Thirty-three years have passed since Harvey Weinstein, acclaimed Hollywood executive and co-founder of Weinstein Company and Miramax, sexually harassed now-CC Professor Tomi-Ann Roberts. Then, she was a college junior waiting tables as an aspiring actress in New York City, when Weinstein invited her back to his hotel room to review a script, at which point he proceeded to sexually harass her.
The interaction remained a private anecdote for Professor Roberts until last Thursday when she read a New York Times article outing Weinstein’s behavior, long known to media and Hollywood insiders. She decided to send an email to the Times reporter.
Roberts’ testimony was shared, alongside other women who had been harassed by Weinstein, for the first time in decades on Tuesday in a subsequent article: “Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Others Say Weinstein Harassed Them.” It became clear that the original 13 women who came forward as part of the 10-month investigation were only the tip of the iceberg.
This Wednesday, as Roberts sat in her office in Tutt Science, multiple phones were ringing off the hook as her e-mail spasmodically auto-refreshed with every new interview request. Catalyst News Editor Abigail Censky sat down with Professor Roberts to discuss why she came forward and how her encounter with Weinstein is implicated in her academic concentration: the sexual objectification of women and girls.
Abigail Censky: So when did you decide to come forward with this information?
Tomi-Ann Roberts: “Coming forward” is such an interesting phrase, right? Certainly, over the 33 years since this happened to me, there was never really a time. What phone number do you call? Who is going to pick it up at Miramax studios to say this thing to? But obviously over the years, even though I live my life in academia, once in a while there would be, you’re at an Oscar night party and everybody’s toasting Champagne, and here comes Harvey Weinstein, and if I was with close enough people, I would say, you know, “this guy did a really crappy thing to me,” but it always sounds preposterous. I’m not an actress, I’m not in the world of Hollywood, so it was always—this is a horrible way to say it—but I always had to turn it into a party joke. But then last Thursday when the New York Times ran a piece by Jodi Kantor I just couldn’t believe it. First of all, I couldn’t believe how similar these stories were. I was just shocked. And so I was supposed to be grading exams, I am in the middle of teaching a block, but Thursday afternoon, I thought, “this is my chance,” for the first time in my life, to sort of tell the whole narrative arc of this story. Not only did this thing happen to me, but it was a perverse, pivotal moment that did motivate me —I mean, it’s not a direct thru-line — but did motivate me to do my research I’ve been doing for a long time on sexualization and sexual objectification of girls and women.
So I wrote an email. Instead of grading exam, I wrote an email to Jodi Kantor because I thought “here’s somebody who’s actually going to hear me,” and I never in a million years thought that I’d get a reply from The New York Times because “who am I?” I was just for me to get it off my chest. I sent a copy to my mom, and I said “this thing happened in the New York Times and I won’t get anybody answering me back,” but the very next morning, Jodi Kantor called me. I was astonished. So to scare quotes coming forward, last Thursday.
AC: And you mentioned that this experience in some way influenced your research now. How have your personal lived experiences impacted your pursuit of sexual objectification of women?
TR: Yeah, great question. Obviously I can’t be like “that day in 1984 I threw my acting aspirations in the toilet and I decided to get a PhD in sexual objectification” but yet its one of things that kind of a whole bunch of small things happen and they kind of add up in your life, and so I have very vivid memories all throughout graduate school and in the early days of my career being really derailed by typically older men’s comments on my appearance when I was trying to give a professional talk. I was never in a position like I was in that evening in 1984 where somebody attempted to coerce me, but I certainly did have these tiny wounds by a thousand cuts. You feel as though something about your objectified appearance obscures what you’re trying to do and say. So that became a real motivator for me to grow obviously very aware of the extreme end of the continuum of sexual objectification of rape and trafficking, and these are horrible things, but as a psychologist, I became to be interested in these more subtle experiences, and how a collection of those experiences can amount to a girl or a woman self-objectifying and internalizing that point of view on herself.
AC: What — in simple terms, this is what you’ve dedicated your life to — causes somebody to be an objectifier?
TR: Well, I’ve done more of the research on the receiving end, but I would argue that there are — in fact, my colleague Tricia Waters and I just wrote a chapter about this — I think that there are probably compelling theories for this. Number one, there is simply, of course, power. When people feel… What’s interesting about power is that when you feel powerful, you want to retain that power. Although, if you confine people to objects or tools that will get you what you want, that enables you to retain power. I think we also have evidence that people who feel that their power is threatened will often lashed out and objectify others as a way of retaining power. And so one of the things about masculinity culture is that the way you prove your masculinity to other men is you objectify women. I think it’s part of masculinity and masculinity’s connection to power.
AC: speaking to that point, how is sexual objectification in women and girls in one on one scenarios — like you’re in a room with a person — to when you’re on the street. How does that difference manifest itself?
TR: that’s a great question and it’s something I’ve though about for a number of years. I guess I would say that these things sort of exist on a continuum. So on the one hand, I think a view, girls and women internalize a sexually objectified view of their bodies just by a sort of gradual cultivation: Disney movies, “you look so pretty,” and princesses, and now we’re in a dance recital so wear something that looks like a stripper’s outfit. And also, so in other words, there’s a cultivation of this culture, media, advertising, etc. But then there are also interpersonal experiences — direct interpersonal experiences — like the one I had in 1984 that, as I say, accumulate a thousand cuts.
AC: last year’s election served as a vehicle for misogyny and sexism and the conversation around those things to be amplified in our national discussion, and it caused a lot of people to question the progress of feminism and how we view and treat women in our society. Where do you think we stand as an individual and also as a person who studies this?
