Fifteen years ago, Hollywood’s glittering superstars—among them Meryl Streep— were on their feet cheering for Roman Polanski, the convicted child rapist and fugitive from justice, when he won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Director. But famous sex criminals of the motion picture and television arts have lately fallen out of fashion, as the industry attempts not just to police itself but—where would we be without them?—to instruct all of us on how to lead our lives.
The Golden Globes ceremony had the angry, unofficial theme of “Time’s Up,” which quickly and predictably became unmoored from its original meaning, as excited winners tried to align their entertaining movies and TV shows with the message. By the time Laura Dern—a quiver in her voice—connected the nighttime soap opera Big Little Lies to America’s need to institute “restorative justice,” it seemed we’d set a course for the moon but ended up on Jupiter: close, but still 300 million miles away. And then Oprah Winfrey climbed the stairs to the stage, and I knew she wouldn’t just bat clean-up; she’d bring home the pennant.
Winfrey began speaking to crowds at the age of 3. “Little Miss Winfrey is here to do the recitation,” the preacher would say, and the whole congregation would lean in to listen to the remarkable child. As far as sexual abuse is involved, no one speaks with greater personal authority; the first time she was raped, she was 9. “I knew it was bad,” she said later, “because it hurt so badly.” From the second she started speaking at the Golden Globes, filling the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton with her rich, confident, and sui generis voice, she gave the night what it had so desperately wanted: emotional coherence.
She smoothly accomplished what other speakers had struggled to do: She connected the grotesque but statistically insignificant problem of sexual harassment in Hollywood to the larger fate of women and girls. “It’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry,” she said; “it’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace.” She said that a new day was on the horizon—this was near the end of the speech, by which point she could have marched the crowd right over to The Weinstein Company and torched the place—and that the catalyst for this important change was the number of women willing to “speak their truth.” In that moment, all us watching from home witnessed the revolution become a movement.
Less than a week later, the movement became a racket. A previously obscure website called Babe, which is operated by a group of very young women in Brooklyn, got a hot tip. Through the grapevine, the staff had heard that another young Brooklyn woman had been talking about being sexually violated by the comic Aziz Ansari. They reached out to a woman they called “Grace,” persuaded her to “speak her truth,” albeit anonymously, and rushed the piece into publication: Ansari was given less than six hours to respond to these reputation-destroying allegations. There was no need for the furious pace—this wasn’t a breaking story about a political election or a natural disaster—which seemed to have been motivated by the urgency of the “Time’s Up” motto. Almost immediately the piece became the object of intense cultural interest, with many commentators (including myself) deciding that Ansari had been unfairly treated by the website. Just as many others, particularly young women, said that the account resonated deeply with them, and concluded that Ansari had violated Grace.
Predictably, the piece drove huge traffic to Babe, and visitors who explored the site were exposed to its credo: Babe is created by and for “girls who don’t give a fuck.” Collectively, the articles address what the site suggests are universal conditions of the young female heart, or at least conditions universal to its fans. Unfortunately, many of these shared concerns boil down to an almost exact list of traits which blatantly misogynist websites like Return of Kings have enumerated for years. The Babe girl is manipulative (“Period-Trapping Is the Only Way to Find Out if You’re in a Relationship or Not”); insecure (“You Should Be Secretly Looking Through Your Partner’s Phone”); addicted to drama (“We Pranked Our Exes and Asked Them to Be Our New Year’s Kiss and It Was a Complete Disaster”); jealous (“You’re Not Paranoid: This Is How to Tell If Someone Else Is Closing In on Your Man”); and obsessed with alternately fawning over and tearing down the female celebrities she idolizes and envies (“Amber Rose’s Plastic Surgery Is Absolutely a Feminist Statement”; “Sorry, but Kendall Jenner Can’t Model for Shit”).
The Ansari piece was written by a recent college graduate named Katie Way, who shot into the popular awareness like a rocket blasting away from Cape Canaveral on Sunday night, only to plummet—flaming and disintegrating—by Wednesday. On Monday, she was excited to appear on CBS This Morning to discuss her piece, tweeting, “Catch me on @CBSThisMorning brrright and early tomorrow morning, can’t wait for America to hear my weird low voice.” But her anger toward those who would question her motives and moral rightness was soon piqued by the HLN news analysis show Crime & Justice. The host, Ashleigh Banfield, read an open letter to “Grace” in which she said, “You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all of my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades.”
The producers reached out to Way, via a direct message on social media, inviting her to come on the show to discuss the essay. At this point, Way abandoned the low voice for the high-pitched screech of the angry teenager. She wrote back that she wouldn’t go on the program, principally because Banfield was too old and unattractive, called her a “burgundy lipstick, bad highlights, second-wave feminist has-been,” and said that “no woman my age would ever watch your network. I will remember this for the rest of my career—I’m 22 and so far, not too shabby!”
