Toward the end of 2017, women all across the world began publicly speaking out about their personal experiences with sexual assault, especially in the workplace. Dubbed the “MeToo Movement,” it was – and still is – a cultural touchstone that empowered women, compelled public resignations of people in power, and sparked an international conversation about acceptable sexual behavior and power dynamics. In this piece, Sequoia Wyckoff explores the deep origins of a sudden movement.
A deep-rooted movement
Activist Tarana Burke was a camp counselor when a young girl approached her and detailed a lifetime of sexual abuse so horrific that Burke found herself without words.
“I could not find the courage that she had found. I could not muster the energy to tell her that I understood, that I connected, that I could feel her pain,” Burke recalled in a blog post in 2007, explaining the birth of her movement.
This was 1997.
Ten years later, propelled by this shortcoming of hers so long ago, Burke created a nonprofit to help victims of sexual assault in underprivileged communities. The goal was to tell women, in particular young women of color, exactly what Burke wished she could have articulated to her counselees in 1997: that they are not the only ones, that there are others who can connect to their stories. As Burke puts it, “It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign.”
And ten years after that, in October of 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a rallying cry: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
#MeToo began with a clear message. It was a grassroots effort about solidarity and support. But with its elevated pedestal, the two word hashtag now seems to oversimplify what has become a mess of spectrums and conversations and uncertainty. When we speak of #MeToo, we must recognize it is more complicated than what it once was; it has unearthed lessons so many of us must learn when it comes to moving towards change.
The role of allies
It’s easy to see evil in men like Larry Nassar, the U.S. Olympic doctor accused and convicted of sexually abusing dozens of young women. His actions were against the law. He inflicted trauma and real danger onto his victims. And it’s also easy to see evil in men like Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused by hundreds of women in Hollywood of sexual harassment. His behavior took advantage of the power he held over women he made feel endangered and uncomfortable.
But the movement is more than black-and-white cases. Today, it’s about conversation. It’s revealed problems that have been worked into every revolution of this fashion–we, as members of a society seeking change, too often do not know what our role is.
Actor Matt Damon is living in the thick of the movement, and he’s labeled himself an ally–and arguably, that’s a fair claim. But he’s been attacked by leaders of the movement for a comment he made in an interview with ABC News: “You know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? …Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”
His words deem him a perfect example of an issue that has plagued #MeToo from the get-go–he’s an ally that just does not understand.
Here’s the thing. Most reasonable people can agree with what Damon said. Tarana Burke herself has said basically the same thing:
“Sexual violence happens on a spectrum so accountability has to happen on a spectrum.”
But leaders of #MeToo aregue that Damon does not get to say it.
Actress Minnie Driver puts it this way: “Men with…opinions about women’s differentiation between sexual misconduct, assault and rape reveal themselves to be utterly tone deaf and as a result, systemically part of the problem.”
It’s a complicated argument to comprehend. Damon’s comments exhibited a lack of understanding that centuries of silence produced.
#MeToo wasn’t a conversation of such magnitude until October 2017. Sexual assault has been a problem that goes back much farther than four months. People who can fairly be called allies of the movement can still fall victim to a sheer lack of understanding of the issue at hand. Because so many women haven’t had a platform to talk about what they have been through, it’s hard to fathom the normality of sexual assault and connect to the pain that comes from it, no matter where on this “spectrum” the instance falls.
To have had a powerful man with no real understanding of the issue criticize the movement in this way contradicted the very spirit of #MeToo–listening to and believing women. Damon realized a truth that most of the movement realizes too, but by vocalizing it himself he failed to heed the voices of the victims and ergo abused his position as an ally.
Damon’s comments went viral and the voices of his retaliating coworkers were amplified. From this, many have recognized a (perhaps inevitable) pattern in every story in the news. Roy Moore was a politician. Larry Nassar worked in gymnastics, a highly televised industry. Harvey Weinstein made movies. The stories we are hearing from the women these men victimized are important, but they are all condemning men already in the public eye. The problem is far deeper than the headlines thrown at us–there is undoubtedly sexual harassment in industries that aren’t in the spotlight.
It’s easy to look at this as simply the way the world works. So many social changes have begun in celebrities with access to powerful platforms–change begins in those that we already listen to. But critics within the movement are arguing that #MeToo needs to transcend “the way the world works,” and that those in power must use their leverage to acknowledge the power structures worked into their own revolution. #MeToo is about listening. It’s important that the world listened to Alyssa Milano, but it’s also important to realize that too few people listened to Tarana Burke ten years ago–and leaders of #MeToo are aiming to change that alongside the initial goal of the movement.
#MeToo, moving forward
#MeToo has even more complications. In fact, complications have become a driving aspect of the movement, because with complication comes conversation. There has been discussion about issues such as Aziz Ansari’s story--should we group misunderstandings that have stemmed from our dating culture with sexual assault stories, or should that be a separate movement? And with figures such as Louis CK–how should we treat the creative content produced by people we have now condemned?
The #MeToo movement has kickstarted discussions our society needs to have. It began without a grassroots campaign of clear intentions–solidarity for victims of sexual assault. Today, the hashtag has become the emblem of a revolution of listening and acting upon cries for help. #MeToo is making strides, with a few steps backward along the way.
As students, it’s important that we absorb this, and that we are able to listen. We’re growing up in an age of constant social change–before we leave school, let’s learn to be allies.