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The State of the Gender Divide

Lessons from trying to make content for men during Weinstein and #MeToo

I was sitting in my office chair when I got a rare Twitter DM from a male journalist alerting me to the existence of “Shitty Media Men.” He wouldn’t reveal his source, but apparently an anonymous document was circulating in which women across the media industry were attempting to warn other female colleagues of dangerous men in their field. The Google spreadsheet included the names and employers of those who had allegedly engaged in everything from inappropriate Twitter DM conversations to rape, with multiple allegations of violent sexual assault highlighted in red. In under 24 hours it had more than 70 names, and it was essentially red-and-white striped.

The existence of such a list excited me, in that sick, visceral way when vindication is delivered for something horrible and depraved — something you wish weren’t true, but fuck, of course it is. In some ways my entire career working in media — having almost all male bosses, being on beats that were majority male, even being in the tech industry for a spell — was partaking in some version of the List, just in hushed drunken whispers or in private, safe technological spaces, like text messages and Gchats.

To work in media is to accept that every job, work function or networking event will be peppered with some supremely shitty men, their offenses all different and of varying degrees but all centered on one central fact: They deeply disrespect — and probably even hate — their female colleagues. To make matters worse, many of these men publicly brand themselves as male feminists, and most dangerously, serve as true gatekeepers for the women who work for them, able to either help make their careers or steal their ideas to make their own.

I’d written off true accountability for these men as something I wouldn’t see in my lifetime. Frankly, I didn’t think women in our industry would be so fearless as to codify the information in a way that would obviously be called reckless and damaging, simply in the interest of protecting each other. So my response when I received the List from a female colleague was less “wow” than “finally.” And what ultimately shocked me wasn’t the content, or how prolific assault seems to be in media, but by how most of the stuff on there didn’t shock me at all. I’d heard many of these “rumors” either first- or secondhand — a reality that made me feel complicit and guilty. We’d been reporting on the abuses of women and trying to hold men accountable in other industries while abandoning our own, women who no doubt had to be suffering more because of that hypocrisy.

And, of course: It was personal. I saw friends, coworkers and freelancers I’d worked with on the List. And then there was the big one: Before I even had a chance to consider whether I wanted to add my former boss, someone else already had. I wasn’t actually alone, though I’d been trying to convince myself that I was. I left my office on the verge of a panic attack, saying I “needed fresh air.” The implications of his entry were that his behavior had persisted unchecked as he rose through the ranks. That made me feel simultaneously suicidal and homicidal — the kind of rage that’s so intense that its natural conclusion is to turn inward. If only I’d seen a list like this earlier in my career, maybe the greatest trauma of my life could have been avoided. (The hope that maybe it would accomplish this for others is unfortunately dead; the List was deleted by its creator soon after, as think pieces dubbed it “reckless” and “harmful.”)

I called friends, women and non-binary people who I knew professionally but not well. I was terrified my former boss would think it was me who added him and somehow find a way to punish me further, because leaving New York probably wasn’t enough. I was incapable of working, or doing anything really, tending to my text messages and DMs from female colleagues like it was my full-time job, and refreshing the document like I was trying to buy impossible-to-get concert tickets.

By the time I got home that night I was gutted, but my impulse was to text the man I’d been working most closely with over the past year—MEL’s editor-in-chief Josh Schollmeyer. Without revealing the contents of the list, I wanted to talk to him about what was happening, because I knew a reckoning was nigh, one that would both deeply affect me and our staff and also chart the course of our coverage for the following months, if not years.

We had to figure out how we — a men’s magazine funded by Dollar Shave Club, based in California and staffed by a slightly random assortment of former New York media types and West Coast writers and artists — would cover this the next day, if at all. We’d dropped the ball on the Harvey Weinstein story a week earlier, which was annoying to the women on staff. The overall feeling was that a story about a powerful man in Hollywood consistently raping women in his industry for decades — and the conspiracy to cover it up — was a one-off, the kind of story a women’s magazine or a more influential, news-oriented outlet might take on.

