The #MeToo movement, rechristened from a sexual harassment campaign slogan into a widely used hashtag, is proving mighty enough to sprinkle the Grammys with white roses and drench the Golden Globes’ red carpet in black– with celebrities uniting to show support for victims via the universal language of fashion. Morphing into a giant squid, #MeToo’s octopoid arms reach from Hollywood into all other industries, its ink poisoning the culture of silence that for so long has protected worldwide patriarchy. The campaign even parthenogenetically sprouted a new limb in the form of #TimesUp– a legal defense fund for victims. The five-character hashtag further proved its strength by beating all humans to win the coveted title of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017.
The idea for the hashtag started with actress Alyssa Milano, in response to the now infamous Harvey Weinstein scandal, as a means of addressing the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. She asked people who suffered experiences of harassment to reply “me too” to her tweet. The hashtag was retweeted by Lady Gaga, Rosario Dawson, Reese Witherspoon, Anna Paquin, Evan Rachel Wood, and Debra Messing, among many others. To date, Twitter reports more than 1.7 million retweets in 85 countries– with women across the globe revealing their own personal stories in their tweet. The movement soon spread to Facebook and Instagram as well.
While Milano may have started the online campaign, the “Me Too” movement began with Harlem Community organizer Tarana Burke in 2006 to give women strength, as well as comfort, in numbers. The feeling that one is not alone and that they will be heard may be the key needed for some to open a Pandora’s box of intimidation and inequality. The de-stigmatizing effect of #MeToo seems to be doing just that– a phenomenon Burke calls “empowerment through empathy.”
What was sparked by the most glittering, glamorous business in Tinseltown has fanned the flames in all industries– the campaign’s message passing from pearl-clad leading ladies to female white and blue collar workers across the globe. Women in Science & Technology, Healthcare, Retail, Finance, Transportation, Food Service, Housekeeping, Construction, among other professions, have taken the concept up in arms, speaking up about unwanted and illegal behavior by their male counterparts. With the help of the internet movement, they feel more connected and supported by others, giving them the strength to fight the epidemic of sexual misconduct that has dirtied seemingly all of our businesses and economic systems. #MeToo reminds everyone that women’s bodies are not sexual resources to be violated by anyone thinking they are entitled.
And with anything this powerful and turbo-boosted by social media, there is of course, backlash. Some (men and women) have since spoken out against what they see as the “excesses” of the #MeToo movement. A community of French women, most notably actress Catherine Deneuve, have signed an open letter declaring that #MeToo is a threat to “sexual freedom.” Even feminist icon Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, questioned whether she is a “bad feminist” for comparing the #MeToo movement to the Salem witch trials.
Feminist conversations about sexual assault threaten to damage the status quo, and backlash against women’s progress is inevitable when people face the prospect of change. The #MeToo model of action happens to be rooted in the naming and shaming of men, and allowing just anyone to call out behavior can potentially lead to accusations that seem more ambiguous in nature than the clear cut case with Weinstein. Because a woman’s social media post is intensely personal, each story is measured against another. This is most prominently illustrated in the cases against Aziz Ansari and James Franco. Many detractors of the women who accuse these men of misconduct are openly debating whether the reported incidents are “sufficiently abusive” and question whether the victims have a right to name their accusers publicly. This can be one disadvantage of using social media for this kind of activist work. The public feels entitled to engage in the conversation, and they may empathize with the accused more than the accuser, especially in cases where there there isn’t a clear cut crime.
Which is part of the reason for the backlash– women and men may often find themselves on different sides of the dating aisle. To dissect what happens between men and women behind closed doors is to delve into the greyest areas of relationships. When in a relationship, each person’s rate of maturity, ego, and social awareness affect their behavior toward their partner, as well as the expectations for their partner’s behavior toward them. Inconsistencies in these elements between lovers constantly plant mines in the romance field. The rules of dating also fluctuate over time depending on a culture’s need for them. As we amass knowledge, grow to have new needs, and change political structures within our society’s hierarchy, we change our view of relationships and their use in our world. Although social media is not the most suitable venue for these deep and nuanced conversations, and using it to start these discussions can be limiting, women are using it to speak out because, unlike other methods of whistle blowing, it seems to be making a difference.
