Does Time’s Person of the Year Imply Real Progress?

No one could have predicted 2017’s Time Person of the Year last December. Or even a few months ago. “The year, at its outset, did not seem to be a particularly auspicious one for women,” writes Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal. “A man who had bragged on tape about sexual assault took the oath of the highest office in the land, having defeated the first woman of either party to be nominated for that office, as she sat beside a former President with his own troubling history of sexual misconduct.”

If 2017 began on a depressingly hopeless note, it’s ending on a depressingly hopeful note. Of course, you know all about the #MeToo movement by now. I’m willing to bet that you’re part of it, and it’s been a long time coming.

When the likes of Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly stood accused, I still don’t think anyone comprehended the scope of the issue, but the puzzle pieces of the movement were falling into place. Rose McGowan had been dropping hints about the man who assaulted her. Taylor Swift won a very public groping trial during the late summer. Ashley Judd was one of the first big names to go on record about Harvey Weinstein in the New York Times. Asia Argento also spoke out, daring to use the word “rape.” Alyssa Milano started that simple, powerful Twitter hashtag that’s spread like wildfire, based on social activist Tarana Burke’s underpublicized 2006 campaign to highlight similar issues.

#MeToo created a cataclysmic bam, bam, bam, bam, bam across industries. Those voices became a chorus, millions of women have joined in, and now everyone is listening — including Time, obviously, but also those with decision-making power within company ranks. So far, the chorus of voices both well-known and unknown have toppled Hollywood heavyweights like Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., as well as other major names like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Brett Ratner and Terry Richardson. The list of offenses and perpetrators goes on and on, now impossible to filter out of our social media and news feeds.

Before Weinstein broke, I used to do that thing too many of us do in the face of unsolicited advances: I’d let the rush of humiliation hit, and follow it up with a hearty dose of self-questioning. If someone’s touch or attention was unwanted, I’d rack my brain for things I could have done differently. It started when I was young. I remember my mom coaching me as a little girl on how to avoid situations that would make me vulnerable: avoid walking alone at night, don’t accept nebulous invitations from men at work, meet up with men in public spaces, watch your drink at parties, check in with friends to tell them your whereabouts, listen to your gut if something feels off. I know why she did it; safety has always felt like our burden to bear as women. It should have never been this way.

Before #MeToo, it never even occurred to me that it didn’t have to be.

Post-reckoning, I’ve realized my knee-jerk reactions are nonsense. What we have been conditioned to do in response to unacceptable behavior — laugh it off, let it go, get out ASAP, remember to avoid in future — suddenly feels wrong. Because of #MeToo, we can finally be empowered and emboldened to say, “Enough is enough.”

That is to say: Nothing has affected me the last 12 months quite like #MeToo. Seeing women’s all-too-common experiences come to the forefront, and watching those feelings be subsequently validated by action, has felt especially powerful in the wake of a disappointing 2016. It finally feels like the winds of change are shifting some cultural sails for all of us.

A look at Time’s 2017 shortlist paints a bizarre picture: Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Robert Mueller, Jeff Bezos, Colin Kaepernick, the Dreamers, Patty Jenkins. It’s an interesting, if illustrative, assortment. A cast of characters that almost resembles a good vs. evil showdown in a comic book. It’s striking to see the Time selection this year alongside last year’s title-holder Trump (this year’s runner-up). Yes, the magazine’s distinction honors influence, but in the aftermath of the election last year, that Person of the Year anointment felt a little like evil was winning. Some days, it still does. But perhaps this year the scales are shifting.

I wish I didn’t have to write about what a big deal it is that Time selected the “Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year instead of Trump. I wish misconduct had never been so normalized. I wish I couldn’t say #MeToo. But here I am, and here you are, and here we are all standing together.

In a way, this honor is for all of us. What started as a whisper, passed down through generations of women, has become a relentless scream — and the echoes are splashed all over that Time cover. For that, I am cheering. Maybe this year, “good” is nipping at the heels of evil.

Feature photo via TIME from the Person of the Year 2017 Silence Breakers, photographed by Billy & Hells for TIME. 

Jenna Birch

Journalist, dating coach and author of The Love Gap.

More from Archive