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Sexism in the Harvey Weinstein Era

BU course studies an old oppression that’s alive and well


It’s impossible to ignore the fact that our politics is soaking in sexism, from allegations of harassment and worse by politicians  to males’ dominance in high office.

But at the student body level?

That was a depressing shock, says Sara Ann Kurkul, BU Student Government president.

“One time, somebody told me I was too hot to be president,” Kurkul (CGS’16, COM’18) says when the teacher of her Sexism in the 21st Century class invites the class to share personal experiences of misogyny. Another student recalls witnessing a couple arguing outside a restaurant women’s room, which ended when the man shoved the woman inside while barking, “Go change your tampon.”

The teacher, Diane Balser, a College of Arts & Sciences instructor and codirector of undergraduate studies in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, says that the many women who’ve been assaulted, and the panoply of prominent men accused of committing the assaults, attest to a key theme of the class.

“I don’t think there are bad men,” Balser tells the students. “I don’t think the world is divided into bad men and good men. I think…that all men are susceptible to a male culture” that places them in the role of oppressor. (That’s not to deny that certain acts are so egregious that they must be condemned, she says.)

Amid the dam burst of revelations about prominent sexual predators in the Harvey Weinstein era, and the MeToo backlash against sexual misconduct, Balser’s class has acquired a topical urgency unforeseen at the semester’s start.

A woman attending a #MeToo Survivors March & Rally holds a cardboard sign reading, "We come together to end the silence."

A #MeToo Survivors march in Hollywood November 12, 2017, drew thousands in support of victims of sexual assault and harassment. The #MeToo social media campaign has brought attention to the extent of sexual misconduct. Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Film Magic

Even before charges of piggishness and rape against Hollywood mogul Weinstein broke, Balser says, there was ample evidence that sexism is not a relic of a less enlightened past.

“We just elected a president of the United States who said…essentially, sexual assault was OK—boys will be boys,” she says. (Donald Trump dismissed his recorded boasting of grabbing women as “locker room talk.”)

This century also witnessed movie follow-ups to a popular fin-de-20th-siècle TV show, Sex in the City, whose fans will be distressed to hear Balser call it a sexist example of “the tremendous sexualization of women in the media,” one of the topics covered in class. Others include beauty and body image, reproductive issues and marriage, and counterintuitively, oppression of men (students read Guyland, about suffocating, stereotypical expectations of men, such as never showing feelings).

“What I teach is that there have been ongoing changes for better and for worse” regarding sexism, Balser says. “It’s better that women are more educated than they were before. Marriage laws have changed a lot. Men don’t own women anymore in marriage. It’s against the law to rape your wife. Women are allowed birth control information.”

On the downside, “I would say the sexual violence towards women has grown, and it’s more visible and accepted in a very different way.”

She doesn’t think it’s utopian to envision banishing sexism from humanity.

“You have to make a decision,” she says. “Is this human nature or are there other causes? And I would say that institutional, structural damage to human beings also causes emotional damage, and sexism is the result of emotional damage, then, to both men, and in an opposite way, to women. I refuse to think that boy children would automatically want to hurt their sisters.”

Mike Reddy (COM’19), the lone man among the two dozen students in the class, paraphrases Socrates in explaining why he signed up for the course: “I know that I do not know,” he says.

“I have a lot of female friends, and I talk to them about these issues,” he says during a break. “I don’t know much at all about sexism. Or at least I don’t experience it in the same way that a lot of women do. By taking this class, I was primarily trying to get more awareness.”

Balser delivered. What women go through, as revealed in class and in this Era of Weinstein, he says, is shocking.

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Sexism in the Harvey Weinstein Era

  • Andrew Wolfe on 11.27.2017 at 9:37 am

    This article should distinguish between sexism and sexual exploitation. The sexism of the “unenlightened past” was not, in fact, condoning male sexual predation. The “unenlightened” Christian-formed culture of the US strongly disapproved of men sexually exploiting women, as witnessed by the ostracization of Errol Flynn despite his 1943 acquittal on statutory rape charges. Yesterday’s sexism was protective of women; today’s sexism is predatory towards women.

  • A bucket of fish on 12.01.2017 at 9:25 am

    One thing I think this author, and by extension all perpetually offended people, needs to learn is that they can’t just assume the cause of a statement. Take the “change your tampon” example. The author assumes that this is said because the male is sexist and believes women are emotional on their periods. This very well might be part of the reasoning of the guy, but you can’t just assume its the only, or even the primary reasoning. It could be, and I would argue is more likely to be, that the guy was looking for a phrase that would make this person angry. It might not have stemmed from sexism, but rather just that when in an argument people try to be mean to each other. Assuming sexism is lazy, and exactly why eliminating sexism IS a utopian fiction, rather than the potential reality Balser suggests; you can never eliminate something you are determined to find.

    On an aside, if Sex and the City is sexist, you must concede that women are just as sexist against themselves as men, because I am 90% sure it was mostly women that watched the movie. If you acknowledge this, you cannot claim to speak for women, as these women you would necessarily deem sexist would obviously disagree with you.

  • Lara on 01.14.2018 at 10:40 pm

    I’m glad that Balser is teaching this course. More men should enroll in these courses so that they can learn women’s perspectives and help fight male violence against women.

    “Balser delivered. What women go through, as revealed in class and in this Era of Weinstein, he says, is shocking.”

    Well, it was hardly shocking to us women. We’ve endured this for hundreds of years. Sort of like how violent acts of racism have been “shocking” to white folks but is hardly news for Black people, who have endured violent acts of racism for hundreds of years.

  • Nadirah Johnson on 01.24.2018 at 12:16 pm

    Yeah I totally agree with this , and I believe that women should not be labeled because of what they wear.

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