In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, actress Alyssa Milano took to social media with this request: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
Many were quick to point out that the #MeToo concept was actually created by activist Tarana Burke a decade ago. But, as anyone with access to social media knows, this time, tellingly, it went viral.
The hashtag was tweeted nearly a million times in 48 hours, according to Twitter. On Facebook, there were more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions in less than 24 hours by 4.7 million users around the world.
It spawned international variations, including this one from France: #balancetonporc, “expose your pig”.
#MeToo raises concerns
But since the hashtag went viral, there has been much debate.
Some of the criticism has been downright silly, if not extremely offensive, including the assertion that it provides an opportunity for “marginal characters in these dramas to jump on the sympathy bandwagon” and creates some kind of moral equivalence between “minor” transgressions vs. “real” assault.
These arguments carry all the hallmarks of rape culture long used to distract and deflect.
Others have raised very valid concerns about #MeToo’s capacity to re-traumatize and asked whether women are being properly supported.
As many deadpanned on social media, the magnitude of the response has come as no surprise to literally every woman. Try finding one who says #NotMe.
In your own time, on your own terms
The outpouring of disclosures has been painful. And there is indeed the risk that women’s stories could be sensationalised by the media or others with their own agenda.
It is, therefore, imperative for the media to up its game and refrain from sensationalism, which takes women’s stories from them and causes further harm.
I have been encouraged to see the New York Times and New Yorker resist this temptation and give so many women in the industry a platform to talk about their experiences in their own words: Molly Ringwald, Sarah Polley, Lupita Nyong’o and Mayim Bialik.
A (very) personal essay I wrote in The New Yorkerhttps://t.co/ZQqoQpuOE9
— Molly Ringwald (@MollyRingwald) October 17, 2017
And it is true that many women have been sharing their experiences for a very long time. They simply weren’t listened to.
We must respect any woman’s decision not to participate. As the actress and director Sarah Polley wrote in the New York Times, “There’s no one right way to do any of this. In your own time, on your own terms, is a notion I cling to, when it comes to talking about experiences of powerlessness.”
The importance of being heard and believed
For me, I really do believe that this particular outpouring is different. The sheer scale is different.
I believe so many women are coming forward now, not because they feel pressured to prove how bad the problem is, but because if they had come forward earlier, they would have been dismissed or punished (research shows 75 percent of women who report experience retaliation).
And many are visibly overcoming decades of conditioning to question or suppress their experiences, which I, ironically, wrote about just a month ago – a bit of commentary I just read again with a very different perspective.
We can see these themes in the accounts of the actresses who have come forward.
“I did not know that there was a world in which anybody would care about my experience with him”, wrote Lupita Nyong’o.
“I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather,” wrote Molly Ringwald.
#MeToo is providing women both solidarity and protection in numbers, but also a chance to go on the record and be heard and believed, many for the first time. For many women who have experienced trauma, this is a powerful experience and an important part of their recovery.
Reason to hope?
Of equal importance, the context is different. We as a society now seem prepared to do something with these disclosures — working towards real and lasting change.
Having a debate about this on Twitter last week with Jane Caro and Georgina Dent from Women’s Agenda, who asked in her column whether the Weinstein scandal would prove a circuit breaker, I pointed out that Rose McGowan said she had been talking to a reporter at the New York Times for years, but she wouldn’t let him break her story.
She kept saying, “It’s not time yet, the public consciousness is not there yet”. McGowan and many other women have clearly noticed that something has changed.
We seem to have moved beyond anger to downright fury now after a year that brought us Trump’s pussygate, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly and countless scandals in Silicon Valley, culminating in Weinstein.
As I said to Georgina and Jane, I’m breaking open my last tin of sunny feminist optimism and crawling out of the backlash bunker hoping to find a better world.
I would now like to slightly revise that comment and say that I am hopeful. As Rebecca Solnit has said, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe your break down doors with in an emergency.”
Millions of women seem to have wagered on the power of their experiences and the kind of hope that breaks down doors. Hope they will be listened to; hope they will be believed; hope perpetrators will be held to account.
We owe it to them to honour that trust, and prove their gamble on hope can pay off.