“I was mostly paralyzed,” Josh recounts. “I had no fucking clue how to talk to other men about this. And it seemed impossible to say the right thing in real time, especially as more and more details came out, one more horrifying than the last.” He offered some excuses — we don’t cover breaking news, we needed to do something bigger on it down the line — but admits that was mainly a stall tactic. “The reality is I needed time to process all of this and figure how exactly we would manifest it into content.”

Besides, how exactly does one broach the subject of such blatant male toxicity with… men? This was the essential editorial question we’d already been trying to answer, with our stories on Men Going Their Own Way, “good guy” rapists, wives bearing the emotional brunt of their husband’s unemployment, etc. over the past two years, but the Weinstein scandal brought the central challenge of our editorial mission to a head. It was a festering pimple under a microscope that was now impossible to ignore, though we tried.

Then there was the defensiveness from men on staff. This was supposed to be a magazine for “good guys” employed by mostly “good guys,” or that at least was the conceit. “No doubt some men are pigs who toss away women like it’s nothing, but not all men are like that, and it sucks to be grouped together,” says social media editor Jeff Gross, who at times felt scared to toss his opinion in the ring during our daily 9:30 a.m. pitch meetings. Fears like “the idea that we’ve completely abandoned due process” or that “all it takes is one person with a grudge and my life could be over” weren’t warmly welcomed by female writers and editors.

The men on our staff were mad, at themselves for being naive or complacent and at the cultural conversation that was now obsessed with litigating the “badness” of their gender — a turn of events that many of the MEL women took pleasure in.

“I found myself feeling angry and very stupid. Initially the anger came from feeling attacked—I dreaded going to those meetings. I think it’s natural to feel defensive when a group of people are telling you how terrible you are for an hour,” says associate art director Sam Dworkin. “But eventually the anger shifted to myself. When I realized that I’d been part of the problem and had witnessed countless abuses, I felt like a total idiot. My naive feeling was just a cover for turning my back to abuse my whole life. I found myself reflecting on many things in my past and how badly I wished I’d done anything to prevent them or even made an effort to support my female friends.”

The female staffers were angry too, but it was pointed outward — toward the world, and in the context of those editorial meetings, largely directed at their male coworkers. “It’s frustrating that male colleagues consistently see these issues as an attack against which they need to defend themselves rather than an opportunity to have a genuine dialogue,” says Serena Golden, MEL’s managing editor. “Of course, that echoes what I see from male friends and relatives — that they’re more interested in dismissing the subject and moving on quickly than in actually hearing what women (friends, partners, colleagues, daughters) have to say.”

Staff writer Tracy Moore, who spent years at Jezebel, similarly felt that the editorial meetings just served as microcosm of dynamics she’d seen play out her whole life. “They sounded like most men I’ve ever known, and it exposed the blindspot men have about sexism, men who otherwise consider themselves sensitive, attentive and open-minded. They offered up the same counterexamples as all men do when you try to tell them what it’s like to experience the world as a woman. Either they don’t really believe it’s that bad, or they definitely aren’t that bad, or they don’t know anyone that bad,” she says.

“To be at a place where you’re invited for your point of view and for pushing back on men for precisely these pain points, and then to have those men resist hearing it, is surreal. They seemed to come around, after the avalanche, but those initial discussions felt no different to me than debating sexism in college with white Southern bros. If you can even get them to admit there IS a problem, they rarely intend to be part of any solution.”

I was pissed, too, and for the first time on that phone call with Josh I was able to articulate exactly why. If the goal of MEL was to make men more aware of their messy inner lives, to inspire them to change, and most challenging of all, give them the tools to do so, wasn’t our internal display of toxic masculinity kinda sorta relevant? He agreed, but I wondered why it took so long to get to this understanding. When female staffers had said “this is serious” for the past week, it didn’t quite land. But seeing a libelous list full of friends and colleagues — seeing a list that could quite possibly include their own — made them wake up.

