#TheEmptyChair Amplifies Conversation About Sexual Assault

#TheEmptyChair Amplifies Conversation About Sexual Assault

12:21pm Jul 31, 2015
This week's New York magazine cover has received a lot of attention.
This week's New York magazine cover has received a lot of attention.
New York Magazine / Via Twitter

The cover story of this week's New York magazine is getting a lot of attention.

It features 35 women seated in chairs and one empty chair. The women are all dressed in black, looking straight ahead with both hands resting on their knees. It is a stark image, and all the more compelling because each of them is openly and by name accusing Bill Cosby of horrendous acts. Some say they were drugged and raped; others recount stories of narrowly escaping sexual assault.

But what has really hit a nerve is the empty chair in the photo. The chair has sparked a powerful conversation online, including a viral hashtag #TheEmptyChair.

NPR's Renee Montagne spoke to Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men: And The Rise of Women, about the significance of the hashtag and how it's shedding light on a movement of people speaking publicly and frankly about experiences with sexual assault.


Interview Highlights

On the symbolism of the empty chair

It serves so many purposes. First, it's a rebuke, like a classic rebuke. You know, here ... history, America, the patriarchy, whatever you want to call it, has made it difficult for women to speak their truth. So there's a chair that represents silence, something that didn't happen. It's also the opposite of that, which is an invitation, you know: "Come sit in this chair." ... Social media, the hashtag "EmptyChair" basically is saying, "All of you, it's time to speak up now. Walk up to this chair, sit down like the rest of us. There's a sisterhood here, waiting to greet you and share your stories."

On the visual effect of the cover

This is technically a story about Bill Cosby, but when you look at the cover, visually it transmits something different. There are women of all ages, ranging from 40 to 80; there are women of all races on this cover. There are women of all visual styles; they're all wearing black, but they're not wearing the same dress. ... So what this is saying is assault can happen to anyone. Here's a historical archive, not just of Bill Cosby's actions, but of women who have been assaulted generally.

On what struck her about the hashtag

I guess what struck me is the phenomenon that you can trace people's stories back to them. You know, Twitter is completely public. This is not a private forum for women to gather together. This is not one woman sort of clearing her throat and bravely coming forward. This is people under their own names, under their Twitter handles, saying this happened to me or a version of this happened to me or even just cheering the women on.

On whether #TheEmptyChair moment will last

I think this moment is going to last. ... [It] is unresolved and very interesting and, right now, intention. I'm not talking about the Bill Cosby story anymore. ... The way this story has come out, apart from the Cosby story, is sexual assault on campus. And right now I think you have this moment where woman feel simultaneously very vulnerable. ... There's been so much news about sexual assault on campus. That's a story that really has invigorated the feminist movement in the last couple of years. On the other hand, women also feel empowered. ... The best example of this is Emma Sulkowitz, a recent graduate of Columbia University. ... She wants people to pay attention to her abuse. ... She's also owning her abuse, turning it into art, really identifying herself with it and using it to make a statement.

On how #TheEmptyChair connects to issues of sexual assault on campus

The cover and the empty chair tie this whole story together. Because the cover is historical — you see that the women are a bit older. And then the empty chair ties into social media — that taps into the sexual assault on campus movement. So you've got ... a kind of feminist history put together from beginning to right now.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The cover of this week's New York magazine is getting a lot of attention. It features 35 women seated in straight back chairs, dressed in black, with both hands resting on their knees. It is a stark image and all the more compelling because each of them is openly accusing Bill Cosby of horrendous acts, from being drugged and raped to narrow escapes from sexual assault. But what has really hit a nerve on social media is the sight of one chair standing empty. It has sparked a viral hashtag #TheEmptyChair. To talk more, we reached Hanna Rosin. Her most recent book is "The End Of Men: And The Rise Of Women." Good morning.

HANNA ROSIN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What for you is the symbolism of the empty chair?

ROSIN: It serves so many purposes. First, it's a rebuke, like a classic rebuke. You know, here, you, history, America, the patriarchy, whatever you want to call it, has made it difficult for women to speak their truth. So there's a chair that represents silence, something that didn't happen. It's also the opposite of that, which is an invitation. You know, come sit in this chair. And so social media, the hashtag #emptychair, basically is saying all of you, it's time to speak up now. Walk up to this chair, sit down like the rest of us. There's a sisterhood here, waiting to greet you and share your stories.

MONTAGNE: So women coming forward, precisely what does that mean? It's social media that does tend to bring out stories from people, embraces the idea of opening up and telling something personal. What are you finding on this?

ROSIN: Well, it also broadens the story. So this is technically a story about Bill Cosby, but when you look at the cover, visually, it transmits something different. There's women of all ages, ranging from 40 to 80. There's women of all races on this cover. There's women of all visual styles, you know. They're all wearing black, but they're not wearing the same dress. They're wearing very different kind of dresses. So what this is saying is assault can happen to anyone. Here's a historical archive, not just of Bill Cosby's actions, but of women who have been assaulted generally. That's what it looks like when you look at it.

MONTAGNE: Is there a single story or two on the hashtag #emptychair that struck you in particular?

ROSIN: Yeah, I guess what struck me is the phenomenon that you can trace people's stories back to them. You know, Twitter is completely public. This is not a private forum for women to gather together. You know, this is not one woman sort of clearing her throat and bravely coming forward. This is people under their own names, under their own Twitter handles, saying this happened to me or a version of this happened to me or even just cheering the women on. So that's what's striking about it. People are just kind of like squeaking that little truth about themselves out there for the world to read.

MONTAGNE: You've written extensively about gender and sexuality. Is this, do you think, a moment that's going to last or change anything, or is this just a feel-good moment?

ROSIN: I think this moment is going to last. I think this moment is unresolved and very interesting and, right now, intention. I'm not talking about the Bill Cosby story anymore. I'm more talking about the way this story has come out apart from the Bill Cosby story is sexual assault on campus. And right now I think you have this moment where women feel simultaneously very vulnerable. There's been so much news about sexual assault on campus. That's a story that really has invigorated the feminist movement in the last couple of years. On the other hand, women also feel empowered to share their story, to own their story. So it's like you've got these two things going on at once, the simultaneous feeling of complete vulnerability and victimization and also empowerment to own the story. So those are kind of contradictory impulses. And I am not sure how they resolve themselves, but I think the story continues until they do resolve in some way or we get our heads around it a little more peacefully.

MONTAGNE: In a way, then, this social media moment, this hashtag #emptychair, has circled back to college women and issues that we have been hearing quite a bit about the last couple of years. So that's how sort of perpetual it is.

ROSIN: Yeah, the cover and the empty chair tie this whole story together because the cover is historical. You see that the women are a bit older. And then the empty chair ties in to social media. That taps into the sexual assault on campus movement. So you've got a kind of feminist history put together from beginning to right now. And it's still an unfolding story. We still haven't resolved what we think of sexual assault on campus, how to handle it properly, what Title IX is. So the story keeps going on and on and on.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

ROSIN: Sure, my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Hanna Rosin is the author of "The End Of Men: And The Rise Of Women." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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