The Harpy

The Thin Pink Line: Schneiderman, Greitens, and the Politics of Misogyny

‘What matters is how we meet these acts: Do we look away in cowardice, or do we respond with a salvo of disgust?’

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In 2010, then–state senator Eric Schneiderman introduced a bill to the New York State legislature to impose criminal penalties for strangulation. Social scientists had concluded that choking is a key precursor to domestic homicide, and the bill passed; it is now enshrined as New York Penal Code § 121.11, which designates “criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation” as a class A misdemeanor. On Monday, the New Yorker published an article in which a woman Schneiderman began dating in 2013, Michelle Manning Barish, alleges that he choked her. “All of a sudden, he just slapped me, open-handed and with great force, across the face, landing the blow directly onto my ear,” Manning Barish said. “He then used his body weight to hold me down, and he began to choke me. The choking was very hard. It was really bad. I kicked. In every fibre, I felt I was being beaten by a man.”

Misogyny has never belonged solely to any one political party. How can it? It is like water: eroding all barriers; changing form when it has to. The hatred and denigration of women nourishes so many things, allowing them to grow into their fullest ugliness.

In this year of #MeToo — a new term for an ancient problem: the inability to see women as human — the malfeasance of any single powerful man has ceased to shock. There are other emotions — disgust at the harrowing details, rage, sorrow — but the notion that men use their power to hurt women is no longer surprising. What matters most, then, is what happens once that malfeasance is revealed.

The aftermath to the Schneiderman revelations was swift: Having released a statement that implied the incidents were merely “role-play” — consensual kink, not abuse — Schneiderman went silent. The New Yorker story published just before 7 p.m.; within hours, Schneiderman’s support was evidently collapsing around him. By 9:15 p.m., both New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Governor Andrew Cuomo had called for his ouster. And so on that same night, three hours after the story broke, Schneiderman ended his seven-year tenure; by 5 p.m. the following day, his official Twitter account and desk alike were handed over to Barbara Underwood, who is now the first female attorney general of New York.

The swift and undeniable line drawn by New York’s Democrats should not be dismissed as insignificant. Hypocrisy, like misogyny, crosses all political divides: A man who outlaws choking but chokes women in private is guilty not only of violence but also of a fundamental self-misrepresentation. Many political acts serve two masters, and one could argue that Cuomo’s swift response comes in the context of a primary driving him steadily leftward. But the message is uncompromising — that no one man is “too big to fail”; that the most skillful political maneuvering does not outweigh the suffering of women; that misogyny merits a swift and thorough reckoning.

The Democrats have not been without their difficulties in drawing this line. When Al Franken was accused by multiple women of groping them — and when a hideous photograph of him posed with his hands hovering over the breasts of a sleeping Leann Tweeden surfaced — it was a moment of phenomenal tension for the party. Franken had a penchant for viral cross-examinations of unfortunate nominees, and a gift for the toothy sound bite. Did his tendency to play grabass outweigh that?

Thanks in part to Kirsten Gillibrand, the answer was no: Ultimately, within days of the emergence of the allegations, a coalition of 33 Democratic senators called on him to resign. He did, giving a short, wry speech with the bewildered air of a man who did not see precisely why his tendency to cup the flesh of proximal females should render him unfit for power. And then he was gone from the Senate, and replaced by a woman, Tina Smith.

Of course, in an era of bitter partisanship, in which the stakes feel impossibly high, there will always be those who feel such petty things as groping or choking or sexual harassment are not worth the sacrifice of figures with political potency. (Tina Smith’s Democratic primary opponent in November will be Richard W. Painter, a former George W. Bush ethics lawyer who has repeatedly stated he believes the Franken allegations were a “set up job.”)

There is, however, value in pointing out a stark contrast between parties when it comes to this reckoning. As much as it stings when figures like Donald Trump Jr. and Kellyanne Conway gloat online about the fall of Schneiderman et al., the swiftness with which the Democratic Party acted renders the chasm between the parties wider, and shrinks the gulf between the Democratic Party’s feminist principles and the flawed actions of its human representatives.

Consider the case of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned from his position after two ex-wives revealed to the press that he had physically abused them. The Washington Post reported that White House counsel Don McGahn knew of the abuse allegations an entire year before Porter’s resignation, and that chief of staff John Kelly had known for months. It took the publication of a photo of his first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye for Porter to be removed from the president’s inner circle.

Porter is not even the most prominent Republican politician who is alleged to have committed horrific acts of violence against women. Perhaps the starkest contrast with the rapid fall of Eric Schneiderman is the ongoing case of Missouri’s governor, Eric Greitens.

Greitens is tall and blue-eyed and handsome, the sort of man who could be credibly cast as a hot sociopath in a Lifetime movie. An ex-Navy SEAL and a Rhodes Scholar, he won the Missouri gubernatorial election in 2016. And in February, he was arrested for felony invasion of privacy, when a hairdresser with whom he had had an affair prior to his governorship alleged that he had taken a nude photo of her tied up in his basement without her consent, threatening to share it should she reveal their encounter.

In a report issued by a special investigative committee of the Missouri House of Representatives on April 11, the woman said that Greitens had coerced her into performing oral sex while she wept on his basement floor. Just like Schneiderman allegedly did to his partners, he slapped her in the face; he called her a whore. 

Greitens was initially indicted on February 22. March passed with no impeachment proceedings; in April, the report was released. It is May now, and Greitens continues to play the role of aggrieved and smeared victim. Seventy-seven days have passed since the initial allegations of abuse led to indictment: 1,848 hours. A special session of the Missouri legislature to consider impeachment has been called for May 18, one day after Greitens’s criminal trial is set to begin. But his peers have already found there is fallow ground in the Republican Party to sow doubt about the ugly truths women are forced to tell.

There will always be men whose pleasure derives from the fear and shame and hopelessness of their partners; who use both their hands and their public prominence like a vice, cutting off the air women breathe, and strangling, too, their hope, their possibilities. Violence exacerbated by imbalanced power is as old as chains and as old as tears. Among those who seek public power, there will always be those whose most potent thrill is the chance to misuse it in private. What matters is how we meet these acts: Do we look away in cowardice, or do we respond with a salvo of disgust?

Misogyny has no political party; it filters through the air we breathe, it suppurates in all our deeds like a wound. But Al Franken and Eric Schneiderman — and perhaps, eventually, Eric Greitens, too — need not blame anyone but themselves for their own falls from grace. I would far rather be a member of an institution that cauterizes a wound when it appears, and does not let it swell, and rot, a mortification of the flesh, until it poisons the party’s blood.

 

The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.

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