Josh, however, doesn’t quite agree with my take. “I’m not sure it was that,” he argues. “It was more that essentially this wasn’t going to stop at Weinstein. This was indeed a giant reckoning. In this way, the industry was irrelevant, but the List itself made it clear that we had to do something because there were gonna be all sorts of lists like this and all sorts of Weinsteins.”

The events that followed bore this out: Shortly thereafter, as thousands of women started posting their own experiences with harassment and abuse under the hashtag #MeToo, it felt like a real revolution was underway. Both Josh and I had been struggling to write an op-ed of sorts about Weinstein over the course of the past week in a shared Google document, but it was a disaster, full of half-formed thoughts and sentences, neither of us knowing what to say or how, and, in my case, if we even wanted to.

I ultimately felt it would come down to me to suck it up and write something, to chart the course for our male readers—explaining to them the tenets of basic human decency, pleading with them to be better and offering some tips and tricks as to how. (As is true in all newsrooms, the most vulnerable are always responsible for explaining oppression to their oppressors, no matter the cost to their mental health.)

This news story was so relevant and visceral and inspiring to women because it had happened to us. For women, sexual assault isn’t an abstract concept we wrestle with intellectually every morning while reading The New York Times; this is our daily reality. The question that was now being raised earnestly by men I knew — “Where do we go from here?” — was hard to stomach as I’d been addressing it my entire life. It’s difficult to convey to a man that male violence, on every level of the spectrum, isn’t just deeply personal but literally everywhere, and some of us haven’t had the privilege of ignoring it until now.

Those Tuesdays when I left work early for therapy? That’s when I was fortunate enough to be getting specialized treatment for my PTSD from the aforementioned abusive relationship with a former boss. How I left New York City? That was in large part to escape him. Those first few weeks at MEL when I was dangerously unfocused? Being in a room alone with Josh made me so nervous I once ran to the bathroom to puke. By the way, how was I settling into a new place, a new city? I was drinking myself to sleep, to combat the terrible nightmares. And then there was the biggest, most shameful fear of all that I hid from everyone, even myself: What if I’d never be capable of editing or writing anything ever again? What if I was now truly useless in my ability to “make capital,” not just to Josh, but to anyone, ever?

Almost every woman I knew was dealing with a similar interior narrative, and most men around them knew nothing about it — or they simply weren’t paying attention. The list at least in my own life is extensive: The close friend who was recently raped. The other friend whose boyfriend committed suicide and left a note saying it was all her fault. Then there were — and still are — the near constant texts about “low-level” bad behavior that peppered my day — “X made an inappropriate pass at me at happy hour”; “Y took off the condom during sex without asking”; “Z ghosted me brutally after two years of dating.” When I texted a man I was dating about the Shitty Media Men List, he never responded; he didn’t think it was his job to talk to me about it.

Josh didn’t know that as I worked for him I was grappling with these thoughts constantly. They inspired some of my best work, but they came at a price. I spent all of my free time thinking about men, the one who destroyed me, the new ones I met in L.A. who were incapable of dealing with my damage. I thought of my male friends and my coworkers, the ones I respected and loved, and wondered how and why they somehow “got” that women were people. I thought about other male friends who didn’t, how I’d have to hold them accountable for the rumors I’d heard at some point, but how I was too tired and cowardly to do so in the moment. And then I’d wake up and come to morning editorial meetings where we’d talk about all of these issues from 10 feet above, even though they were the wallpaper of my own personal hell. When I suggested, “What about a story on how men can talk to other men about misogyny?” I was really screaming inside, my hands sweating, grasped into the tiniest, hardest fists under the table.

“The rage that many of us are feeling doesn’t necessarily correspond with the severity of the trespass: Lots of us are on some level as incensed about the guy who looked down our shirt at a company retreat as we are about Weinstein, even if we can acknowledge that there’s something nuts about that, a weird overreaction,” wrote Rebecca Traister in The Cut. “Part of it is the decades we’ve spent being pressured to underreact, our objections to the small stuff (and also to the big stuff!) bantered away, ignored or attributed to our own lily-livered inability to cut it in the real world. Resentments accrete, mature into rage.”

