How #MeToo Can Graduate from Moment to Movement

Yes, the hashtag puts the burden on the oppressed, but it gives them a forum for solidarity — and to attack the patriarchy.

US actress Rose McGowan and Founder of #MeToo Campaign Tarana Burke, embrace on stage at the Women's March / Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, on October 27, 2017. A stream of actress including Rose McGowan, models and ex-employees have come out, many anonymously, to accuse Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and abuse dating as far back as the 1990s. / AFP PHOTO / RENA LAVERTY (Photo credit should read RENA LAVERTY/AFP/Getty Images)
Actress Rose McGowan and Founder of #MeToo campaign Tarana Burke, embrace on stage at the Women's March/Convention in Detroit on Oct. 27, 2017. Photo: Rena Laverty/AFP/Getty Images

The #MeToo hashtag has been tweeted well over a million times in 85 different countries. #MeToo was broadly deployed by women and non-cisgender people in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal to name and illustrate the ways in which entitled, violent, and unchallenged masculinism — the patriarchy — pervaded their lives. This was not just about rape, but also the mutually enforcing systems, attitudes, and behaviors around sexuality and gender structured against women and non-cis individuals.

Despite the obvious good intentions of those promoting and participating in the hashtag, the campaign was not without its detractors, even among feminists. One problem, highlighted by a number of commentators and social media users, was crystallized by a young woman cited in the Washington Post: “I’m wary and weary of people, mainly female-identifying, being asked to share their trauma in public, so it can be used to tip a scale of male belief that shouldn’t need tipping.”

These critics have a point: Why should the onus be on the people most oppressed by sexism to name and change them? Shouldn’t the bearers of male privilege be primarily doing the work of recognizing the damage the patriarchy wreaks in order to dismantle it?

The history of social change is not one of the powerful willingly ceding their own power.

If #MeToo is to graduate from moment to movement, however, this critique risks being unhelpful and historically misinformed. The work in this fight will, by nature, fall on the shoulders of women and of non-cis people. The history of social change is not one of the powerful willingly ceding their own power.

“Expecting men to do the work of toppling the patriarchy is like asking a dog to build a cat sanctuary — when you’ve already got it good, why work to change things?” Kim Kelly, a writer and organizer based in New York, told me.

The point here is not that the moral onus should be on women and transgender and gender nonconforming people to “bare their souls” and take on the historically feminized labor of teaching and healing while suffering. Nor is the suggestion that men should be let off the hook by virtue of the unlikelihood that they will take it upon themselves to undo their own privilege; indeed, the male enablers of rape culture also must be held to account. While the moral onus lies with men, the practical side of organizing a struggle lies with us.

Because history is told through turning points, we often get the impression that powerful actors hold prime importance in social justice struggles by granting certain rights and freedoms to the oppressed. We learn that President Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves, and Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act. Suggesting that these powerful figures had to be dragged into pushing these changes can even spark an outcry, if the suggestion is made at all.

The problem with this sort of selective, great-man history — and they are, overwhelmingly, men — is that it minimizes the necessary role oppressed parties play in fighting, often bloodily, for their own liberation.

That the burden of justice falls on the oppressed is one thing; whether certain campaigns work or, more specifically, what they work toward, is another matter.

Only a few years ago, a similar hashtag campaign in which women shared their experiences with male entitlement and violence, #YesAllWomen, garnered 1.2 million tweets in four days. The idea for #MeToo is not new, either — 10 years before actress Alyssa Milano popularized its use on Twitter, women’s advocate Tarana Burke posted the idea on her MySpace page. It’s no accident that celebrity involvement and endorsement of the hashtag fueled its recent virality. Accusations elevated by the #MeToo campaign have led to firings and industry bans in media, fashion, and beyond. Though the hashtag also has its shortcomings, such as the potential to leave behind the most marginalized, it’s highly relevant that wealthy, famous, and powerful women are saying “me too,” too.

“In the past five or six years, Americans have seen a dramatic increase in the volume of conversation about sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Moira Weigel, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and author of “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating,” told me. “More specifically, we have seen an outpouring of first-person narratives by women testifying to the experience of these harms.”

Weigel wonders about the “positive (or salutary) political effect” of such sharing, pointing out that national studies looking at campus rape showed the same rates in 2014 as in 1985, with around one in four female respondents having had an experience that would count as rape or attempted rape under law. As Weigel put it, “If 30 years of using the stories of survivors to raise public awareness had not significantly diminished the scale of the problem, what other cultural work were these narratives doing?”

“If 30 years of using the stories of survivors to raise public awareness had not significantly diminished the scale of the problem, what other cultural work were these narratives doing?”

The political potential of #MeToo might not lie in the revelations of epidemic levels of assault and harassment — these are not new — but the way in which those using the hashtag are able to frame their experiences and relate to each other, and assign blame to attackers and complicit systems. The hashtag avoided a trap typical of sexual assault discourse, in which women and non-cis people must frame themselves as either the abject victim or the survivor who personally overcomes.

“#MeToo allows people to attest that we have suffered systemic harms without pressuring us into elevating this (sadly ordinary) fact into the defining feature of our identities,” Weigel told me. The hashtag allowed women to collectively name the scourge of sexual assault and harassment as part of their feminist struggle, not definitive of their individual identities.

It is too early to speak about a #MeToo movement — but that doesn’t mean it won’t become one or part of one. “This is an example of the emergence of the ‘new power’ of social movements in the age of the internet,” Winnie Wong, co-founder of the People for Bernie and a Women’s March co-chair, told me. “It will, I suspect, continue to have a domino effect.”

Wong is a main organizer for the Women’s Convention in Detroit this weekend — an organizing extension of the Women’s March efforts, which expects to draw 5,000 women. Tarana Burke spoke, and so did actress Rose McGowan, who has been among the most vocal about Hollywood’s complicity in her attacker Weinstein’s serial predation.

Their presence at the convention at least gestures at the possibility of bringing #MeToo beyond the confessional space of social media and into organizing platforms aimed at applying pressure on existing political systems with concrete campaigns and actions. During the convention, Wong told me she will be focusing on Medicare For All campaigns and plans around mid-term election battles. It places the sexual assault debate where it belongs — in the broader feminist struggle against all oppressive hierarchies that aren’t about to undo themselves.

Top photo: Actress Rose McGowan and Founder of #MeToo campaign Tarana Burke, embrace on stage at the Women’s March/Convention in Detroit on Oct. 27, 2017.

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