Tracey Spicer and Sue Maslin discuss where next for #metoo in Australia

Screen producer Sue Maslin and journalist Tracey Spicer discuss the #metoo and #timesup campaigns, and where next for the fight against sexual harassment in Australia.

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Sue Maslin is one of Australia’s most successful screen producers and has seen ‘all manner of affirmative action programs come and go’ during her time in the film and television industry. But in over 35 years, she has never seen anything like the #metoo and #timeforchange movements.

At a recent forum presented by Women in Film and Television Victoria (WIFT VIC) at Arts Centre Melbourne, Maslin observed that #metoo ‘feels like a game-changer’ – but why?

Journalist Tracey Spicer has been spearheading the investigations into sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Australian arts, media and entertainment sectors, together with a team of investigative journalists at Fairfax Media and the ABC.

Appearing alongside Maslin at Time’s Up – A Forum For Change, Spicer said: ‘I think a lot of it is in reaction to the Trump presidency. We’ve got to have some kind of common enemy. A “pussy-grabber” as the American President? If that’s not motivating force enough I don’t know what is.’

She added: ‘I think this has been a long time coming. We’ll be able to achieve enormous things in the next 10-12 years.’

Fighting back is the next step

The Harvey Weinstein case in the USA opened the floodgates, encouraging women around the world to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

After #metoo flooded social media, one of the next initiatives in the USA was the Time’s Up campaign; a fundraiser which has raised millions of dollars to support women legally, as well as providing them with counseling and other options, in order to progress their complaints about serial abusers and harassers.

In response to Maslin’s query if similar actions are underway locally, Spicer said: ‘I’ve been working for a couple of months with wonderful women from Women in Media, Women in  Film and Television, Women in Theatre and Screen, to do a similar thing to Times Up America but much broader, with a much longer term focus.

‘I can’t give any more details at the moment because we hope to launch in a couple of weeks, but when we do launch we’d love your support, whether it’s time volunteering, whether it’s a little bit of money as part of the crowd funding thing – we want it to be pretty broad so we’re going to go to government, we’re going to unions – we want this to be a really non-partisan, not for profit, collaborative collective that is both grassroots and also includes the powerful people at the top.

‘Because there’s a lot of really important legislative changes that we need in this country. It’s all well and good to tell women to tell their stories, but if the structure is still against them – if they end up with a black mark against their name – then that’s not going to achieve much long-term. We need structural change,’ Spicer explained.

Changing the law

Laws around the statute of limitations – the period of time in which a plaintiff must commence a civil proceeding – are one of the issues which Spicer and her colleagues are keen to address.

Speaking as ‘a mere journalist’ rather than a legal expert, Spicer said that when she visited a police station to report a troll just after the Harvey Weinstein case had broken, she met with a female police officer who specialised in sexual assault.

‘[The officer] said, “I’m really surprised that more women in Australia aren’t coming forward about this,” and I said I was too. And she said, “Look, it’s probably due to the statute of limitations.”

‘With the criminal statute of limitations  people can come forward much later than a civil statute, where they only have six months or a year, a very short period of time when it comes to sexual harassment and indecent assault. Now when someone’s gone through something like that it takes a long time to process it – it takes years to be able to talk about it. So one of the first legislative things we need changed is an extension on that statute of limitations,’ said Spicer.

Trolls, bots and sock puppets

In terms of practical advice for women campaigning online, Spicer recommended setting certain boundaries in order to protect one’s mental health.

‘No social media before bedtime, that sort of thing. Don’t feed the trolls – a lot of muting and blocking – but sometimes it does become too much and that’s where solidarity is important.’

She gave the practical example of connecting with friends and colleagues via private messenger on Facebook as a means of showing solidarity and providing support when you or someone you know is under attack. This has the added benefit of allowing multiple people to report the same trolls, which adds weight to complaints made to Facebook and other social media sites.

‘I don’t know if anyone’s tried to report on social media but it’s unnecessarily difficult – so if you’ve got a supportive group you can do that and slowly but surely we can put a few chinks in the armour of those who are trying to attack us,’ Spicer said.  

She added that spin-doctors can harness the power of bots to make their pile-on attacks more effective, and so learning to tell the difference between a real troll and a bot could be beneficial – both in fighting back, and for one’s mental health.

Social media accounts with no profile pictures, with only one or two followers, or which were only set up days or weeks ago, are easily identifiable as bots, Spicer explained.

‘It’s been really powerful to be able to say to some of my female friends and colleagues, and the young women that I mentor, “See that? That’s a bot. See that? It’s got one follower – that’s a bot. See that egg? It’s a bot.” And when you find out that a lot of them aren’t actually people, that it’s just a coordinated campaign, it makes it a little bit easier.’

There are also good guides online for spotting bots and sock puppets, Spicer added.

The extent of the problem

To date, Spicer has received over 1700 messages about sexual harassers and serial perpetrators in Australia.

‘I was surprised not only by the level of response but by how open women were being,’ she said.

‘Some of them were women I’d worked with many years ago and we’d never shared our stories of being grabbed on the arse or breast, of being propositioned over drinks, of being threatened with the loss of our jobs if we didn’t sleep with one of the bosses. But now, the power of connectivity and collective action mean that women can share their stories and say “Oh my god, I thought I was the only one.”’