By the end of my conversation with Josh, it was clear there was no way I was going to write a piece. “The men on our staff are going to need to get it together,” I told him through tears. I also felt that men were more likely to listen to one of their own. “While I asked you to put together an op-ed, I think I knew deep down that this was something men were going to have to figure out on their own,” Josh reflects. “But how to show proper penance as well as start a constructive dialogue seemed impossible to articulate.”

But he figured it out: On his way to our editorial meeting the next morning he called up Miles Klee, a staff writer who had been silent in most of our conversations about the topic. “I was feeling nerve-racked because I’d been trying to gather my thoughts and see how things were playing out in the slightly longer term,” Miles says now. “There was the danger of just seeming to rush an opinion before the movement had taken shape.”

The hourlong conversation between Josh and Miles resulted in a piece that would become a grounding force in our coverage over the next couple of months, in which we negotiated and worked through our own tensions through our content: “So, as a man who has not quite known what to say this week — disgusted by the impotence of men who shrug at these scandals, cozy in their blank cynicism and relative innocence, as well as the narcissistic performances of men who would be the face of a movement not theirs to lead, and finally the men long rumored to be offenders who have fallen tactfully mute — I have to settle for saying this: I believe in revolution,” Klee wrote. “I believe that oppressors rise to be destroyed. And I believe there is almost no recourse too radical for those united against them, given that law enforcement and internal watchdogs are openly complicit.”

Titled “Our Silence Will Not Save Us,” it sparked a major shift in dynamics, and we became increasingly incapable of having real discussions. Meetings were tense, a melange of low-key shouting matches and awkward silences. I once held back tears over the framing of a headline about something as innocuous as lunch. But we channeled this messiness into our work. Nearly every day in the following month we had a piece on sexual harassment — from how to talk to women about their past abuse to how to hit on women in a post-Weinstein world to how to network with them without being creepy. Our features writer C. Brian Smith even interviewed the top five masculinity academics in the country about the state of men and naming the “One Thing That Connects Everything from the Las Vegas Shootings to Hazing Deaths to Sexual Assault” — toxic masculinity.

“I know for me at least, that once we got that first piece out of the way, I felt a permission of sorts to let free a bunch of different thoughts and questions about what was happening and how we got here,” Josh says. “Now, looking back, not all of them might have been good. But I don’t regret them. Your and my conversation centered me, and Miles’s piece freed me to attempt to lead the conversation — as best I could — in a way I felt very uncomfortable about in the early days of Weinstein.”

At some point, though, we had to admit to ourselves and each other that we were exhausted. We were tired of litigating the good guys versus the bad, the butt graze versus the rape, the middle manager who dates his colleague versus the CEO who preys on interns. The men were tired of feeling guilty, and I was tired of being a victim. I’d been at the game of evaluating the spectrum essentially since birth, and doing it now in a work context felt particularly cruel.

A combination of fatigue — and perhaps fear that no one will be left standing when this reckoning is finally wrought — has led some to invoke the imagery of a “witch hunt,” or ponder if the reckoning will lead to a sex-negative moral panic. It’s easy to chalk up high-profile firings and a popular hashtag to legitimate change, but we’re only now beginning talk about how this trickles down to blue-collar industries, how it impacts women in unglamorous fields, without famous bosses, and trans victims or people of color who are more likely to be sexually harassed and face bigger barriers in speaking out. Haley Hamilton, a bartender in Boston and MEL’s booze correspondent, tells me that since the #MeToo movement, she hasn’t seen much tangible change in the day-to-day operation of her bar, in which she’s the only female bartender of seven. “Working in restaurants is the Wild West of what’s acceptable and appropriate,” and the firing of famous chefs hasn’t altered that.

