Six Months in, #MeToo Has Become Infantilizing and Authoritarian
It’s six months since #MeToo began trending on social media. Since then, those two little words have sparked a conversation about the sexual harassment of women that has spread across the globe and into every walk of life. Half a year on it’s time to take stock and ask what women have gained from this movement.
The accusations made against Harvey Weinstein by numerous actors and employees and reaching back over decades are by now skin-crawlingly familiar. Yet the New York Times story in which actress Ashley Judd and others first publicly detailed Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct, leading to his resignation just three days later, could have made headlines for a week and then been consigned to history. Instead, the story continued apace and the list of victims—and those accused—grew.
One week later, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Milano hadn’t realized she was employing a phrase first coined by activist Tarana Burke as a means of offering solidarity to women victims of sexual violence. More than a decade later, and with celebrity backing, #MeToo spread rapidly to become a global movement that extended far beyond social media.
Joining in with #MeToo is an attractive proposition. Women sharing their stories become part of a community (albeit one that exists more in their imagination than in reality); they gain validation for their suffering and the moral beatification afforded to innocent victims. Significantly, #MeToo doesn’t appear to be about women wallowing in victimhood; on the contrary, it seems empowering. The more high-profile men that were accused, found guilty following trial by social media, and left with livelihoods and reputations ruined, the more the #MeToo movement grew emboldened.
No doubt some men have abused the power they held over women: they should be tried in a court of law and, if found guilty, punished accordingly. But those of us seriously concerned about women’s rights need to move beyond the euphoria of belonging to a powerful movement and honestly appraise the impact of #MeToo. When we do, we find a number of reasons to be concerned.
#MeToo has become an orthodoxy intolerant of criticism or even question. Women who have suggested that it may have gone too far, that conflating rape with crude flirtation risks trivializing serious incidents and falsely demonizing innocent men, have been hounded for thought crimes. Katie Roiphe prompted outrage when it was rumored she might go public with a list of “shitty media men” that had been widely circulated among writers and journalists. Roiphe recalls that “Before the piece was even finished, let alone published, people were calling me ‘pro-rape,’ ‘human scum,’ a ‘harridan,’ a ‘monster out of Stephen King’s “IT”‘ a ‘ghoul,’ a ‘bitch,’ and a ‘garbage person.'” Catherine Deneuve and over 100 other prominent French women were met with a similar tsunami of name-calling and criticism following their public letter comparing #MeToo to a witch hunt. The result has been a censorious closing down of debate through a crude division between “good women” who stick to the #MeToo script and “bad women” who digress.
Criticism of the wrong kind of women respects no limits. Film producer Jill Messick, best known for her work on Mean Girls and Frida, committed suicide in February. Messick worked for Weinstein’s Miramax between 1997 and 2003 and was manager for Rose McGowan in the late 1990s. As #MeToo gained ground, McGowan alleged she was raped by Weinstein and that Messick knew but did not take appropriate action. Messick was reportedly already suffering from depression; it seems unlikely that finding herself caught between McGowan and Weinstein, between claim and counterclaim, can have done much good for her mental health. The speed with which Messick was written out of history makes clear that to the #MeToo activists, some people’s lives are worth more than others.
#MeToo is a moral crusade where facts are readily sacrificed for the greater good of the cause. When it comes to declaring rape, sexual assault, or harassment, what matters to activists is not objective evidence that can be proved or disproved but the subjective feelings of the accuser. #MeToo has redefined sexual misconduct as unwanted behavior. As the case against actor Aziz Ansari showed, defining abuse as unwanted behavior takes us into the realm of the bad date. Leaving a restaurant too early, pouring wine without asking, even attempting a kiss might all be considered rude, but they are only violations in the mind of the most zealous #MeToo crusaders. Women in such scenarios are robbed of all agency; apparently unable to say no, they are forced to rely on men’s presumed mind-reading skills to protect them from the unwanted. Not only does this pave the way for miscarriages of justice, it makes all interactions between men and women inherently risky.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that since #MeToo took off, surveys have suggested that men feel uncomfortable mentoring women or working alone with them at the office. As a result, women’s opportunities for promotion may have been set back. And those women are lucky to have employment at all: thanks to concerns raised under the banner of #MeToo, women who worked as Formula 1 “grid girls” have lost their jobs entirely. Putting women out of work they enjoy is now a feminist act. New York waitresses were, fortunately, having none of it when a group of Hollywood actresses began petitioning for an end to the restaurant tipping culture. “Shut up!” came back their clear response.
The #MeToo movement treats women like children, incapable of ever standing up for themselves or being able to make their own choices in life. In the UK there have been calls for the street harassment of women—whistling and catcalling—to be made a criminal offense. Last week, the Screen Actors Guild proposed a ban on “hotel auditions.” Its advice to women was that if a “safe venue” cannot be found for auditions then they should be accompanied by a “support peer.” We need to ditch the therapeutic language and call this what it is: a chaperone. Previous generations of feminists fought against such infantilizing protections. Today’s #MeToo activists are all too happy to see men demonized and women protected.
Six months on we can see that some women have certainly gained a louder voice thanks to the #MeToo movement. Sadly, all they can do with it is proclaim their own victimhood and demand greater protection. #MeToo, with its constant reiteration of outdated tropes of predatory men and vulnerable women, represents a major incursion into our personal freedoms. We need to challenge this crusade before it does any more damage.
Joanna Williams is the author of Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars.