrimination against the trans community also demonstrates the hovering universal lesson that shame is unequally distributed over a power hierarchy connected to gender identity. Anyone defined as “other” is more frequently the target of humiliation—including men who are marginalized.

From the Garden of Eden to body shaming on Insta, shaming has been used to humiliate, silence, punish, deter and diminish anyone who strays outside the lines professionally or personally. 

In her 2019 book, Eve Was Shamed, How British Justice is Failing Women, author Helena Kennedy writes, “The way women have to live their lives and the debasing wretchedness of continuing gender inequality” is a factor in the ubiquity of shaming. 

In her latest book, The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History, Author Ute Frevert, managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, recounts the long tail of the shaming of women:

“In England, women who mistreated their husbands were forced to go on so-called skimmington rides in which they sat backwards on a donkey and were paraded around while neighbors and other village people mocked them. Even in 1971, during the Northern Irish troubles, Catholic women who dated British soldiers ran the risk of being tied to streetlamps, having their hair cut off, and being tarred and feathered.”

On college campuses, “the walk of shame” refers to any woman walking home Saturday or Sunday morning after staying over at a partner’s place the night before—with the presumption of sex. Rarely are men assigned the label.  

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Twenty-first century shaming features the dangerously dark side of social media with revenge porn, vicious verbal attacks, death threats and fearless trolls targeting women more frequently than men for personal, political, professional and public acts—even if they are not born in truth. Yet often men accused of outrageous acts seem immune to both shaming and accountability.

Piers Morgan is neither embarrassed nor ashamed of his racist comments about Meghan Markle; rather he is indignant, as confirmed by his sprinting power walk off the set of his British morning show.  

For Chris Harrison, once the king of The Bachelor/Bachelorette enterprise, his remorse seems nonexistent and his apology too thin for his repeated racist-leaning remarks and attitudes.

Woody Allen is forever shameless for his marriage to his partner’s daughter as the HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow is a testament to his righteous indignation about the allegations of assault on his daughter, Dylan.  

In the workplace, you can be shamed for a career lapse, a career jump, a demotion, even a comment in a meeting. You can be shamed for being tired—which in the COVID era of homeschooling, elder care, child care, layoffs, economic uncertainty, remote work, health fears, injustice and mental health stress seems unavoidable. At work, women are blamed for errors more often than men are, even if they are working on the same projects, according to a 2020 Women in The Workplace report from McKinsey & Co. It is one reason why 54 percent of women in senior leadership positions say they are exhausted. 

In a 2017 study, the Workplace Bullying Institute reported 60.4 million Americans are affected by workplace shaming. Even more worrisome, the survey found “dramatic gender and racial differences appeared in the key findings; as 70 percent of the perpetrators were men and 60 percent of the targets are women, while Hispanics were identified as the most frequently bullied race.”

Shame can be rigorously and randomly distributed for failure, difference as well as excellence. Certainly, shaming is a key component of racial injustice, with deliberate, institutionalized frameworks to shame and punish entire populations, generations and communities for just being who they are.

You can be shamed for sexuality, gender identity, race, skin tone, size, career paths, education, degrees, homes, cars, religion, zipcodes, accents, families, friends, children, job titles, mental health status, disabilities, wardrobes, introversion, extroversion, even your backdrop on Zoom.

I understand the power of shame. I was married to a man who was physically violent. Though I am a journalist, for years I hid in plain sight and dared not say the truth out loud because I had internalized the shame. That is ironic as my livelihood was based on reporting and telling the truth. If I wrote about my experience with domestic violence with a man who seemed perfect to everyone else, how would I ever be taken seriously in my career? Could I outrun the shame?

After years of silence, I wrote I Closed My Eyes, my memoir published in 1999. I braced myself for pity and judgments, because the shame I assigned myself was leaking out of me. The opposite happened—telling the truth eradicated my shame. 

After appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for the book, one of my students at Northwestern University approached me in the hallway. “Professor Weldon, I had no idea you had a past.”

“Everyone has a past,” I told her.

But not everyone is shamed for their past, and no one needs to be. The antidote to shaming for anyone is owning the truth and being accountable. Yes, shame can be assigned to us, but only we can take it in.

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Michele Weldon is a journalist, author, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, senior leader with The OpEd Project and editorial director of Take The Lead. Her latest book, "Act Like You're Having A Good Time," is out in September.