By Libby Gandhi.
#MeToo is a watershed cultural moment. Going from strength to strength over recent months the campaign has effected awards ceremonies, international politics, and entered mainstream conversation. This popularity, however, necessitates an appraisal of its origins, omissions and the debates that surround it.
The movement went viral in October 2017. A tweet by actress Alyssa Milano asked those who had experienced workplace sexual assault and harassment to demonstrate their prevelence by typing #MeToo, often alongside a personal story. The movement particularly focused on the entertainment industry – in the wake of the Weinstein allegations – and gained rapid notoriety after celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lady Gaga shared their experiences.
#MeToo is, however, not a new movement. Its non-viral origins lie with social activist Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase on MySpace back in 2007. Twitter had only recently launched, hashtags were unknown, and #MeToo was a quiet means of ‘empowerment through empathy’, particularly among women of colour within underprivileged communities who had experienced sexual abuse. Milano later acknowledged these beginnings, but the movement had already morphed into a new creature
In just a few short months the traction of #MeToo was such that Time Magazine named Burke, among a group of other prominent female activists dubbed ‘the silence breakers’, as the Time Person of the Year for 2017.
But while potent and well intentioned, #MeToo is also problematic. Appreciating how so is key in order to understand its accomplishments and evaluate its social effect.
Its origin story demonstrates the extent to which #MeToo marginalizes people of colour. Milano has overshadowed Burke and her focus on women of colour. Rallying calls for wholesale support among women ignore the nuances of privilege and neglect intersectionality – the acknowledgement that gender prejudice is not experienced equally by all, but is mediated by race, class, culture and sexual orientation. Even if unintentionally, whitewashing is a common trope of feminist movements gone mainstream.
Some argue that #MeToo encourages an exaggerated sense of victimhood. In France, a group of 100 women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, recently issued an open letter complaining that #MeToo ‘chains women to the status of the eternal victim’, while Germaine Greer – Australian of the Year 2017 – said that she had ‘always wanted to see women react immediately’ faced with sexual abuse or harassment. Such arguments speak to women’s anxieties about victimhood not defining our lives as women. Critics blame this argument on so-called ‘second-wave feminists’ who came to prominence in the 1960s.
While making a valid point, the ‘anti-victim’ argument misappreciates that harassment and abuse are often patterns of behavior that begin after women say, “I’m not interested”. Often, an immediate confrontational rebuttal is required, which many avoid for fear of violence or social-professional consequences. A middle ground of encouraging immediate confrontation, while being compassionate with those who feel unable to do so, might be most constructive.
#MeToo has been decried as classist and ableist for giving the biggest voice to those who can afford the smartphone technology that facilitates social media sharing. This relates to the lack of intersectionality in the movement. It is a common criticism of ‘fourth wave’ feminism, a resurgence of feminism defined by technology that began around 2012. ‘Hashtag feminism’ has also led to concerns that people become complacent after participating in Twitter activism, feeling they have ‘done their bit’.
The popularity and immediacy of social media has led to a wildfire of allegations. And in recent weeks the backlash has begun. Margaret Atwood – author of A Handmaid’s Tale – was one of many voices who attacked the supposedly ‘guilty because accused’ attitude of #MeToo. She went so far as to compare it to Stalin’s purges, which killed millions
It is worth considering, however, why #MeToo gained popularity so quickly. Aside from the addictive trappings and participatory nature of social media, commentators have suggested that its success has been a direct product of a failing justice system. The shortcomings of the legal system – in Australia approximately 85% of sexual assaults never come to the attention of the criminal justice system, fewer yet reach trial, and even fewer result in conviction – in dealing with sexual assault are well documented. While less than ideal in its standards of proof, the court of public opinion has been mooted as the only court where victims might experience support and something close to justice.
Finally, #MeToo has been criticized for being inaccessible and exclusive of men. This is a simplification, but the prevalence of this opinion deserves serious consideration. The concern is that #MeToo is merely women talking among themselves, about themselves. However, just because the movement doesn’t focus on women harassing men it doesn’t mean that male victims aren’t also a concern. In December Terry Crews filed a lawsuit against Expendables Producer Avi Lerner for allegedly groping Crews’ genitals. He, and others, have received widespread support after sharing their experiences facing pressure from high-level executives to drop sexual assault lawsuits. Allegations against Kevin Spacey came from a young, male actor, and a male model has accused former Star Trek actor George Takei of sexual assault.
This indicates that #MeToo is a cross gender movement. And it is not merely a sexual assault and harassment movement. Its prevalence among both sexes speaks to the fact that sexual assault isn’t solely about sexual gratification, but part of larger patterns of entitlement, dominance and aggression.
This realization will hopefully encourage men to enter what is currently perceived as a hostile environment and speak up themselves. Moreover, to have conversations with one another about how they can help to fix the problem.
None of this ought to detract from the ongoing achievements of #MeToo. In fact, it is a credit to its importance that such an assessment is owed. Understanding its facets, who it omits and where we might extend the conversation is essential to maximizing the potential of this cultural moment, broadening its reach, and raising our standards as a society.