You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
On Ocober 10, Tomi-Ann Roberts—alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and others—spoke out against film producer Harvey Weinstein, sharing her story in a New York Times feature. Roberts says that in 1984, when she was a Smith College student and aspiring actress, she met Weinstein while waiting tables in a New York City restaurant. They chatted, and he encouraged her to audition for one of his movies, even sending her scripts and an invitation to meet. Roberts says that when she arrived for the meeting, Weinstein was in the bathtub, nude, and wanted her to remove her top.
Though petrified, she didn’t acquiesce—and instead walked away from the film industry. This moment would set a foundational stage for an unexpected career path: as a psychology professor whose research includes the sexual objectification of women and girls.
Broadly spoke with Roberts, who is currently a Professor of Psychology at Colorado College, about her decision to share her story, and her thoughts on how both we as a society, and she as a researcher, move forward.
BROADLY: Why did you decide to speak out?
TOMI-ANN ROBERTS: I came up to my office from having taught that morning and an old friend … had emailed me that the first article by Jodi Kantor had come out in the New York Times reporting on these individuals. … I read it and here’s Ashley Judd talking about him being in a bathrobe and in a shower and I thought, oh my gosh … it was so chillingly similar to my story. So I sat there having read this, and I thought, wow, it’s in the New York Times. I was supposed to be grading exams, and I just looked up Jodi Kantor’s email address … I wrote her an email and I told her this story, and it was the only time I had had the opportunity to make this not be kind of a late-night party joke but something real. I told the whole narrative arc of this thing, and my work now, and I hit send. And then I immediately forwarded it to my mom and my best friend and my two daughters, and I said, I’m sure Jodi Kantor’s never going to read this, but it felt so good to finally tell this story to someone who might actually want to hear it.
I was struck by what you said your mother told you at the time of the incident — that she was proud of you for getting out of there, but also "Men will be men." I think even today, that phrase and "boys will be boys," are pretty commonly repeated. Is language like this part of the problem?
Well, yeah. And I think that both my mother and I at the time, in 1984, it didn’t occur to us that what had happened to me was actionable. It was more along the lines of "thank goodness you got out of there," and "well, you can plainly see that you’re not cut out for that kind of a thing so let’s let bygones be bygones."
I think it has taken all these years, even since Anita Hill, much later, for us to recognize that was mean to do to me, and it was wrong and it was harmful. But we didn’t have a language for that then, I don’t think. And of course that’s part of the problem. And of course that’s why I think this whole floodgate has opened, is that somehow, now, with the MeToo hashtag and whatever, so many women start realizing, "What the hell? Why did I think that my only alternative was to sort of save myself and not report this or confront the person in the moment?"
In your professional work, you speak about the sexual objectification of girls and women as a continuum of behaviors. Can you explain the continuum?
I think when my colleague and I were first theorizing back in 1997 and we published our first paper on this, we thought that as psychologists we were interested in recognizing that there are moments throughout any young woman or girl’s day that get interrupted by some man calling attention to the way you appear, to your refusal maybe to cooperate in interacting with them. That those sort of tiny cuts, they exist on a similar continuum that goes all the way to the other end, which involves trafficking and rape and, I would even argue, sexually motivated murder. And that it’s something about a kind of socially sanctioned right that males have to consume females’ bodies. It can be done in a way that is seemingly benign, all the way to abject dehumanization, but that even on this seemingly benign end, it’s still a way of treating a woman or girl’s body like an object.
So some forms of objectification are truly dehumanizing; others I would say are more like what we would call benevolent sexism, but they still carry the same underlying presumption that males are entitled to view and treat girls and women’s bodies as consumable objects.
And would you say that as a society we’ve focused more on the far end of the continuum – rape, trafficking?
Indeed, and rightly so. But I think that back in 1997 when we first wrote this paper, we thought that as psychologists, it’s very interesting for us to imagine, like just psychically, what happens even at that seemingly more benign end of the continuum. And how girls and women grow up in a culture just sort of accustomed to that kind of treatment. We wanted to focus on that so-called more benign end.
What does happen?
What we argue happens is that girls and women then typically come to internalize that objectified point of view. So if you introject that and you now self-objectify, you’re in a somewhat better position to anticipate your treatment in the world. And it is the case that women’s appearance makes a significance in the outcome of their life, right? Women deemed more beautiful and sexually attractive, even if you’re a 14-year-old girl, if you have more likes on your sexy selfie, that’s a kind of currency, right? That translates to popularity. That’s the kind of currency you can trade in. And so to self-objectify is a kind of strategy, but it carries, we argue, significant costs, both economic and cognitive, and emotional and even physical health costs.
How do we move forward?
It seems like the first step is this step that we’re all seemingly in the midst of right now. And I mean, I think one of the things that’s been so stunning to me is, especially, younger feminists on television shows I’ve appeared on during the course of this, who are just very baldly saying things like, "You make a choice when you choose to sexually objectify someone, and you could be making a better choice." … Let’s stop this assumption that there’s some kind of, I don’t know, deeply evolutionarily adapted thing inside men and they can’t help it. Because they can!
So yeah, I think that two things are going on right now, which are really great. One is this sort of chorus of women saying although this has been a nauseatingly normal part of my life, I’m gonna name it now, and I’m going to say that it oughtn’t be. And then I guess the other part is calling boys and men to task, and asking them to make better choices.
And another part of this is that HR needs to show up. When women walk down the hall and say this thing is happening to me, HR needs to goddamned step up.
You’ve said that this incident with Weinstein was not a direct line to your professional career, but it was foundational. … Have you had any thoughts yet on your research going forward?
I think the main thing that’s kind of shifted for me is that I’ve had to go through— there were several weeks there where I thought, "Oh, it’s illegitimate somehow that it took me telling this story for people to listen to my work."
Now I’m feeling a little bit of a spark lighting back up inside of me, and saying, you know, the personal can be political. And I’ve worked so hard—you know, I got my degree at Stanford, and I learned how to do psych science the way the big boys do it, and I call myself a stealth feminist because I’m gonna sneak up on you with unassailable scientific research on these things. Now I’m coming up on 55 years old, and you know, guess what, it turns out there are these very, very personal experiences that undergird all of that. So I’m now starting to think about a book that’s going to honor both of those things. These kinds of personal stories, and maybe not only of my own, with the psych science to back it.
And I’m forgiving myself. I’m coming better to terms with the fact that, of course, I’m sure any kind of intellectual work starts from an emotional private place, you know. It just does, right? And that’s OK. I guess that’s maybe what I’m figuring out now. That that’s OK.
"We need to also stop the amount of self-objectifying that we’re doing to ourselves that distances us from the right that we have to our own body."
Anything else you’d like to add?
Right now one of the things that I’m doing in my professional life is that I’ve participated in an international group called the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, and I’ve just been newly named the president of that organization. … There’s a through line between sexual objectification, self-objectification, and women’s entitlement to their actual reproductive bodies as well, and we need to not forget that through line. We can’t forget that these are tied together.
You know, groups of men can sit in a room and decide to take away our access to affordable birth control, to basically reduce abortion rights to nothing, and we need to realize that that is also a way of objectifying us. We need to also stop the amount of self-objectifying that we’re doing to ourselves that distances us from the right that we have to our own body. Women and girls are increasingly sort of deaf and dumb to their vulvar health, to their menstruating body, to their capacity for both pleasure and pain in those areas that are solely theirs and theirs alone. … I don’t want us to think that these things are separate, because they’re not separate. To the extent that women self-objectify, they really take a disparate view from their body’s physical, corporeal reality. And then we lose our rights to our own body, bit by bit.