Time’s Person of the Year: The Story of the Silence Breakers

Time’s “Person of the Year” is meant to highlight the profile of a person or group that has had the greatest impact, for better or for worse, on the world that year. For 2017, the chosen profile is The Silence Breakers. The cover of the magazine features Isabel Pascual, Adama Iwu, Ashley Judd, Susan Fowler, and Taylor Swift along with a faceless body that gets cut off, which represents the over 4.7 million people who rallied against sexual misconduct with the hashtag #MeToo, which was further adapted into #YoTambien, #BalanceTonPorc, #Ana_kaman and others. These five women are from vastly different backgrounds. Judd and Swift are mega-media sensations and household names, whereas Iwu and Fowler are professionals in lobbying and technology respectively, and Pascual is a strawberry picker from Mexico. The millions of people who used #MeToo are from different nations with distinctly different occupations and classes. What binds them all together is a collective outrage that has been stewing and can no longer be ignored.

The shortlist for 2017’s Person of the Year was filled with the typical political, high-powered, largely male names that Time’s readership have come to expect. Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Jeff Bezos, Colin Kaepernick, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Robert Mueller, Xi Jinping. The only other women and groups besides the Silence Breakers were Patty Jenkins (director of “Wonder Woman”) and children of  undocumented immigrants known as the Dreamers, who have been fighting for their rights for citizenship. This context highlights why the decision of selecting the participants of the #MeToo movement is so significant. The movement stemmed from challenging men in power— men whose names could fit in comfortably in Time’s shortlist. It is about tearing open the curtain and exposing these people in power for their exploitation. Time’s selection affirms victims of sexual assault that money nor power nor rapport can exempt a person from moral vindication. Rather than smacking the cover with the face of a man that may be (or has been admitted to being) a perpetrator of sexual assault, despite whether or not they’re now President of the U.S, Time is giving recognition to those who are brave enough to fight back and have victoriously made a difference in how we see and treat people in power.

Historically, those who stood up against assault and harassment have been threatened physically or professionally. Actress Selma Blair was threatened by her assaulter, film director James Toback, that if she ever were to expose him, he would “stab her eyes out with a Bic pen and throw her in the Hudson River.”  Additionally, Silence Breakers continue to face societal backlash of disapproval and isolation. Iwu, after being groped in front of her colleagues, organized 147 women to sign an open letter to expose the misconduct in the California government. Her efforts were met with fear and caution from her peers, who reminded her of other women who tried to expose political figures and were seen as delusional, attention seeking, and vindictive. Indeed, this has been a year of watching idols fall. And it’s not easy. It’s much easier is to make excuses for our favorite celebrities and to resent the people who choose to expose these unsavory facts. But at this point it is too personal, as the thousands of people who used #MeToo can attest. Too many people have been victims of sexual harassment that collective levels of sympathy have all but run out. Time’s decision marks the change in how the public receives of these people. Instead of fighting them, the public is now fighting with them.

The Silence Breakers have ushered in a new conversation regarding sexual misconduct. In an era where colleges emphasize the importance of consent as part of their orientations, and where the number of women marching for civil rights outnumber the crowd at the presidential inauguration, the public is finally ready to have these honest conversations. The Silence Breakers have emerged at just the right time to spark not just a conversation, but a reckoning. This reckoning takes into consideration what is and is not acceptable behavior; and moreover, what the options are for a victim of unacceptable behavior.

The Silence Breakers are all tired of living with the status quo. They are tired of having their rights withheld by powerful men through methods of fear and intimidation—methods that work because they have been codified in the behavioral norms of our culture. They are tired of living within a system where men feel entitled to women’s bodies on the very basis that they are men and women are women.  It’s antiquated and illogical, and yet the model continues because the men in power benefit so enormously from it; so antiquated and illogical that the Silence Breakers are significant in even calling it out. They’re showing the public that as a society we need to do better, be more vigilant. Even though women can vote and own property and have the same professional positions as men, feminism is an ongoing fight, because the power imbalance between men and women is still pervasive. Yet with such a deeply ingrained problem, the Silence Breakers have still been able to direct the public’s attention and fury onto the problem itself.

The political web of agendas, history, and money can seem so daunting that the average person feel powerless against it. Big banks get bailouts, politicians can break the law with impunity, corporations can monopolize the resources of entire countries. As long as these entities have enough money and power, justice remains evasive. Sexual harassment is a unique case as it is a problem that plagues the entire world, and yet can be addressed on an individual basis. Unlike political issues that comprise of and interplay of several different groups with different agendas and financial priorities, sexual assault can be simmered down to the individual level— and it is there that the individual has the most power. The #MeToo movement symbolizes a much needed victory for democracy. Too many people are experiencing the same pain and are hungry for justice. With any luck, this movement has only just begun to whet their appetites.

This article originally appeared in the print edition of our January 2018, issue.

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