Behind the Story: TIME Person of the Year
Gabriella Schwarz / December 8, 2017
Reporter: Eliana Dockterman
The brave, sometimes disturbing and wrenching words from victims of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment permeated this past year. Accusations rocked nearly every industry, changing the lives of the men and women involved and shifting our national conversation. Many of those women became the face of TIME magazine this week on its annual Person of the Year issue. From famous actresses and musicians, to businesswomen and housekeepers, this week’s cover story once again proved harassment doesn’t discriminate.
Eliana Dockterman, one of the co-writers of the cover story, spent much of the past two months hearing the words of women and men across the country to help tell the story of the nation’s “cultural shift.”
“I think this is the year women said ‘No, men aren’t going to get away with that anymore. Enough. We’re done with this,'” she told us.
We talked to Dockterman about the stories that will haunt her, the implications of trial by social media and the role journalism plays in this evolving landscape.
Can you take us in the room—how did you land on the winner? How did you decide to cover the women you did in particular?
The way that we decide person of the year is a fairly secretive process, but what I can say is that I started working on this story, researching and doing interviews around mid-October. At some point in late October the editor in chief asked us to lay out for him what this might look like. One of the photo editors and I printed out the photos of all of the women who had come forward with allegations of sexual assault or harassment in the workplace since January 1 of this year. We printed them all out and laid them on a table. It was 150-some women, and that was even before we got into the people who spoke to us for the first time about what happened to them. The way he talked about it, he walked into the room, saw that mass of faces and the force of this movement was undeniable. This had been the story of the year beginning with the Women’s March and women donning the “pussyhats” as a response to what our president said on that leaked Access Hollywood tape, to Susan Fowler writing her blog post that resulted eventually in the ousting of the CEO of Uber, to the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the floodgates opening after that. The story of the year was just told in those faces…It makes your heart kind of swell for these people who put their faces and their names out there and took on the risk.
Rose McGowen in particular talked about how she’d raised these issues for years and years and they didn’t gain traction. Why now? What got us to this moment?
As we say in the story, the groundwork had been laid for years and years and years. The kindling was there, it was just when was the fire going to light. It began with a man, who had said on a tape that he sexually harassed and assaulted women, being elected president. Women saw that and the message was that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how men treat women, and I think this is the year women said “No, men aren’t going to get away with that anymore. Enough. We’re done with this.”
It began with the Women’s March and Susan Fowler, who we spoke to, who said that it was actually Trump’s election that inspired her to write that blog post about Uber. She wanted to take her power back because she felt powerless. You look at that and then that leads to all of these women in Silicon Valley coming out about sexual harassment. You look at Taylor Swift‘s testimony this summer, and that led to this huge increase of reports to the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] of allegations of harassment. And then you look at Ashley Judd speaking out about Harvey Weinstein. Yes, she’d been speaking out about him for years, but she wasn’t naming his name directly to the press, for good reason. We now know that Harvey Weinstein had literally hired ex-Mossad spies to follow Rose McGowan and some of his other accusers. These women had very good reason to be afraid of speaking out. But when they did…it opened the floodgates.
I think it’s partly too that we see ourselves in celebrities. For better or worse we are a celebrity-obsessed culture, and when someone as glamorous as Ashley Judd has had this happen to her, it makes us think of course it could happen to anyone. It happened to who we perceive as the most powerful people in the country, then of course it also happens to the most vulnerable.
You just talked about Hollywood being a microcosm for power. Will we see this ripple across other parts of the country?
Yes I think so. We tried, in our package, to show that this story isn’t just about the starlets, it’s not just about Hollywood, it’s about the women who are most vulnerable. We have two people on our cover—one used a pseudonym because she was afraid of the repercussions to her family and her livelihood if she used her name. And another one is just an arm on the cover that represents all the women we spoke to who wanted to remain anonymous because they were still afraid to come forward, with good reason.
I think Hollywood is the most public thing that we see, but this has been happening to women everywhere since time immortal. Ever since women started working in the workforce they’ve had to deal with this. It has just been the silent problem. I think celebrities coming out inspired other people to come out and the #MeToo movement especially gave safety in numbers and allowed more women to speak out.
The are so many women coming forward now. Are you worried they start to lose their impact?
I’m not worried about the mass losing impact. I think that the numbers are the impact. It goes back to looking at the sheer number of faces on that table or looking at the sheer number of men and women who were tweeting #MeToo. I think it made people, and men especially, consider for the first time that this was a problem that every woman has faced, and it’s a problem that many men have faced. I think it made men reconsider how they treat women, both in the workplace and at home. I think it took the mass of people to do that. So I think the numbers are the impact.
Terry Crews in particular talked about the role social media played and you just mentioned #MeToo. Do you think this is trial by social media? Are there upsides and downsides to that?
Absolutely. We say in our story, we’re still at the bomb throwing phase of this revolution. Men who have been accused of harassing and assaulting women for years and in some cases, decades, where it was an open secret, are finally facing consequences, which they never have before. That’s great.
