I’ve been a little bit slow with books this week. I’ve finished Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, but still haven’t finished The Association of Small Bombs. I was set to do so tonight, but there’s a good reason why I haven’t.
For those unaware, Anita Hill was a law professor who accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace. The film, starring Kerry Washington, dissects the case from beginning to end, providing details that were unknown to many. The film is more unbiased than this post will be, humanizing Thomas while still leaving his character stoic enough to ring true. If there’s any villain at all, it might be current Vice President Joe Biden. In fact, neither Thomas nor Hill were the feature of this film, which chose to focus on the broken political process that forced a black woman to detail her sexual assault in front of the old boys club, and millions of television viewers. The ending is evident– Thomas sits on the U.S. Supreme Court to this day– which is unsurprising, considering how far the world still has to come regarding sexual harassment.
In Hill’s own words, sexual harassment is “abuse of power manifested in the form of sexual coercion.”
There were women before, and there have been far more who followed, but thanks to Anita Hill, we have a real definition of sexual harassment. We have a prototype in all of its “carnal, ugly, and surreal” glory. This is pivotal, because with all issues, visibility matters. Toward the end of the film, Hill opens a letter from a woman who says that her testimony wasn’t just for her, but for the women around the world are treated like “property.” Because like rape and other sexual misconducts, sexual harassment is less about sex, and more about power and status.
In honor of the film’s release, NYMag released a distressing anecdotal story entitled, “14 Women on Sexual Harassment After Anita Hill.” Trigger warnings galore if you’ve ever experienced similar things in the workplace, but read it if you get a chance. Read it especially if you’ve never experienced such harassment, or don’t believe that it can be commonplace.
After that, I went to my boss to report him. She asked whether or not this was really worth a formal report, and did I really wanted to go through all the steps? She said it would call attention to me and that ongoing interaction with him would be uncomfortable. I decided not to move forward, because it felt like although she believed me, nothing would change.
Nothing in these women’s testimonies about their bosses and colleagues should be surprising. The stories aren’t outlandish, and nor are their reasons for remaining silent. In Confirmation, a Senator asks Ms. Hill why she never reported prior to that moment, and her response echoes some of the sentiments of the featured women, punctuated with the acknowledgement that not reporting isn’t illogical if one understands the alternative. Ms. Hill, being slandered in the press despite passing a lie detector text, deeply understood the alternative.
Over two decades later, there are still lessons being learned from Anita Hill’s experiences. Over two decades later, workplaces are still party to the same stumbles in sexual harassment and assault cases. Over two decades later, cases like this still tend to make a villain out of a victim. Even a successful woman such as Anita Hill is pegged as “erotomaniacal“and “delusional.”
Vulture published a solid list of the characters and their real-life counterparts (read it here for a better understanding of the film’s accuracy). Nothing I’ve found seems to address Judy Smith’s presence, which is possibly the worst bit of inception I’ve ever seen. Kerry Washington plays a Judy Smith-inspired character on the TV show Scandal, yet Smith is actively working against Anita Hill in the film. It’s jarring, to say the least.
Listen to Kerry Washington’s statement on her role as Anita Hill, and her perspective on sexual misconduct here. And see a bit of the film below. If you compare it with archival footage, you’ll note the testimony in the film is mostly verbatim. This really happened, y’all. Not in the 1950s, but in 1991.
FYI: It’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I was looking for a way to commemorate it on the blog, and I figure this is as good a time as any. Hill never alleged that Thomas put his hands on her, but sexual harassment and sexual assault undoubtedly have similar root causes.