In the wake of “Shitty Media Men,” Eden Rohatensky wrote a viral Medium post about their harrowing past work experience at an anonymous media company that led to an investigation and the ultimate firing of Vox editorial director Lockhart Steele, the first of a number of firings of predatory men in media. But what would largely be considered “justice” by outsiders is hard to rejoice in when it comes at such a price. “I’ve struggled to find work since then; I’ve struggled to find stability again; and quite frankly, the people who have attacked me or harassed me or who have used their privilege and power to put me in bad situations … they all have a lasting effect on my confidence in both my work and my relationships,” Eden says. “That’s something I’m still working through, but I wouldn’t have been able to write that post if I hadn’t made progress already.”

The proliferation of the #MeToo hashtag across the world and exposés about Ford factories give me hope that the change is both vast and ever-lasting. But Staff Writer John McDermott, who wrote a story for us about the #MeToo movement outside of our media bubble, is less optimistic. “The MEL staff is hardly a representative sample. The uncomfortable truth is that many ‘ordinary’ offices aren’t discussing this matter at all. So while handfuls of powerful media figures have fallen from grace, I’m not sure how much this resonates with the larger populace.”

In attempting to report his piece, John garnered no response from multiple social networks, and outright hostility for daring to even ask the question: “As far as I know, most of my co-workers live in reality and not Hollywood. They know what is appropriate and not. I think most people would choose not to work for a company that tolerates harassment on any level,” one Redditor scolded.

And what of the men who have only abused one woman (so far), or are in the relative beginning stages of their predatory behavior? “It’s not enough for it to happen to one woman,” says writer and comedian Megan Koester, who for years was ostracized for trying to report on the behavior of Louis C.K. “We have to put together a harem of victims” to legitimize allegations. Of course, legal departments of news organizations need substantial evidence and the more accusers the better in that regard. The same goes for an editor’s news judgment, in which the more salacious and egregious the crime, the more “newsworthy” it’s deemed.

Maybe, though, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe we’re so caught up in litigating difference and context and nuance, we’re missing the entire point. Should we simply stand in this hard-earned moment, one where there are actual consequences for bad behavior, a little bit longer? “Why do we need to talk about the redemption of men when we are right in the middle of the salvation of women? Not even the middle, but the very beginning?” asked Amber Tamblyn in The New York Times. “Why are we obligated to care about salvaging male careers when we have just begun to tell the stories that have plagued us for lifetimes?”

Or perhaps we aren’t thinking into the future enough. I’m excited most for what this means for the next generation of women, ones who haven’t yet been traumatized by a predatory boss or handsy coworker, and with any luck never will be. “I think the idea is [that this rash of falls from grace] will act as a disincentive [for other men] to do this kind of stuff,” says Nona Willis Aronowitz, features editor for Splinter. “If there are consequences for some people, other people might be watching their backs.”

For now, the questions #MeToo has raised have mostly been focused on punishment and justice or the rehabilitation of abusive men. This is important and necessary, but I’m more interested in prevention, in coming up with tangible ways we might get men to stop sexually harassing co-workers before they do or a society where they might not even want to in the first place. I’m more interested in making sure the next generation of women aren’t asked to come forward with their trauma in mass numbers on social media to prove that being abused is a thing that happens, and guess what, it kinda sucks! So that extremely talented women don’t leave industries as a means of survival. So ones like me who decide to stay aren’t cutting and starving and drugging to get through it.

That said, we’ve reached an impasse where ignoring men as a means of autonomy has reached its conclusion. We’re stuck with having to live, love and work with a bunch of broken toys. “If my approach was too much about men,” wrote Dayna Tortorici in n+1 on her compulsion to talk to men in the wake of #MeToo, “my defense is that the situation was about men from the beginning.”

There is only one way forward, and it involves actually addressing the gender who hurts us, even if that might temporarily hurt us more. We know that banishing men won’t work: “To dream of men’s exclusion is to continue to configure the world around them, to imbue them with power so complete that there’s no hope of combating or reforming it, but only fleeing its reach,” wrote Charlotte Shane on the notion earlier this year, suggesting that instead we work to ban the harmful aspects of maleness.

