In Megan Fox’s September 2019 interview with screenwriter Diablo Cody, the actress confessed, “I don’t feel like there’s a space in feminism for me. Even though I consider myself a feminist, I feel like feminists don’t want me to be a part of their group.” When evaluating Fox’s situation and how badly our society treated her in the early 2000s, I was reminded of my friend and former coworker at my previous job and her experience with being sexually harassed at work.
As a beauty consultant at the CVS, where we both worked, my friend was required to adhere to a certain look not expected of the rest of us. She had to keep her hair styled, wear obvious makeup and was encouraged to wear flattering clothes. There are a few parallels between her and Megan Fox. For example, they are both considered exceptionally attractive women, they are both dedicated mothers, and they both experience anxiety and depression. Fox indicated her struggles with mental health in her interview. Similarly, my friend confessed she had trouble sleeping and struggled with a loss of appetite due to stress, which wasn’t helped by prescribed medications.
Additionally, like Megan Fox, my friend was sexually harassed by a work superior. In turn, my friend’s anxiety was due in part to being sexually harassed at the hands of our male store manager. He not only violated the boundaries of his position as her superior by asking her out but he also verbally and emotionally abused her when she rejected him. He began criticizing her work when he had never done so before, cut her hours, and continued making inappropriate comments to her.
She eventually fell apart. She experienced panic attacks and her prescriptions doubled up. This isn’t surprising as sexual harassment in the workplace can cause a variety of mental health-related problems. For instance, there are three types of phenomena victims of workplace harassment and assault will experience.
One type is betrayal trauma, which happens when an authoritative figure abuses their position of power to engage in sexual harassment. Another is betrayal blindness, a type of reaction wherein the victim deliberately ignores their trauma and victimization to avoid confronting their abuser. Lastly, institutional betrayal occurs when the company itself does little to nothing to prevent sexual harassment from occurring.
Our company was very much guilty of this last point. An investigator called and told her somebody reported her sexual harassment. My friend later discovered one of her fellow beauty consultants overheard her talking about the harassment she endured. The coworker who overheard alerted upper management, eventually leading to an investigation.
My friend’s first instinct, when confronted about her harassment, was to defend the man abusing her. This reflex was one driven by fear of retaliation and more abuse. As it turned out, she was justified in having that fear. The next day, the district manager as well as the supervisor for beauty consultants came to our store and called her into the office.
When she walked into the office, the district manager had the investigator on speakerphone. When my friend expressed her discomfort, the district manager callously demanded she speak up about what happened to her. The investigator told her if she wasn’t going to comply, “then we can have a different discussion.” The threat in his words was clear; she could speak up or be fired.
My friend relented, breaking down crying as she confessed her experience with our store manager. The district manager looked at her and asked incredulously, “Why are you crying?” If this sounds like behavior typical of a male leader responding to female victims of sexual harassment, think again. The district manager was a woman.
Before this, when my friend tried transferring to another store, the district manager prevented her transfer. What’s more, my friend asserted the district manager and the beauty manager knew what was going on and they should have tried to help her sooner. So, in addition to her distrust of men, my former coworker had now developed a cynical outlook on women too.
When the investigation ensued, none of our female coworkers were willing to come forward as a witness against the perpetrator, despite having seen his inappropriate behavior. When they were eventually called to testify in a deposition in her lawsuit against the company, none of them corroborated her story.
In retrospect, my coworkers’ indifference to the situation was, unfortunately, not surprising. They frequently made snide comments about how she flirted with male customers, how she often dated around and had many bad relationships. At one point my friend confided in me, saying she was bothered by an accusation floating around our work that she flirted with another co-worker’s boyfriend.
So why would a group of women, who otherwise seem to pride themselves on being feminists, treat my friend this way? The issue wasn’t so much a failure of feminism as a movement. Rather, it was more an example of how internalized misogyny leads women, even those who claim to be feminists themselves, to stigmatize or judge other women. Women are conditioned by patriarchy to develop subconscious biases against other women, preventing us from truly protecting each other from violent sexism.
At the same time, patriarchy seeks to pit women against each other, which breeds unwarranted jealousy. The lack of help my former co-worker received could also be rooted in the idea that people falsely believe “pretty” women don’t struggle the way other women do. Like Megan Fox, my friend didn’t get the help she needed because of people’s preconceived ideas about her. Consequently, my former coworker was victimized and dismissed. And in not speaking up for her, we ultimately failed her.
When people vocalize their experience of facing sexual harassment, we must listen and believe them. We must also show empathy to survivors in an effort to show that we care. Ultimately, protecting sexual assault/harassment survivors is of the utmost importance; in turn, we must consider that not every survivor copes in the same way.
We should never force anyone who has been sexually harassed to come forward when they’re not ready. And we should never judge survivors for not speaking out. True feminism makes space for and encompasses all women. Internalized misogyny shouldn’t cause us to only support women we deem worthy.
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