After Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish football federation, forcibly kissed Jennifer Hermoso, a player for the women’s national team, following their World Cup victory, many wondered if it would be a moment #MeToo for Spain.
Whether the televised kiss galvanizes a lasting movement against harassment and discrimination remains to be seen. But the growing backlash against Rubiales highlights an often crucial element of these public accounts: the scandal.
During periods of social change, there is often a phase of widespread support for reform in principle, but reluctance among the population to make these ideals a reality. Changing a system means taking on the powerful insiders who benefit from it and bearing the brunt of their retaliation – a tough thing to sell, especially to those who don’t expect change to help them personally.
A scandal can profoundly change that reckoning, as illustrated by the fury surrounding the kiss. Hermoso described it as “an impulsive, sexist and inappropriate act, without any consent on my part.” (Rubiales, who refused to resign, forcefully defended his conduct and insisted the kiss was consensual.)
By sparking public outrage, scandals inaction costly: as a result, doing nothing risks provoking even greater negative reactions. And scandals can also change the other side of the equation: the powerful have less ability to retaliate if their former allies abandon them in order to avoid being tainted by scandal themselves. Action becomes less costly at the same time as inaction becomes more so.
But while scandals can be a powerful tool, they are not accessible to everyone. Just as the growing backlash against Rubiales showed the power of scandal, the events of the months leading up to it, in which many members of the Spanish women’s team tried unsuccessfully to change a system they described as controlling and overwhelmed, underscore how difficult it can be to spark a scandal – and how it can rob ordinary people of public sympathy or the ability to implement change.
The unifying power of scandal
To understand how this pattern plays out, it is helpful to examine the influence of scandal in a very different context. Yanilda González, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, studies police reform in the Americas. In the 2010s, she sought to determine why, after the end of Latin American dictatorships, democratic reforms often exempted police forces, leaving them as islands of authoritarianism.
In her 2020 book, Authoritarian Police in Democracy, she describes how police forces can be extremely powerful in political terms, sometimes using the threat of public unrest as leverage against policy makers who might seek to limit their power or threaten their privileges.
Politicians were reluctant to bear the costs of pursuing reforms that might provoke a backlash from the police. And public opinion was often divided: while some demanded greater protection from state violence, others feared that police reforms would empower criminals.
But González discovered that scandals could change that. Particularly egregious episodes of police misconduct could unite public opinion in demanding reform. Opposition politicians, seeing an opportunity to win the votes of an angry public, would swell the chorus, and the government would eventually decide that change was the less expensive option.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal followed a similar pattern. For many years, Weinstein’s predatory behavior was an open Hollywood secret. But then a Times article written by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, in which several women detailed the abuse they had suffered at his hands, generated a huge scandal. Public outrage at Weinstein’s behavior meant that the old Hollywood calculus that it was safer to silence the powerful producer’s abuse than to try to stop it was no longer valid. Weinstein’s former allies have abandoned him.
This generated pressure for change that went far beyond Weinstein. A host of other #MeToo scandals have exposed powerful men as abusers, stalkers and general sexual pests. A national review followed.
“The kiss” shows the power of scandal, but also its limits
Long before the televised kiss, many members of the Spanish women’s team had protested against Rubiales and the management of the Spanish football federation. Last year, 15 team members, frustrated by unequal pay and widespread sexism, sent identical letters accusing team coach Jorge Vilda of using methods harmful to “their condition. emotional and to their health”, and claiming that they would not play for the team. national team unless he is fired.
These 15 women were among the best players on the team. They were organized. And they were ready to sacrifice a participation in the World Cup to obtain a change.
But they are not yet “Queens of the World”, as the cover of a magazine last week proclaimed, with a World Cup victory that would put them on the front page of every newspaper in the country.
And they haven’t had a scandal yet. No event has sparked enough public outrage to shift power from the football federation to the players. The Spanish football federation, including Rubiales, reacted with indignation to these letters and pledged not only to protect Vilda’s work, but also to exclude the authors from the national team unless they “accept their mistake and do not apologize”.
Although there is no set formula, to capture public attention, a scandal must often involve an exceptionally sympathetic victim, as well as shocking allegations of misconduct. Kate Manne, a Cornell philosophy professor and author of two books on structural misogyny, has written about how some people instinctively align themselves with the status quo, sympathizing with powerful men accused of sexual violence or other wrongdoing. rather than with their victims – a tendency she calls “himpathy”. To overcome this instinct, she says, victims often have to be particularly convincing, like the famous actresses who exposed Weinstein’s abuse.
Of course, most victims of harassment and assault are not famous actresses or queens of the world. Manne noted that Tarana Burke, the activist who founded the #MeToo movement, spent years trying to bring attention to abuse of less privileged women before high-profile scandals galvanized global attention. “She was trying to draw attention to the plight of black and brown girls who can be victimized in a way that never outrages anyone,” Manne said.
Public outrage tends to be reserved for the most high-profile victims. But if norms change more broadly against abuse and impunity, positive changes can also occur for ordinary citizens. Famous actresses may have focused public anger on Weinstein, but the #MeToo movement has also drawn attention to abuses against some less famous workers, like restaurant staff.
Once the machinery of scandal kicks in, the consequences can be significant. As my Times colleagues Jason Horowitz and Rachel Chaundler report, many Spanish women saw Rubiales’ action as an example of a macho, sexist culture that allows men to subject them to harmless assault and violence. .
As public anger grew, politicians spoke out on behalf of the players. On Friday night, the entire squad and dozens of other players issued a joint statement saying they would not play for Spain ‘if the current coaches continue’. The next day, Vilda’s coaches quit en masse.
On Monday, Spanish prosecutors announced the opening of an investigation into whether Rubiales could have committed a criminal sexual assault. On the same day, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, which Rubiales currently leads, called on him to resign.
The question is no longer just whether he will be fired or resign, but also whether the wider outrage will lead to real change in Spain. “When we have these women who are, you know, figuratively and literally, on top of the world in professional sports – and this is captured live on video – then we have the makings of a scandal,” said Manna. It is too early to say where this could lead.