But maybe the problem is that we still haven’t figured out how to differentiate, in this movement, the men who are raping women versus the men who are harassing women, versus the men who are office flirts or accidentally brush a woman’s leg under the table. Those things are wrong in varying degrees. I’m not saying that hitting on someone in the office is a good thing by any stretch of the imagination. But what I am saying is those things shouldn’t necessarily be equated. We still need to figure out the language and the process by which we are going to differentiate the “bad men.” I think of the “bad men media list” where some were on there for reasons that were less than fireable reasons. So we need to separate the “bad men” from the harassers. It’s the harassers that we need to make sure either change their behavior or are fired from their jobs.
Do you think it’s the role of journalists to help shape that future? And what role do they have in the larger movement?
A lot of the women we spoke to said that the way journalists have viewed this problem has changed in the last few years. She didn’t make it into the piece, but we spoke to Ellen Pao, who brought the suit against Kleiner Perkins, that ended up being big in the media in 2015. She said that at the time she was bringing the suit against Kleiner Perkins, people just didn’t believe her. They didn’t believe that there was a sexsim problem in Silicon Valley, they didn’t believe that they were discriminating against her, they just thought that she was whining. She compared that to when Susan Fowler posted her blog post and there was this inherent sense of belief because in the two or three years between the time Ellen Pao was speaking out and Susan Fowler was speaking out, journalists had actually started covering the issue of sexism in Silicon Valley. And I think that that’s true of all sorts of different workplaces.
The women who laid the groundwork, the Anita Hills, the Gretchen Carlsons, the Ellen Paos, forced us to start having conversations in our homes, among ourselves, with our coworkers, about this problem. It was already in a private conversation and then it was just ready to explode. I think journalists are starting to realize that not only is this an important issue to cover, but it would be like journalistic malpractice to not cover this cultural shift because it is a huge cultural shift.
There has been polling recently about the difference between how older demographics and younger demographics look at these issues, with older women thinking harassment happens much less than younger women. How did that generational shift play out in this piece?
There was a generational difference and many of the women we spoke to said that. Wendy Walsh, is an example. She was a Fox News contributor, and when she was debating whether or not to speak out against Fox she said she talked to her peers who were her age, who were also moms, who said to her, “I’ve had much worse happen to me,” “Don’t bother,” “Don’t rock the boat, this is your career we’re talking about.” But then her daughters who are college age said, “No mom, you have to do this. You weren’t treated correctly and you have to say something about it.”
So I do think that there’s this shift between a generation of women who grew up thinking this is just how we have to navigate the workplace and we have to do certain things in order to succeed and a generation of women who said, “No, we’re not going to put up with it.” I think that’s absolutely reflected in newsrooms as well. That said, I have lots of men and women in this newsroom who are a generation above me, who supported this project, fought for this project, and were really enthused about getting these women’s voices out there.
What’s the story from your reporting that will especially stay with you from this package?
There are two that are most visceral for me because of their disturbing nature.
One is Selma Blair, who said that after James Toback sexually assaulted her, that he then said if she ever told anyone, he would gauge her eyes out with a Bic pen and throw her in the Hudson River. Who even thinks with that specificity? The brand name of the pen that you’re going to gauge somebody’s eyes out with? It’s truly disturbing. I think that’s one of the ones that haunts me still. She stayed silent for 20 years because she was genuinely afraid this man was going to murder her.
Another one is Juana Melara who is a housekeeper at a hotel who told us stories of going about cleaning the hotel room and there are men in these hotel rooms who will expose themselves to her, try to corner her, ask her to give them massages. She said, it’s a quote that really resonated with me: “They think because they go to luxury hotels and they pay a certain amount of money that they have the right to get the housekeeper’s bodies too.” I think that really encapsulated a lot of the privilege that these men feel and how they approach women, whether it’s women who are cleaning the hotel room or whether it’s women who work in their office space. I think it also reflected the vulnerability of women who aren’t the movie stars, who aren’t the pop singers, who aren’t the politicians, who are just trying to get by in these blue collar jobs and face daily harassment.
Is there anyone you wish had made the list that didn’t?
I wish we’d had two years to report this, and we could have spoken to thousands and millions of survivors because there are so many people with so many brave stories. Just because of the parameters of Person of the Year, we spoke to people who specifically spoke out about sexual harassment in the workplace this year. There are lots of women who have built the foundation for us that I wish we would have been able to speak to.
If I had my druthers, I’d spend the rest of my life writing a 10,000-word book about this, or 10,000 word essay about this because there’s so much to say.
I’d encourage people to, when they’re actually reading the issue, to go and look at the captions. We fought really hard to have these deep captions for each of the women we photographed, so we had as much of their own voices in there as possible. I would really encourage people to go read these women’s stories and hear them in their own words. It’s so powerful to hear from them directly. Nobody cares what myself or my two co-writers think about this because it’s the women. They’re the ones who are brave and spoke out. Go read their own words.
Read the full cover story and the accompanying profiles in TIME’s Person of the Year Flipboard Magazine.