5 min read

Russell Brand and the bystanders: how to say enough is enough

When calling out misogyny, low standards are expected of men. Tiffany Bluhm assesses the ‘Say Maaate’ campaign and explores bystander intervention. Part of the Problem with Men series.

Tiffany Bluhm is a speaker and the author of Prey Tell: Why We Silence Women Who Tell the Truth and How Everyone Can Speak Up. She speaks and writes at the intersection of justice and faith for conferences, churches, and companies.

Three young men sit on a couch. One is leering at a phone while the others look on hesitantly
The 'Say Maaate' interactive video encourages users to pick a moment to act.
Mayor of London.

 In the wake of headlines filling our news feed reporting a story, yet again, of a pop culture icon taking advantage of women, be it Russell Brand or “That 70’s Show” star, Danny Masterson, we’re quick to say “enough is enough,” but perhaps the question to ask is “how do we stop it?” What standards are we expecting of men as individuals and as a collective whole? How will they self-edit their interactions with women? What do we expect of men in the workplace, at the gym, at church, or in the public square? We know what we don’t want them to do, leverage their power, privilege, or platform at a woman’s expense, but that’s an undeniably low bar. What could they do to stop each other before their actions get out of hand? 

Before heinous stories of sexual violence are aired on the BBC or CNN, we’re holding the communal line of what we’ll accept from men. 

After learning of the ‘Say Maaate’ campaign—a public information campaign inviting male mates to call each other out when they witness misogynistic tendencies toward women without jeopardizing the friendship thus jeopardizing the influence on each other—I recognized its brilliance lies in its interception of misconduct before it gains momentum or is considered high stakes. Before heinous stories of sexual violence are aired on the BBC or CNN, we’re holding the communal line of what we’ll accept from men, be it sexist jokes or public harassment. This endeavor, which includes bystander intervention, where those within eyeshot or earshot will attempt to distract and intervene in a potentially hazardous situation when men assert unsolicited dominance or advances toward women, is so successful that it’s employed by the United States military and countless higher education universities and colleges in the States. It puts the onus not on the woman impacted during the encounter, but on those around her, to step up and intervene at the first sign of a power imbalance, ranging from a man standing too close, to a woman darting her eyes to avoid eye contact, to outright sexual and verbal harassment. 

Bystander intervention invites the bystander to disrupt the moment, and after the moment has passed, confront the antagonist with either the benefit of the doubt, “maaate,” if deserving, or a “Man, she didn’t like that, read the room.” Lastly, it beckons the bystander to check on the woman who was the recipient of unwanted harassment. Bystander intervention provides much-needed boundary reminders of what we will and won’t accept in a society where the moral arc of the universe desperately needs to bend toward justice. This practice refuses to normalize women’s subjugation or sexualization, it offers a lifeline where there hasn’t been one before, with women left to their own defences against men with no intention of respecting them.  

I feared the ramifications of speaking up against a man with more clout than I. 

Interestingly, men with power—financial, organizational, political, celebrity—perceive themselves to be more attractive, assume women want them, and sexualize interactions with women. In a world where women are often playing by men’s rules, this makes for disastrous outcomes. Far too many women fear they’ll lose access to their place of perceived or actualized power if they speak up for themselves, or other women, who’ve been maligned, even slightly, by men with power and poor intentions. In my own experience, I feared the ramifications of speaking up against a man with more clout than I. How would this affect my social and professional standing in my community? Would others perceive that I have an axe to grind when that wasn’t the case? Would they frame me as prudish? Would they assume I asked for it? Would they assume I’m trying to unnecessarily take down a “good guy.” Instead of speaking up when the stakes were small, after an off-handed comment, sexist joke, or a lingering hug, I assumed this is just how it is, boys will be boys. If I want to get by in this world, I must put up with it. 

If only the men listening would have thrown him a “maaate.”  

Research shows that this pompous approach men exhibit toward women starts on the playground in primary school, gains steam in the locker room in secondary school, cements itself in university culture, (what Americans refer to as “frat culture”) and before we know it, twentysomething men are carrying this toxic idea of what it means to engage women into adult life, and further, it’s celebrated, as was the case of Brand’s public persona. Too often harassment and misogynistic tendencies of any sort equate to validation of masculinity. In this line of thinking, the subtext is that women exist to be dominated, harassed, or taken advantage of for the sheer pleasure of men. This is the genius of bystander intervention; it swiftly reckons with the subtext of a culture hellbent on letting men get away with whatever they want and whoever they want. 

He addresses her harassers, beckoning them to examine their own lives rather than fixate on hers. 

While the Christian church is no stranger to sexual trysts or infractions by men of the cloth, the ethos of Jesus regards women as worthy not of subjugation nor sexual harassment, but respect and dignified engagement. He modeled this respect and casts a vision for women to find solace and safety in men, never harm. 

A great example of bystander intervention in history starts with pious religious leaders attempting to trap the counter-cultural rabbi Jesus by throwing a woman at his feet, alleging she engaged in adultery, a crime, at the time, worthy of public stoning. A clear imbalance of power, with a woman’s life as collateral for trapping Jesus, the religious leaders wondered if he might keep allegiance to the law or break from it. They made the encounter about Jesus; Jesus centered the encounter on protecting the woman who’d been dragged to the public square. Jesus first intervenes by writing in the sand as his answer to the question posed by the leaders. Her physical safety is of utmost importance as evidenced by his actions. Then, he addresses her harassers, beckoning them to examine their own lives rather than fixate on hers. Finally, he checks in with the undoubtedly traumatized woman, a mere prop in an attempt to trap a man who modeled equality and respect between the sexes. 

If bystander intervention was effective 2,000 years ago to protect and uphold women’s dignity and safety, and has modern success in the military and on university campuses, maybe there’s room for the men in our community to prevent harm before it happens? Maybe we can right cultural wrongs? Maybe before learning of Brand’s misconduct, we’ll learn of a bystander who stepped in before a sexist slur was accepted in everyday conversation or intervened when a woman was uncomfortable. Since the issue is not weak femininity but toxic masculinity, maybe men can learn to say, “Enough is enough.” 

1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  


Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen)