The Timberlake Effect


This post isn't about Justin Timberlake. It is about you and me. I wish it weren't about me, but if I am going to point out societal ugliness I had better be willing to name myself as part of the problem.

I really wish it weren't about you, either.

Thousands of women (and some men) have joined in the #metoo campaign since it started a few days ago, when Alyssa Milano tweeted the suggestion that women who have been harassed or assaulted by men respond to her with a "me too."

#metoo went viral, because harassment, assault, attack, and rape are deadly. They kill spirits, self-image, courage, relationships, and bodies, not to mention the souls of the perpetrators as well as of the victims.

In response to the epidemic of admission, some people, women and men, are debating the need for #metoo. The commentary often goes like this: Everyone already knows women are routinely treated as bodies to be used, so telling people that you're one of them is just self-indulgent pity partying. Or women want to be sex objects and men just don't know where the line is anymore. Or what about men? We get harassed too.


These are variations on the complaints about #blacklivesmatter, or the truthtelling of San Juan, Puerto Rico's mayor: The fact of the complaining reveals and reifies the problem itself: that when people who have been oppressed demand fairness, it threatens the foundations of privilege.

Want to recognize your own privilege? Notice when you feel like a "minority" group getting respect/justice/assistance feels like you're getting something taken away. The zero-sum game of supremacy tells us there's just enough good for a few. In the U.S., the few are overwhelmingly white, male, rich, or some combination of the three.

If you're annoyed that the reason #metoo is focused on women, recognize that it is not because men don't matter but because our cultural narrative is that few women are assaulted, attacked, raped and that harassment is Really just boys being boys.

If #blacklivesmatter feels too exclusive, remember that it's not that nonBlack lives don't matter but because our whole system is set up in favor of white skin.

So here's why I called this post The Timberlake Effect. When Justin Timberlake tore Janet Jackson's costume off her, exposing her breast, she was blamed and ridiculed. She had to defend her intentions. 

Justin Timberlake ripped a woman's bodice off, and it wasn't his career that suffered. 

Notice I'm not suggesting Timberlake intended to expose Jackson, or to cause her harm. Stating the fact and the result is not blame.

The social condemnation of Jackson, a Black woman, revealed more than her breast. It demonstrated just how much sexism and racism are warp and weft of the fabric of our culture.

If the U.S. were different now, if we hadn't elected a braggart sexual assaulter, if we didn't continue to blame Black people for their own murders, these minor displays of hashtag solidarity and truthtelling wouldn't rankle so much.

But we did, and we do, and we cannot afford to lie to ourselves anymore, if we ever could.  And if my telling you that I have been harassed, stalked, assaulted, and attacked makes you feel like you're being blamed, or losing something, that's not about my stating facts. That's about your awareness of your own complicity.

If I tell you that I have benefited from my white skin, even if it's only because I don't fear the police or get followed by store security, if I confess my privilege, and you respond with discomfort with or denial of those facts, or remind me that we had a biracial President, for heaven's sake! or that some darker-skinned athlete makes billions of dollars, you aren't reacting to my confession. You're reacting to your own sense that you may need to change as much as I do.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve misbehave. Adam blames Eve for being a temptress, as if he had no power over his actions. Eve blames the snake, as if she could not have chosen otherwise. And everybody knows how snakes are, don't we?