A protection racket

Maslin raised the idea of a ‘protection racket’ operating in the film and television sector that to date had protected abusers, and referred to a culture, ‘not of open collusion but a systemic cultural basis that is protecting this kind of behaviour.’

Spicer agreed, saying that men had been conditioned to be silent. ‘I know a lot of these blokes – my husband’s a cameraman – and I said them to them, why did you do this [i.e. remain silent]? They said: “We were frightened to speak out – we were frightened someone would laugh at us if we called out sexual harassment or indecent assault.”

‘So first of all there’s this clubby aspect where men are frightened to speak out – we need to teach men how to be good bystanders. There’s a lot of men who want to help out with this movement; we need to give them the tools to be able to do that.

‘But with regard to the protection racket at the very top, a lot of it’s got to do with money. You know, “the show must go on”. Look at the amount of jobs that can be lost if someone is called out. Whereas I always say: look at the generations of women that have been lost to this industry and other industries because they’re sick of being sexually harassed in their workplace – they have not been safe in their workplaces. So the protection racket is gender based and power based,’ Spicer said.

Not just a woman’s problem

Maslin stressed that the entrenched bullying and sexism in the screen sector and elsewhere doesn’t just impact on women.

‘This is not a women’s problem – this is all of our problem,’ she said. ‘We won’t solve this until men and women equally recognise that we are doing a disservice – a disservice to our children, to our audiences, to our culture, unless we really, really address this.’

Spicer added: ‘For every single person who has complained about sexual harassment in the workplace as part of our investigation, I’ve had other people come forward from the same workplace who say, “Not only was that guy a sexual harasser of women, he was bullying men as well – men who didn’t fit that classic ‘alpha male’ stereotype.”

‘So that’s why this [campaign] is good for women, it’s good for men, it’s good for workplaces, it’s good for society,’ Spicer stressed.

How can we support women who come forward?

‘There are so many ways that you can support women and please do that,’ said Spicer.

‘Please support them on social media. Please send a card or a letter to their place of work. When women are going through this, it feels like the mob is piling on, and I cannot overestimate the importance of them knowing that they’re not alone.’

Why the backlash?

As the momentum of #metoo and related campaigns has continued, there has been a backlash in some sectors, with men in positions of power – and some women – decrying the rise of ‘witch hunts’.

In response, Spicer noted that the history of feminism is not linear.

‘It comes in fits and starts – and every time there is a surge forward there is a backlash from those who are possibly going to lose their power. My friend Jane Caro said the best thing a few years ago and it really stuck with me: “When there’s a backlash you know that you’re getting somewhere, because if you’re not getting somewhere people won’t be fighting back.”’

Screen culture specifics

Maslin asked: ‘Is there something about the way we conduct our business, our culture, our industry that the power imbalances are endemic? [Does] the way we greenlight productions and the way that productions are cast and the way that the hierarchical structures operate – make our industry different?’

Spicer’s answer: ‘Definitely. You look at the broader media and entertainment industry – you’ve got a small amount of men with massive power, and huge numbers of women in lower paid, lower profile, lower power roles.’

In turn she asked Maslin if the situation in the screen sector had changed much over the past 30 years.

‘Well, women in key creative roles have remained consistently under-represented for a very long time – writing, directing, producing – and then that’s extended into heads of department and more traditional roles,’ replied Maslin.

‘But the areas I’m most interested in are in key executive and leadership roles – that is amongst the people who shape screen culture. So looking at the commissioning editors, the distributors, the producers, the directors – overwhelmingly it’s a very male culture. And the key people who sit around tables deciding what goes on our screens and what stories get told overwhelmingly are male.’

Maslin said in her many years in the industry she had seen ‘all manner of affirmative action programs come and go,’ and they have not changed the screen industry – it is still strongly male dominated.

‘I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to shift it is to shift the culture of leadership at the top, and have more women at the table making those decisions. That will be the key, because a lot of the flow-on from that power imbalance will start to be shaped by having at least a more diverse representation.’

In conclusion

The pair’s conversation finished with Maslin saying: ‘We can take some comfort in knowing that this is not just happening here; this is a worldwide phenomenon … and to echo my opening comments, I feel like it is a game-changing moment. This is a once in a generation opportunity to really shift the culture, and part of that is because right across the board, all of our industries are going through massive disruption at the moment.

‘It has also coincided with the fact that the Baby Boomers – myself included – thankfully are on the way through and out.  So there’s going to be an opportunity for young women … who will probably do things a hell of a lot differently going forward,’ she said.

Spicer urged people, especially younger people in the screen, arts, cultural and media sectors to remember that, ‘You are the change-makers of tomorrow … I urge all of you to use a combination of data and storytelling – I know we’ve got a lot of storytellers in the room – but that’s what changes societies. That’s what’s going to change our future.’

Acknowledging the slogan on her t-shirt, Spicer added: ‘You are stronger than you think.’   

This article is based on discussions which took place at Time’s Up – A Forum For Change, presented by WIFT VIC and held at Arts Centre Melbourne on Monday 26 February 2018.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts