The Barbie movie has been heralded not only as a blockbuster success but also as a culturally relevant film for our time. It is now the highest grossing film of the year and Warner Bros.’s highest grossing film ever. It owes its popularity to unashamedly addressing issues of female agency, representation, and anti-discrimination. One critique from viewers has been that the core theme, “patriarchy is bad,” was redundantly delivered throughout the 114-minute runtime. In his Pitch Meeting sketch devoted to critiquing Barbie and Oppenheimer, comedian Ryan George joked that the movie’s writers “hit me across the head with the message.” Indeed, the core moral was hammered home in multiple ways. You couldn’t miss it even if you tried.
Like the film, I sometimes find myself repeating the same themes focusing on non-misogyny and equality. In fact, in this publication alone, I’ve written multiple articles on the topic of consent here and here. I wonder if I risk sounding like a broken record. Surely people have gotten it by now! Right?
But then incidents transpire that reveal just how many people still haven’t gotten the memo. After winning the World Cup, the Spanish Women’s Football (Soccer) Team were heralded as heroes and celebrated on stage in front of millions. As star player Jennifer Hermoso was greeted by Luis Rubiales, Royal Spanish Football Federation President, he planted an unwanted kiss on her mouth. Hermoso later noted how uncomfortable she was with the incident. Rubiales denied any wrongdoing, going so far as to declare in a speech that the kiss was mutual. Subsequently, FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, suspended Rubiales, and the Spanish players are currently boycotting until he steps down. Harassment and inappropriate behavior will likely be around until Christ returns. But it’s still disheartening, especially when (1) it happens so blatantly and publicly, and (2) so many supposedly enlightened and Christian people fail to see why it’s a big deal. I have heard some truly disturbing rationalizations even from those who claim to support women in leadership and equality of genders.
Among the troubling responses are the classic refrains: “She hugged him, so surely she was okay with the kiss.” “He was just caught up in the heat of the moment.” “She sure didn’t look uncomfortable to me.” “If she didn’t like it, why didn’t she protest sooner?” “If his actions were unwelcome, why didn’t she physically punch/hit/push/kick him?” “She’s just making a big deal now because she’s seeking attention.” It’s like a track list of Sexual Assault Excuses Greatest Hits.
By employing just a modicum of critical thinking, it’s easy to dismantle these arguments. Notably, Rubiales kissed the rest of the team on the cheek. Hermoso is the only one he kissed on the mouth. So the “heat of the moment” argument is a red herring. He certainly wouldn’t kiss the men’s team players like that! Some people claim his brain somehow bypassed all sense because she’s a woman. Men are not ruled by uncontrollable instincts like wild animals. Yet it’s all too common to believe that access to women’s bodies is the default for men. Until/unless she (adequately) protests in saying “no,” her mere existence in a man’s presence presupposes that “yes,” he can do as he wants to her. And if she allows any physical interaction (in this case a hug), it is assumed that she is granting permission for any other physical interactions. This of course is incorrect. Instead of seeing “yes” as default, we need to continually reinforce that only “yes” means “yes.”
As far as the analysis of her reactions, incidents like this are frequently misconstrued. The absence of a woman immediately displaying visible distress doesn’t automatically mean she is enjoying what’s happening. Sadly, women have routinely been socialized to avoid making a scene (a.k.a. “go along to get along”), especially when in front of others. Hermoso was quite literally being assaulted by her boss on a world stage. Had she pulled away, gotten angry, or displayed physical aggression, it would have been perceived as “rude.” It was better to grin and bear it, otherwise she would have been labeled as problematic for not just going with the flow and allowing it. This of course is incorrect. Instead of seeing “yes” as default, we need to continually reinforce that only “yes” means “yes.”
I remember an incident in college when I was called to speak with the department chair. I want to emphasize that the situation at hand was unrelated to anything sexual; my undergrad professors have never displayed inappropriate behavior toward me in that regard. Nevertheless, I recall that I was uncomfortable with what had transpired and said so to my chair. He said, “then why are you laughing? You shouldn’t smile or laugh if you are uncomfortable.” I explained that it was nervous laughter. He scolded me for my reaction. Although I was the one who had been made uneasy, I was also made to feel like I was the one who had done something wrong. Even though I used my words and clearly articulated my feelings, those feelings were labeled null and void because he felt I didn’t seem “upset enough.” To him, my distress wasn’t readily apparent enough to be valid.
It’s ironic. Women are simultaneously chastised by men for looking too angry (“smile more,” “don’t look so mad!”), and also for not looking appropriately angry enough (“why are you smiling?” “you don’t look like you don’t like what’s happening!”). A woman risks being called derogatory names for being too forthright and bossy, while at the same time her protests aren’t taken seriously if they are not accompanied by what a man deems an "appropriate expression of anger." I find it interesting that a woman doesn’t have to do anything for her actions to be deemed permissive. But even if she actively says something is unwelcome, her “no” is not regarded as legitimate unless it’s forceful enough, loud enough, repeated enough, lodged soon enough, and accompanied by the “appropriate” facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone. Many men believe they are allowed to do whatever they want to a woman unless she says “no” to the exact parameters and extent that suffices for them. This of course is incorrect. Instead of seeing “yes” as default, we need to continually reinforce that only “yes” means “yes.”
Rubiales never should have put his mouth on Hermoso’s mouth. Full stop. She is not at fault for not looking the “right amount” of pissed off for men’s satisfaction. She said she felt uncomfortable. That should be the end of it. Unless a woman—unless anyone—gives enthusiastic consent, behavior like this is unacceptable, especially when there is a large power differential like there was between Rubiales and Hermoso. Express consent always needs to be given. Instead of seeing “yes” as default, we need to continually reinforce that only “yes” means “yes.”
We have an incredible amount of work to do in order to deprogram both men and women from this belief that women being domineered is “the natural order” of things. In this day and age, most people don’t outright say that men have unfettered free reign over women’s bodies. But that message is being subtly reinforced in many conversations about female/male relationships taking place in our Sabbath School classes, sermons, and casual discussions. We have to replace this message with lessons on personal agency, bodily autonomy, and basic respect. These lessons need to be taught to our children early and often. Maybe if we do, they can become ingrained in the next generation. Instead of seeing “yes” as default, we need to continually reinforce that only “yes” means “yes.” I may sound like a broken record, but apparently it hasn’t been said enough yet.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
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