I happened to be sitting in a Los Angeles green room waiting to appear on Crime & Justice the night when Banfield read part of this fantastical letter on the air, at which point the entire Katie Way arc of the story seemed to have turned into an unfilmed episode of Girls: the time Hannah wrote a hit-piece on a famous celebrity but only did half the amount of work required, and when confronted about it by a respected journalist she fired off a nasty letter that might have seemed like a great idea in the moment but ended up getting read on national television. Suffice it to say, it seemed that Katie Way—beloved only child, recent graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, nongiver of fucks—had bitten off more than she could chew.
Like many news and information websites created by young women, Babe publishes many stories on sexual assault. But unlike most other such outfits, it also runs stories about the pleasure of rape fantasies. Feminists have fought for years to keep the notion of rape fantasy as far as it could possibly get from actual reports of sexual assault. But those were feminists who gave a fuck. Babe gleefully, witlessly runs angry pieces about sexual assault as part of the same cotton-candy pink, swirling galaxy as the ones that describe the pleasures of fantasizing about rape. The site has devoted many pixels to explaining to readers how enjoyable and common these fantasies are.
Babe explains to readers that rape fantasies serve lots of worthy sexual desires: “You want to know you’re wanted” (“A Clinical Psychologist Revealed Why Women Have Rape Fantasies and It’s Totally Fascinating”); “What I like about rape fantasies is the loss of control” (“These Women Revealed Why They’re Into Rape Fantasies”); “It’s all about ‘sexual desirability’” (“There’s a Major Rape Fantasy Sub-Culture Out There That’s Pretty Intense”); “I hear how rape fantasies can be exciting and fun, even for those who have been raped. It’s not an unhealthy expression of sexuality” (“A Sexologist Explains Why Women Have Rape Fantasies”); “I beg him to stop while he carries on fucking me harder and harder. I dig my nails into his back with tears in my eyes and whisper that I want to go home” (“Sex IRL: The Grad Student With Graphic Rape Fantasies”).
Many of the pieces on actual sexual assault are filled with the precise, clinical detail that is the hallmark of reporting on the subject, such as the texts between two high school students after a drunken hook-up which the girl said constituted an assault, but which the boy thinks was not: “Wanna clarify that we didn’t fuck last night … I ate you out and fingered you, but that’s it.”
Obviously these two types of story are in conversation with one another. For girls who enjoy rape fantasies, the vividly reported sexual assault reports provide a world of concrete details to feed into them.
Katie Way’s college interests were journalism and creative writing. At Northwestern she wrote skillfully composed short stories in a vein of fiction she admired: magical realism. One of the reasons her Babe story has such an impact on readers—other than its naming of a very famous man—was its literary skill: It’s filled with precise details, and provides an immersive, world-building reading experience. On a “beautiful, warm September night” Ansari and Grace walked together to a romantic dinner spot, “Grand Banks, an Oyster bar onboard a historic wooden schooner on the Hudson River.” Over lobster rolls and a bottle of wine, they chatted about things that mattered to Grace: NYU, photography, and “a new, secret project” that Ansari was working on. They headed back to his apartment located in “an exclusive address on TriBeCa’s Franklin Street, where Taylor Swift has a place too.”
It was a night when a rich, successful, older man was taking a huge amount of interest in a young woman and treating her well: taking her to a fancy dinner, paying the check, listening to her stories. It’s a dream date. And then—as soon as they walk through the door of his apartment—the story turns dark and terrible. The language that Way uses to describe it is not the straight-ahead dispassionate language of crime reporting; it’s the language of pornography: “‘Where do you want me to fuck you? Do you want me to fuck you right here?’ He rammed his penis against her ass while he said it, pantomiming intercourse.”
The piece, with its dreamy opening, its pornographic passages, and its tone of aggrieved score-keeping over petty slights—he didn’t offer her the kind of wine she likes—has stirred something in young women.
But the piece is the almost inevitable consequence of a lifestyle promoted on the website, which enjoins young women to fulfill men’s sexual desires and to— literally—behave whorishly. Or, as a wrap-up of Babe’s 2017 service journalism put it: “You now know how to give life-changing blow-jobs, what it’s like to have rape fantasies, what percent hoe you are based on a scientifically accurate quiz, and how to keep your lipstick on even if your mouth is … otherwise occupied.”
Pulsing underneath all of this is the exact emotion which Katie Way lost control of Wednesday night: rage, so overpowering and so poorly understood that it can easily erupt and excoriate the wrong person.
In such swirls of high emotion and with diffuse goals, social entrepreneurship becomes lucrative. This Ansari episode, for example, has been a huge boon to the girls who don’t give a fuck, as they gleefully tell every reporter who asks them about it. As the writer Kerry Flynn wrote in an essay about the website published in Mashable, “For Babe, Grace's story was a big break—good for traffic and for the brand.”