Since the beginning of this month, the online political conversation has been abuzz over the incipient #MeTooing of yet another powerful man. It began when Lindsey Boylan, a millennial politician who recently launched a campaign for Manhattan borough president after failing to unseat Rep. Jerrold Nadler in November, began sending pointed tweets about her time as an employee in the New York governor’s office.
‘Most toxic team environment?’ Boylan wrote, retweeting a prompt asking users to describe the worst job they’d ever had. ‘Working for @NYGovCuomo.’
At first, Boylan’s tweets seemed more like the ordinary gripes of a disgruntled (and perhaps reasonably so) former employee, even as the thread ominously suggested that her frustration was only the tip of the iceberg. (‘If people weren’t deathly afraid of him, they’d be saying the same thing and you’d already know the stories,’ she wrote.) But a week later, Boylan upped the ante:
‘Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched. I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks. Or would it be both in the same conversation? This was the way for years.’
Whoop, there it is.
Three years after the peak of #MeToo, and in the wake of a presidential election where both winner and loser alike were subject to high-profile complaints of sexual misconduct, this sort of harassment scandal is, if not necessarily par for the course, at least a familiar enough occurrence in the world of political media that a system exists for responding to it. Ordinarily, tweets like Boylan’s would mark the start of a process — frequently messy, but always necessary — of verifying the allegations in order to publish them as news. Did she tell anyone at the time? Are there other accusers with similar stories? In Boylan’s case, the allegations include not just an indictment of Cuomo’s behavior but the ‘many’ who ‘saw it, and watched’, offering a promising lead for enterprising reporters to follow. If you could track down other state employees who overlapped with Boylan at the governor’s office, and if just one of those people were to corroborate her story, the dominoes start to fall.
But here, the twist: Boylan isn’t playing dominoes. Not only did she decline multiple requests for comment from reporters, including at the New York Times, but she publicly declared herself uninterested in doing so.
If you’ve grown accustomed to the idea that #MeToo is about holding powerful men accountable for abuse, Boylan’s behavior seems like an inexplicable wrench in the works of progress. Without a way to verify her story, or even any specific allegations to report, Cuomo can’t be punished for, well, whatever he might have done. (And that’s if he did it at all, of course, which he says he didn’t.) But Boylan’s hard pass on the whole process is also what makes this incident interesting: not all that long ago, the opportunity for a hearing in the press was one of the attractive things about the #MeToo movement. It was a chance to be taken seriously where law enforcement or HR departments turned a blind eye, and to make the man who’d wronged you suffer professional and social consequences, if not legal ones. But the satisfaction of a trial-by-media still comes at a cost. There are rules to follow, norms to adhere to, and (just ask Tara Reade) the risk of being disbelieved or discredited if a story doesn’t tick the proper boxes.
Trial by social media, on the other hand, requires none of this. And while it has its downsides — namely, a powerful perpetrator won’t face his comeuppance based on viral outrage alone — the #MeToo conversation now seems to be approaching a place in which consequences, and indeed even the accused men themselves, are something of an afterthought. Boylan’s refusal to cooperate with reporters is only mystifying if you imagine that these allegations tell the old, familiar sort of story, one where an abusive harassing bastard finally gets what’s coming to him at the end. Imagine instead that Andrew Cuomo, and what he did or didn’t do, is irrelevant, because in this new #MeToo chapter, it’s the women who matter. Their bravery. Their struggle. When Boylan accused her former boss of sexual harassment, it was four tweets down in a thread where the main character was not Cuomo, but Boylan herself:
‘I promised myself I would never let those kind of guys win. I would work hard my whole life to put myself in positions of power to change things. To end the violence & corruption. Give voice to the voiceless. I am not stopping. I refuse. I will never give up.’
This isn’t a story about a bad man. It’s a story about a heroic woman — who, incidentally, would like your vote.
To some this will look like opportunism, and maybe it is; or, maybe this is simply how a movement evolves in search of satisfaction. Maybe we were wasting our time trying to extract penance from men, or maybe we should never have focused so much on men at all. After all, perpetrators need not suffer for the women they hurt to be celebrated and rewarded for their bravery. And while every hero needs an antagonist to conquer on her way to greatness, in this new framework, the details hardly matter. We don’t need to know what the bad men did, if they did it at all. They’re nothing but an obstacle, long since stepped over. Their faces become a featureless blur. Someday, we may not even bother to learn their names.