TR: Right. I think there are so many ironies right now. I think that sexism is one of the hardest -isms to tackle head on because the genders need one another. It’s very difficult to live your life completely separate from the other gender. And so that symbiosis and competition is present. And it’s harder… I think that many women—and I count the women who voted for Trump—many women find their only access to power and privilege is through their connection with a man. And one of those connections is, you know, their attractiveness. That is their currency to trade for a man’s affection and money and power and privilege. And so I think women justify the system of sexism by participating in this way so they can feel as though all the efforts they engaged in — where the lotions and the potions and the sanitizing and the deodorizing and all the self-objectifying practices — need to be justified somehow. “Why am I doing all this? Well I’m doing all this to win the affection and the approval of powerful men, and if that’s what I’m doing, boy, it’s going to be hard for me to think outside that and be like, “I’m disempowered by this. It doesn’t feel, inside of me, like disempowerment because I’ve got this great guy voting for Trump, and if I hear that he’s voting for Trump, I better to hell vote for Trump myself or I’m going to lose his affection.”
So I think the irony is that we have that, and then we have ‘pussy hat’ marchers, we have the Gwyneth Paltrows and the Angelina Jolies — people who have a very big audience because we’re obsessed with Hollywood, right? We have an increasing awareness of solidarity among women, a recognition that if Hillary couldn’t get elected, we are still nowhere near where we ought to be. And so, I think women need to talk to other women across the political divide, and I think men need to join in this conversation. Men need to quit standing by and letting Harvey Weinstein… leaving the room to allow Harvey [Weinstein] to have his private meeting with the aspiring actress. Because there are a lot of men who said “oh yeah, I’ll take my leave now.” That’s collusion! No way.
AC: And specifically, it seems like, in the past two or three years, reports of sexual harassment or assault have plagued the entertainment industry, talking about the case with Bill Cosby, and now this series of cases with Harvey Weinstein. As waves of women come forward, do you think that this changes how women who aren’t in specific industries, but maybe they’re software engineers at Google or maybe they’re just women living their everyday life, do you think that influences how people report?
TR: Yeah, I’d like to hope so. We’ve heard, there are so many stories about the unbelievable sexism in Silicon Valley. It’s crazy! And I think that the form that this kind of thing takes is probably different in different industries. In the world of Hollywood, if you’re a young actress, then your whole thing is how sexy and pretty you are, and so that’s gonna be the way you’re gonna be abused by the system. And I think in the STEM fields, it’s all about “you’re too pretty to be able to do math” or whatever. But I’m hoping that this will open up a conversation that will allow, and I can’t even tell you how many emails I’ve gotten, not from reporters, from regular women, who said “this was my industry, this was how it happened”, you know, it happens on capital hill! Pages are told “stay away from this old guy staffer”, and “don’t walk past this closet, cause he’ll shove you in it”. So here we go. And I think it takes our obsession with something like Hollywood, and with these kind of women speaking out, and I think we need to be especially mindful of the lost voices of the women of color. So I hope we start hearing not only from other kinds of industries but also from other sorts of women, not blondes.
AC: Do you think the coverage of these situations, the reporting and the media around these situations changes the way women are objectified at all? Or has potential to?
TR: I think so! I mean, what did Gwyneth Paltrow say? “This way of treating women stops now” I’m sure it doesn’t stop now, of course, but I believe that high profile cases allow women in much less public status positions to be able to point and say “this is real and so I’m gonna acknowledge that it’s real in my life, and that this mid-level manager is making my life a living hell and that I’m going to go to HR and I’m going to report it!” I hope so. Human resources need to join in the course here and say “please women, come to our office and report these things!” and if HR doesn’t do that then I’m gonna be disappointed.
AC: Do you think this case specifically, or these cases surrounding Mr. Weinstein will be, as a professor, do you think it’ll be a teaching tool? Not even for yourself personally, but perhaps for other professors also studying sexual objectification, and these kinds of things, do you think this is something that will be used in classrooms?
TR: I would like to hope so, because I think in classrooms what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to say… You know when we reduce any of the isms, whether it’s homophobia, racism or sexism, when we reduce it to individuals who are bad, doing a bad individual thing to another individual who’s a poor victim, then we lose site of all the cultural things that are in place that enable that. I think this could be a teachable moment once you realize that this guy was a career predator, and that it took a lot of cooperation, on the part of a lot of other powerful people, for him to carry out that career. And so I think it’s a great opportunity to talk not only about individually sick people but a pretty sick system, that enables this kind of thing to happen. So I hope so, yeah.
AC: And when did you decide to become a psychologist?
TR: I graduated from Smith College in 1985 with my bachelor’s degree in Psychology. I thought for about a year, and I lived in Boston, and I waited more tables, waited a lot of tables in my life. And then I thought “yeah I want to keep studying psychology” and so I applied to, and got into grad school, so I guess I knew it probably the year after I graduated from college.
AC: Is there anything else, specifically about your work or anything in this conversation that you think should be added or I didn’t ask you that you think people should know about?
TR: …I think one of the things I’d really like to say is that I don’t feel like any kind of particular hero for getting out of there, and I wouldn’t want to compare my getting out of there as being somehow stronger than a woman who felt so coerced that she couldn’t find a way out because she really needed that job. So I guess I’d like to add that I hope my revenge [sic] is in my scholarly work and in my advocacy and my efforts to make this a larger issue and to work for change. I don’t need anything from Harvey Weinstein.