I had found out more … by listening than I had ever thought possible.
—Rachel Cusk, Transit
In 2017, Time declared its Person of the Year to be “The Silence Breakers,” that is, the women survivors that “spoke up” as part of the #MeToo movement. Indeed, #MeToo is often associated with tropes of speech; reporting on the movement is regularly illustrated with megaphones, in an attempt to picture the collective impact of survivor speech. For many, then, “speaking out” promised to fulfill Muriel Rukeyser’s prophetic declaration in her 1968 poem to sculptor Käthe Kollwitz: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about / her life? / The world would split open.”
If only. With so many stories of sexual violence being made public in recent years, it is clear that testimony alone does not create change. Put another way: the act of speaking, despite the cultural applause for those “breaking silence,” simply is not enough. As director Sarah Polley insisted in her acceptance speech for the 2023 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Women Talking, sexual violence ends “not just by talking but also by listening.”
Listening is at the core of recent works on the #MeToo movement. Two films and a one-woman stage production—She Said, Women Talking, and Prima Facie—all focus on the interior and collective drama of how listening leads to changing your mind.
It isn’t literal silence that renders some survivors inaudible; instead, it’s the refusal to hear and heed them. Those who doubt survivors are quick to demand speech, yet they also accuse women of speaking out too late and too soon, of violating due process and seeking revenge years later. An overemphasis on survivor speech can deflect attention from listening, and, thus, defer the obligation to change.
As statutes of limitations and other delaying tactics attest, there is no good timing for survivor speech. At least in the absence of the willingness to listen.
This is why change requires an understanding of how silencing and listening are mutually constructed, so that we might halt the reproduction of sexual violence. In my book The #MeToo Effect, I argue that when #MeToo disrupted the classic he-said, she-said trope, the movement enabled a paradigm shift from once doubting all women to now believing some—but, crucially, not all—of them.
This shift is welcome, but it is imperfect and unfinished. Finding the patterns through which the refusal to listen becomes a norm also exposes why speaking out in hostile conditions so often fails to generate accountability.
And so instead of demanding speech, or fixating on the criminal justice system to offer justice, I offer the metaphor of a “theater of participation,” so as to widen focus beyond victim-abuser. In such a theater—that is, a performance in which we all participate—there are not just victims and abusers. There are also enablers; there are bystanders, who would never imagine themselves taking part in sexual misconduct; and there are even beneficiaries, whose distance from harm enables them to shrug off responsibility.
Prima Facie, She Said, and Women Talking focus on the role of the listener: not only in eliciting the story but acting in response to hearing it. Strikingly, all three works eschew a singular focus on punishment. Instead, they vividly stage situations in which survivors are silenced or heard. They populate these situations with survivors and other women, but also supportive coworkers and community members who learn to listen and share the responsibility for change.
Whether listening or speaking, the signature mode of #MeToo is the seismic shift: from doubt to credibility for victims, from impunity to accountability for abusers, and from apathy to responsible participation for many. The pivot from silence to speech understandably commanded attention in the early months of #MeToo. But the emphasis on listening distributes the obligation to change beyond those who have been harmed, making the role of the listener consistent with other named roles: such as victim, abuser, bystander.
Listening requires that we suspend doubt while listening. It also encourages us to imagine a future in which accountability leads to restorative justice and healing.
Although justice remains out-of-bounds—when the formal mechanisms of law make it impossible for survivor speech to be heard—fortunately the genre of drama is designed to enable audiences to listen.
Tessa—the protagonist of Suzie Miller’s one-woman show Prima Facie—shows the sharp contrast between speaking and being heard. In the first act, set in contemporary London, Tessa is an ambitious barrister on the rise. She delivers her lines at breakneck pace, highlighting her dexterity within the verbal arena of the courtroom. Tessa is played by English actor Jodie Comer, best known to US audiences as the assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve. Instead of eliminating her targets with poison or bullets like Villanelle, Comer’s Tessa uses cross-examination: “I fire four questions like bullets … Face, shock. Utter annihilation. And the look I get. Dawning. You fucking idiot. You thought you had this.”