Each sexual circumstance is nuanced, and not all warrant punishment. These ‘ambiguous’ cases deserve even more debate than may at first seem necessary. We do not want men unwarrantly fired or to have careers and reputations ruined when their actions don’t warrant that kind of punishment. Men and women need to communicate openly and work together so that we can agree as a society what we consider to be offensive acts, and what retribution, if any, is just for each individual action. Rather than a defensive, angry rebuttal to the women, both Ansari and Franco acknowledged the women’s truths and recounted their point of view of what happened, using this as an opportunity to join the discussion (albeit not by choice) and in doing so, have appeared to some as allies.
Of course, as with beauty, harassment is in the eye of the one who suffers from it. No one can argue with what another is feeling. A woman who feels she is mistreated, not listened to, leered at as mere body parts, or passed over for an opportunity because of her gender, has a valid argument as to why this conduct is wrong because the experience is hers and hers alone. What may seem to be innocent flirting or dismissive frat boy behavior to one woman may leave another with a feeling of nausea and a mind to press charges.
The #MeToo Movement continues to swell and empower more women to find their voice. The campaign distinctly demands that, for the first time, both sides of the “He Said/She Said” debate have equal volume in any report. That means women’s voices should be louder than they presently are in order to hold the same weight that men’s voices have always held, giving them equal influence in any argument concerning sexual behavior. The amplification of voice for the women’s side may be heard by some men as a rallying call to shred them of the majority of power they now hold. But to discredit the women who just found the courage to speak up about their experience for fear of a broader inquisition, or false accusation, is to fall back into the trap of blaming the victim— muting the newfound voices of these women. It also serves to further protect the reprehensible and/or criminal behavior that made the women feel exploited in the first place.
Publicly disclosing misconduct and allotting retributions to actual predators is a necessary antiseptic cleansing of unfair and unlawful practices that is well overdue and will eventually lead to a more balanced and equitable environment for everyone. However, both women and men must be vigilant in combatting any untrue charges. If they do not, and an accusation is found to be false, then a man’s career can be potentially stunted for something he did not do, and any false accusation will indubitably hurt the movement.
To rally for the rights of “sexual freedom,” in French or any other language, in order to restrict the #MeToo Movement is to pervert the definition of the word. Although some dictionaries may define “freedom” as “the right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint,” this is not a viable definition when one lives in a community. When one lives alongside other human beings, interacting with members of society, one must recognize the caveat to the definition to include “unless one’s impulses affect or are forced upon another.” In order to maintain true liberty for all, we are only able to practice freedom within our own selves and must recognize each other’s power and ownership over their own body.
During the Women’s March in January 2018, Oscar winning actress Viola Davis took the podium to express these words:
“I am speaking today, not just for the #metoos, because I was a #metoo, but when I raise my hand, I am aware of all the women who are still in silence. The women who are faceless. The women who don’t have the money, and who don’t have the constitution, and who don’t have the confidence, and who don’t have the images in our media that gives them a sense of self-worth enough to break their silence that’s rooted in the shame of assault. That’s rooted in the stigma of assault.”
This is the key to the acceleration and power in the #MeToo hashtag– it has opened up a discussion. It has allowed women to speak, not just for themselves, but as a collective for all women today as well as future generations. #MeToo has rescued women out of hiding and given them a protected place to broadcast their complaints. The road to progress is paved with communication.
If one questions whether the movement has gone too far, it’s best to look at the goals the campaign aims to achieve. #MeToo strives to induce a paradigm shift in the way our social and political systems view and handle sexual harassment. It works to end the violence and trauma of sexual assault. It intends to provide justice for victims who have been silenced in the past. It also fights for pay equality, with women using their newfound voices in other areas where they may experience imbalance. Once all these goals are complete, then we can stop and ask ourselves if this has gone too far. We may think it has. Or, we may even find ourselves asking if it is far enough; if we have indeed truly achieved equality. After all, it takes an extreme action– and a loud voice– to make a moderate change.
If you want to read more about the #MeToo and #TimesUp social media campaigns, check out this post written by Moira Sullivan. You can also visit Denise‘s profile to learn more about her and see other pieces she’s written.