Okay, men, listen up.
Many of you claim to not understand what “rape culture” and “toxic masculinity” are. So here’s a lesson.
This weekend, the nation honored Aretha Franklin, one of the greatest musicians ever to grace us with her presence. The Queen of Soul brought a consistent woman-empowering message, including through her most famous song, “Respect.” She later sang a duet with Annie Lennox, belting out that “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.”
If there was one place where sexism was not at all welcome, it was at her funeral. And yet.
Not one but two men took the opportunity to use their power to put women in their place. Toxic masculinity is so deeply ingrained in our culture that some of us men can’t help but display it at every turn.
Do you ever wonder why some women want to exclude men from their spaces entirely? This is a big part of why: We can’t be trusted.
One of these displays was a generic dismissal of black mothers. Rev. Jasper Williams spent a good deal of his eulogy criticizing black-on-black crime. He called upon black men to be better role models, and better fathers.
That’s all well and good, but during this he criticized mothers: “as proud, beautiful, and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman cannot do, a black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man.” Given that Franklin herself was a single mother, the appropriateness of the comment is highly questionable.
Also, research is showing that the narrative of the absentee black father is largely a myth: Black fathers, overall, are just as present for their children, if not more so, than white fathers. Meanwhile, one of the leading causes for black fathers’ absence is systemic racism. As Donna Lillian Givens writes, “The problem of looking at the fruits of oppression without looking at systems of oppression is the internalization of blame for a disease rooted in a tree.”
It’s fair to point out that Williams’s speech was long and complex. Focusing on a single passage could seem petty, but this was the eulogy of a single mother and a feminist. Even if the underlying message was well-intentioned and sincere, the specific comment was disrespectful to her own struggles in a system set up to oppress both black people and women.
And what of the male role models present at the eulogy? Rev. Williams was sending out a general criticism of black men, but he could have stood to look no further than his fellow clergy, sharing the same podium.
Bishop Charles Ellis took the stage following Ariana Grande’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” He put his arm around her, ostensibly to hug her, but his fingertips were too high and too “friendly.” Rather than adjusting his hand, though, he continued to squeeze the lower portion of Grande’s breast.
His apology is typical of a male apology: He speaks of his intention. He suggests that “maybe” he went too far. He distracts by saying the church is “all about love.” He tries to recenter on something less uncomfortable for him: “The last thing I want to do is to be a distraction to this day. This is all about Aretha Franklin.”
These elements add up to a message: The complainers are making too big of a deal about this. It was innocent and harmless. Nothing to see here. Move along.
To speak plainly: A man touches a woman sexually and nonconsensually on live TV, gets called on it, and tries to diminish it even while “apologizing.”
This is one of the toxins of rape culture. This is the message that what matters is the man’s intentions. The man’s discomfort. The man’s perspective.
In the video, it’s clear that Grande doesn’t welcome this. She pulls away, and he holds his arm firm. Her body language is saying, “No, stop!” loudly, but he refuses to abide.
We shouldn’t need to tell adult men not to touch women’s breasts without their permission, just like we shouldn’t have to tell adult men not to pat women on their bottoms, or that their female coworkers don’t want to see their penis, or that it’s wrong to boast with each other about grabbing women by the… you get the idea.
Each incident like this communicates that women’s bodies are there for men to touch as we please. A truly accidental brush? Okay, move on, apologize as needed. This was not a truly accidental brush, and nor was it an isolated incident.
This is how men are trained to behave, and when it’s a religious leader, when it’s a political leader, when it’s a famous celebrity, it tells all the rest of us men: Keep doing it. Go for it. It’s your right as a man.
Bishop Ellis is no doubt surprised by the backlash because he’s functioning within the climate that he’s been raised in. We do need to hold him accountable for his personal actions, but the much bigger issue, the more pressing issue, is to teach all of our boys (regardless of race) that this is not right.
Rev. Williams speaks of the importance of role models, and I agree with that part. This is not just true for black youth. Murder after murder is committed by a man who was turned down for sex, and 97% of mass shootings are committed by men. Most of these perpetrators are white. Last week, a white man shot and killed a black woman after he ran a red light and smashed into her car.
These events are disturbingly common, and part of the same spectrum. On that spectrum is a clergyman fondling a woman’s breast. There is no “maybe” here.
Aretha Franklin demanded respect. She demanded it not just for herself, but for all women.
Photo credit: Getty Images