Tessa boasts about using a subtler technique when she cross-examines victims of rape. It takes so little to undermine a survivor of trauma. Complicated questions about minor inconsistencies, for example, can rattle victims, making them look unreliable. It is equally easy to raise doubt in a judge’s and jury’s minds by conflating consenting to drink with consenting to sex: “You agree you both drank vodka? And is it possible that you were intoxicated? So when you took off your clothing you were not saying no were you?”
In the midst of her life and career as a barrister in contemporary London, Tessa also reflects on her time in law school. She remembers her working-class determination to beat the odds. Imitating the dean’s first-day speech, she intones: “Look to the person on your left. Look to the person on your right. Look back at me and hear this. One of the three of you will not make it.” Tessa is determined not to be the “one.”
Later, as a successful barrister, Tessa is raped by a colleague. Here, at the end of the first act, Tessa becomes the “one” in three women who will be a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. The second act takes up the consequences of this dual statistical positionality: Tessa as lawyer and survivor.
There is a marked shift in pace and tone in act 2. Time has passed. In the National Theatre production, dates on a calendar tick by to show the time between offense and trial—on average 1,020 days—representing a suspended sentence imposed on the survivor’s life before she gets to court. When she returns to the stage, Tessa’s confidence has disintegrated and her rapid-fire speech has slowed to show the lingering impact of trauma and the snail’s pace of legal proceedings.
In bringing a charge of rape, Tessa is put on trial. She is undone by a harrowing cross-examination. Despite everything she knows about the law … and because of it. When Tessa begins to find her voice emerging under cross-examination and demands the right to speak, the defense quickly requests a voir dire; the jury is “sent out so they don’t hear something that might be prejudicial.” Even when the law allows her the opportunity to speak through this formal mechanism, it refuses her the right to be heard.
Despite her testimony, Tessa knows that “the system I thought would protect me” works to the rapist’s advantage. Predictably, Tessa’s rapist is not convicted.
Because this is a play about the law and not a trial itself, Tessa pleads her case directly to the audience: “All I know is that somewhere. Sometime. Somehow. Something has to change.”
As playwrights from Brecht to O’Neill and Miller insist, change can begin in the drama of listening. This work belongs to the audience. Although justice remains out-of-bounds—when the formal mechanisms of law make it impossible for survivor speech to be heard—fortunately the genre of drama is designed to enable audiences to listen.
Investigative reporting is another #MeToo genre that offered survivors what they sought from—and were routinely denied by—the criminal justice system: investigation, corroboration of evidence, fact-checking, and publication in reputable journalism.
The main action of the film She Said is captured primarily by reaction shots as New York Times investigative journalists Jodi Kantor (played by Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) ask questions and then listen to what follows. The camera lingers on their faces as they silently absorb the reality and scope of the stories they are hearing on systemic sexual abuse in Hollywood. There is Kantor at home taking a call from Rose McGowan who says, “It does damage to shout and no one listens.” And Twohey taking a phone call from an anonymous man who threatens to rape and kill her. There is Times editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) talking with a source on speakerphone with Kantor and Twohey, as the camera shows their silent and shared witness. And there is Kantor wordlessly listening to a call from Ashley Judd agreeing to be a named source for the story; before she speaks, the camera cuts to Twohey, who is also absorbed in the act of listening.
The film is based on a book of the same name, and juxtaposes two workplaces: the Times (professional, supportive) and Miramax (a fucking nightmare). And the film, meanwhile, cuts between two timelines. The present-tense action follows the investigation as Kantor and Twohey get the greenlight to interview more women; ultimately, they are supported in going directly after Harvey Weinstein. In the second timeline, multiple women are trying to decide whether to talk to the two reporters. There are flashbacks from decades-old assaults to present-tense interviews about their aftermath. Although their plots run parallel, each victim treads an individual path.
Throughout both timelines, the camera focuses on Kantor and Twohey, listening. It pulls back to show how others enter this arena of attention: editors, interviewees, and their own supportive spouses. In a climactic scene where Weinstein and his attorneys harangue Twohey, the camera circles her, while the harassing voices are muted by swelling music. Twohey is full of stories at this point, having devised strategies that enable victims to talk. The drama now lies in how listening has changed who can be heard.
When Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking opens, one rapist has been caught. But he is only one of many men that has preyed upon the girls and women of their shared, small, rural Mennonite community. This rapist has given the names of others; they are being held in jail, while the men in the community raise bail. The women have a brief window in which to determine their response.
The bulk of the film centers on the deliberations of a small, cross-generational group, tasked with deciding what the girls and women will do. The film’s inclusion of a young man as the minutes taker for the women (he has returned to the community to serve as the boys’ schoolteacher) nods to the notion that men can learn to listen.
Therefore the key action is not simply talking, as the title of the film underscores. Instead the film centers on the relational act of listening to each other, as they change their minds together through collective deliberation.
The film is based on the novel of the same title by Miriam Toews, which draws on a real story of abuse in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, where girls and women awakened bruised and bloodied to find they had been raped. Men in the community used cow tranquilizer to drug their victims—from children to elderly women—and subjected them to brutal sexual assaults. The victims were told they were possessed by demons, or were being punished by God, or were imagining or faking their injuries. They woke up infected, brutalized, and often impregnated by men that were their brothers, fathers, and husbands.
Polley’s film Women Talking is set in a tight-knit community, not a workplace like Prima Facie and She Said. The men in this religious sect impose total obedience on girls and women. The authorities to whom the women would be required to appeal for justice include their rapists and the rapists’ protectors. Even if they leave, the men hold a powerful threat of excommunication over their heads. They have two days to decide what to do. Ultimately, they hold a vote on three options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The last two options tie.
Change will not come through their religion or from the men who have imposed complete submission, illiteracy, and violence on them. Instead, they learn to forgive themselves and each other. They must look to each other for solutions. Through painful and provoking discussion, they explore the depths of their suffering. Their anger at the men is shared and understandable. There is no defense for those actions. Yet their anger at themselves for things they could not do—like protect their children—is more complicated. So, too, is their anger at each other for urging obedience no matter the cost. They take accountability for perpetuating a cycle of violence rooted in submissiveness to men. “I am sorry,” one woman says in an act of restorative justice about her own harsh words, “because you do not need or deserve any more harm.”
As a prelude to leaving, they forgive each other and themselves. Speaking together unleashes change rooted in mutual accountability and forgiveness.
One member of the community was raped by her brother and miscarried the resulting pregnancy; thereafter, they cut their hair short, dress in overalls, refuse to talk to anyone but children, and take the name Melvin. To be clear, the film does not suggest Melvin becomes trans as a result of rape. The point seems to be more that all the participants have learned to see each other as they more truly are and to stop enforcing the religion’s violent ideas about gender on each other. When he is first addressed by one of the elder women by his (the film isn’t clear about pronouns) chosen name, Melvin speaks to adults for the first time since the rape and says, “Thank you for saying my name.” These interior journeys are dramatized as acts of understanding that lead to changes in action.
Women Talking is like 12 Angry Men if all the jurors had been raped. Yet unlike other courtroom dramas that focus on interactions among strangers in the jury room, or the back-and-forth between prosecution and defense, Women Talking is about collective deliberation and consensus building by victims who embrace a radical vision of restorative justice and change their shared future.
All three works demonstrate different ways that women move beyond the legal model as a source of restitution, justice, and reconciliation. And all do so via listening to survivors.
The legal model for understanding sexual violence, as Prima Facie shows, limits focus to a male abuser and a female victim and construes their conflicting testimony as a stalemate. Thus, he-said, she-said fails as a model for generating accountability. Structurally, the law’s response to the stalemate of rape, then, is to do nothing. This resembles the very option that the women in Women Talking reject. This is why Prima Facie and She Said shift attention to the drama of listening: to the courtroom, where it is rendered unhearable to the audience in Prima Facie; to the cover-ups and nondisclosure agreements of Hollywood; and, ultimately, to the record provided by journalism in She Said.
But it is Women Talking that offers a template for change that goes beyond telling the story. This is because the women of Women Talking are accountable to each other and to all the women and girls of the community: they have recast themselves as agents of shared obligation, and they have determined to start a new life based in collective listening and reflective action. For them, when the world split open—after they tell the truth about their lives, as in Rukeyser’s poem—they loaded their lives onto wagons and left it behind, together.