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The Bittersweet Satisfaction of Watching Women Rise Because Men Fall

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: (L to R) Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie embrace at the end of the show on the set of NBC's Today Show, November 29, 2017 in New York City. It was announced on Wednesday morning that long time Today Show host Matt Lauer had been fired for sexual misconduct. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie embrace on the set of Today, after it was announced that longtime host Matt Lauer had been fired for sexual misconduct.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tuesday morning, Savannah Guthrie announced that Hoda Kotb would officially replace Matt Lauer as her Today show co-anchor, after filling in for the disgraced host since his November firing. It’s a historic announcement: Kotb and Guthrie are the first all-female anchor team, not just in Today’s history, but in network morning show TV history. Other morning shows have tended to mirror NBC’s successful “family” format, as Brian Stelter calls it in Top of the Morning, with mixed gender hosts serving as Mommy/Daddy figures. So ingrained are these gender roles that shortly after Charlie Rose’s firing from CBS This Morning, Adweek’s weekly ratings summary speculated on who CTM’s “next male co-host” might be.

It’s hard to imagine the Today show would have broken with its gendered tradition if Lauer had gone out under different circumstances. For the past 55 years, the show has featured a male-female anchor duo, with men replacing men and women replacing women. Lauer replaced Bryant Gumbel as Katie Couric’s co-host in 1997, before she was replaced by Meredith Vieira, and so on. While Kotb is a fantastic host, it’s likely the decision to give the role to a talented, charismatic woman instead of a talented, charismatic man has as much to do with Lauer’s sexual misconduct as it does with Kotb’s capabilities.

Over the past few months, there have been calls for newly vacated positions of power to be given to women, and it seems such calls have been heard—though whether it’s a symbolic correction for systematic inequality or because men have proved themselves to be too much of a liability for management is unclear.

Kotb joins a list of brilliant women who have taken up roles recently vacated by men taken down in this moment of sexual reckoning. One hopes that all women will benefit from this moment, but it’s clear a few have benefited more directly than others. Robin Wright will replace Kevin Spacey as the star of the final season of House of Cards, after five seasons as his scheming wife, Claire Underwood. (As Mrs. Underwood said at the conclusion of Season 5, “My turn”). Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith has been appointed to take Al Franken’s place in the Senate until a special election can be held, bringing the number of current female senators to an all-time high of 22. Christiane Amanpour’s show Amanpour has temporarily taken the slot of Charlie Rose’s self-titled show on PBS. Nicole Rudick is serving as acting editor of the Paris Review in Lorin Stein’s place. More women than usual will take the stage at the upcoming SAG Awards, with the guild announcing—to cries of “reverse sexism”—that only women would present awards this year. And for the first time, all three network morning shows now have a woman of color in a hosting slot.

Kotb, Wright, Smith, Amanpour, and Rudick—already successful journalists, politicians, and actors in their own right—are all talented women. But one could say that these women have gained their new positions, deserved as they are, because of men. Or, more accurately, because of men’s misdeeds. It’s unlikely, though not impossible, that Matt Lauer’s anchor chair or Al Franken’s Senate seat would have gone to a woman next had the once popular men left under less disturbing circumstances, with women continuing to break glass ceilings in politics and media. But even so, it wouldn’t be happening right now. It’s an MRA’s worst nightmare: These women are rising as a direct result of (a) man’s fall.

There is a bittersweet satisfaction to watching women take these men’s places: We’re watching sexual harassers being usurped by their would-be victims. (In the case of Kevin Spacey, the alleged victims were male, although it’s still a case of the powerless rising above the powerful.) Influential men who have used their jobs and their power to treat co-workers like objects have lost their jobs and their power to people of the gender they so disrespected, and their comeuppance comes with a delicious feminist twist.

It’s a poignant outcome when one considers how many women’s careers might have been ruined by these men and men like them. Harvey Weinstein alone seems to have driven multiple women out of the film industry, whether they left by choice or were “iced out,” and it’s hard to know how many other young women might have walked away from journalism or politics because of the monstrous acts of Franken/Stein. It cannot and does not make up for all the opportunities that women have lost through sexual harassment, but it’s a small consolation prize to see some women gain opportunities back, to take back some power for Team Woman and away from Team Man.

Of course, feminism is not about hating men, or calling for their subjugation (though at times like this, one wonders if maybe it should be). It’s just that in these cases, watching woman take the recently vacated chairs—Senate or anchor or editorial—of men who treated their sisters with such impunity is gratifying. Each woman we see succeed because of men’s failure to control themselves is a small victory, a miniature version of the one we thought was assured the day the Access Hollywood tape dropped. This victory feels like much of the #MeToo victories: satisfying, but with more than a hint of sadness of the devastation it took to get us here.

To paraphrase Jurassic Park: Man commits sexual harassment. Sexual harassment destroys man. Woman inherits the Earth.

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