Though I was eager to shutdown all the supportive hashtags men made in reaction to #MeToo because they felt performative and self-indulgent — and we know where that can lead — I wonder if I was acting out my own trauma and shutting down a vital conversation before it could even start. I’ve realized now that what bothered me most about those posts wasn’t necessarily the content, but that they seemed entirely misguided. If you’re interested in solving this problem, the solution isn’t going to be a self-congratulatory status update online. We need to have real conversations, face-to-face.

In the past couple of months, the men in my life, though scared, have seemed to understand that they have to talk to us as well. “The men I’ve been talking to are definitely really shaken up by it, they’re really second guessing their past,” says Aronowitz. “I feel like it’s paradoxically affecting men more than women.”

Some are handling this reckoning more artfully than others. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I got set up on a blind date, and the man’s first text to me included an ask to get a drink followed by a tone-deaf attempt at a joke: “Full disclosure — it might come out at some point that I exposed myself inappropriately to a stranger in 1983. I wasn’t born yet, but you never know. These things are insidious.”

I also talked to a male journalist friend who reached out about the List after the dust had settled. He admitted the whole thing made him nervous, but that despite its dangerous potential, he thought it was a positive step forward. He expressed shame and guilt and all the feelings that come along with realizing that the things the women in your industry have been telling you for years weren’t exaggerations, but truth. “I told you about [a friend of yours] for years, remember?” I texted back, in reference to one of the code-red dudes on the list. “I know, and I finally confronted him this weekend,” he replied. I realized that I could spend my day enraged that it took him so long, or I could just be happy that the conversation finally happened. I chose the latter.

Months later, The New Yorker’s “Cat Person” story went viral. The tale of a 20-year-old college girl’s attempt to “date” a 34-year-old man (the “Cat Person”), who is both entirely oblivious to her inner life and ultimately resentful of it, was being praised for just how “relatable” it was. It didn’t take long for an ex-boyfriend to reach out, who said it reminded him of our dynamic — though the fictional story doesn’t describe an abusive relationship per se and doesn’t take place at work, its insane popularity drew on the moment in which it dropped. Abuse is an extreme incarnation of smaller aggressions that happen between the two sexes all the time, issues the short story deftly takes on: The inability for men and women to communicate; the inability for men and women to really see each other; the surprisingly frequent inability for men and women to have good sex.

“Am I your Cat Person?” he texted late one night.

“A true Cat Person probably wouldn’t have the self-awareness to wonder if they were a Cat Person. But yes, a lot of elements of that story rang true.”

He knew it. And it meant a lot to me that he agreed, even though a lot of time had passed. We went on to have a real conversation about the dynamics of our relationship, one that even if it was motivated by self-indulgent guilt, made me feel better about the situation, too. I recognized that this never would’ve happened if not for this time and place, this moment of accountability and reflection for men — the same way the story wouldn’t have garnered the author a seven-figure book deal if it had been published three years ago.

I wonder then if the true revolutionary potential of the movement is in these smaller, private moments that happen off social media and outside of exposés. #MeToo might not be a monumental sea change, but it’s the seeds of one. When I asked senior editor Nick Leftley for his thoughts on the past couple of months at MEL, he took the longest to respond, but his answer was the most hard-earned: “It has been, on the whole, like someone removing a filter and giving me a small glimpse at what’s really happening. It has been monumentally depressing, frustrating, horrifying. And I wonder how much of that feeling comes from the excruciating embarrassment at being so, so oblivious. I really, honestly thought of myself as ‘woke,’” he wrote. “Now I feel like I was actually sleepwalking the whole time. I feel angry, not just at the way the world works, but at myself for not seeing it.

“And for once again getting sidetracked and making it all about myself.

“I am trying to shut up.

“And I am trying to listen.”

Maybe that’s a good enough start.