March 2018

Comment

Taking stock of #MeToo

By Kate Holden
How do we make sense of such a complex movement?

In the aftermath of last year’s multiple allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and in the footsteps of black activist Tarana Burke, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a friend’s suggestion that women who’ve experienced sexual assault and harassment all use the phrase “Me too” to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. It could be the most instant insurgence in history: the #MeToo hashtag was used half a million times on Twitter over the following day, while on Facebook it generated more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions within 24 hours. Then it got big.

Female actors (and some male ones) sprang to add their voices and testimonies: the film industry was rotten, rotten with gropers, extortionists, sleazes and damp-handed wankers. Rose McGowan announced that Weinstein hadn’t just jerked off in front of her, he had raped her; the movement paused, gathered, and surged, more electrified than ever. Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, avuncular media figures Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor and Charlie Rose, comedian Louis C.K. and assorted directors, showrunners and journalists were accused, had their denials and confessions heard, were reviled and in many cases sacked within days. It’s only been a few months, but the roar is so wide and loud and ceaseless now, it’s beginning to sound like the sea.

The most important thing about #MeToo is that it has happened. Just when the women’s movement was being blindsided by the retaliatory power of anxious penises, we were given a proudly pussy-grabbing president of the United States, the yelpings of Milo Yiannopoulos and then the gross ministrations of Weinstein to focus minds. Women who had been tottering, incredulous, between one howl of misogyny and another rose to their feet, dusted off their hands, and said, That is fucking it.

Rats are being prised from their holes, and behaviours are being inspected. The world of feminist discourse hasn’t been so chirpy for years, and dudes across the world are nonchalantly wanting friends’ recommendations for lawyers and being extra sweet to their wives in anticipation of a name-check on Twitter. Meanwhile, women are taking deep breaths as they unearth repressed agonies and embark on making serious allegations. And what about pay disparity? Intersectional oppression? What about male dominance in general? The United States, desperately in need of love and catharsis, is blistering with Women Getting Shit Together, and all over the world people are marching while the mendacious fall from their institutional pomp. The mute are being heard, and believed. Shame is falling away like rain. There is no doubt that the movement is enormous, resonant and working.

The second thing about #MeToo is that it’s cohering, adhesive. The phrase itself a nod: me too. And yet it can be awfully awkward. Saturday Night Live recently included a skit in which friends at dinner try to discuss the topic. One after the other, male and female guests palely begin a sentence before they are anxiously shooshed – “Careful!” – and fall silent. There must be a German word for the kind of grimace shared between women – perhaps women of a certain generation, or sector of feminism, or history of activism – when the topic arises. The look that combines guarded appreciation, ravished glee and rueful irritation. Oh, the things we can’t say, we joke. Don’t start me!

There is wariness, of course. And cynicism. No one wants to silence women, or discount their testimony, or heartlessly calibrate anguish. But full, unquestioning support is difficult, because we’ve been here before, and surely mindless hollering en masse is a little bit totalitarian. And who was more annoying: Matt Damon for commenting on women’s trauma or Minnie Driver for smashing him in response? Meanwhile, bacchantes are orgiastically rending male flesh. Some hope this is the beginning of the Great Purge. Others hesitate: what of sweet Orpheus, torn to shreds? Careful, girls! Don’t tempt the backlash!

The conversations continue and even the exasperated are lured in. Can sympathetic men be included in the debates or is that furthering the accommodation of patriarchy? Must we patiently explain the basics to the oppressor? Can a white, middle-aged man even begin to understand why a smart, spunky young woman might freeze when a kiss on the cheek “accidentally” slimes into a tongue in her mouth? Why she doesn’t say anything afterwards? Can a smart, spunky white woman begin to comprehend the annoyance of a black woman being lectured? Is there really a generational gap between battle-veteran/subsumed older feminists and alert/brattish young ’uns, or is that a bit of patriarchal divide-and-conquer mischief? Everyone wants a constructive conversation, but repeated intonations of “yes indeed, though at the same time …” start to sound waffly. Or is this the dawn of a newly nuanced diligence of discourse? On it goes.

Still, the revelation – is there a German word for the awakening of a sedated intuition? – of “the magnitude of the problem” and the range of ways in which men have been shits to women is galvanising, even ecstatic: it is, after all, very satisfying to roar. The force of kindness and care for other women, especially, is magnificent. And yet. And yet.

The ancient Romans had a term, damnatio memoriae, for the erasure of a purged identity, usually a failed emperor. All inscriptions, depictions and mentions of his name would be gouged from the stone. So too have evaporated the honours, chairmanships, acting roles, reputations and even physical likenesses (via hastily edited film footage) of #MeToo miscreants. Gone, in moments. It is startling, triumphant and disquieting. One is also reminded of the French Revolution, when desperate leaders legislated the Law of 22 Prairial. Lawmakers dispensed with witnesses and defence counsel, needing only the denunciation. Surely, they argued, only an unvirtuous man would ever be accused? And once accused, a virtuous man could never be unjustly condemned. It is true that some of the #MeToo defendants have admitted their guilt, if not apologised, and for others, police prosecutions will duly ensue. First the accusation, then a proper investigation, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Police prosecutions, of course, do not have a wonderful record as recourse for victims of sexual assault. In Australia, only an estimated 15 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police, and a dismaying fraction of them result in conviction. The rates of abuse are rising while justice is not. And the most vulnerable or statistically common victims, such as prisoners, the disabled, children and Indigenous women, are the least likely to report, and the least likely to see a conviction. Defamation laws in this country also make accusation a viscous experience. Sometimes hollering – anonymously, if necessary – is not the best way but the only way. Extrajudicial, vanquishing condemnations of untried defendants set a horrible precedent: yes, indeed, so will attest the thousands of victims who’ve been pilloried in courts for their irresponsibility in being raped. And yet. No one yet knows what to think about Geoffrey Rush.

Nor do we know what we shall do when the legal world declines to convict someone already condemned by the media, their reputation destroyed. Or how we might continue to celebrate the work of a monster. And what about Aziz Ansari, the American comedian whose alleged pushy sexuality on a date is either the thin end of the wedge of systemic sexual predation or merely a case of bad communication – “bad sex”? The Ansari case asks how much responsibility women have for their own pleasure and boundaries; “bad sex” often signifies boring sex for men and actual pain for women, normalised and endured without complaint. Women are trained to rate male sexual satisfaction above their own. “No” is not listened to, and leaving a room is harder than it sounds. But many called overreaction.

The Ansari case shifted the chorus from explicit assault to quotidian sexism: in the bedroom, at the bus stop, office and nightclub, between women and “nice guys”… Or between ordinary guys and hyper-sensitive, attention-seeking female members of Generation Outrage. Feminist debate was divided. Foes trumpeted the backlash. Was the whole movement discredited by one sulky miss? Everyone remembered their own oozy moments with men, and a million more women suddenly felt involved.

Wade in and you are treading quicksand; step back, and watch the tide lift the boats to sail without you.

The phenomenon certainly likes to be inclusive. So far we have heard from Catherine Deneuve and Craig McLachlan, Don Burke and Lady Gaga, Germaine Greer and Brigitte Bardot and Salma Hayek, the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Scott “Chachi from Happy Days” Baio. Famous, talented and beautiful women in satin shoes were revealed to be as vulnerable to dickheadry as the rest of us. An initially American movement has flowed to India, China, Australia and beyond. Black has been helpfully worn at the Golden Globes, white roses at the Grammys; the music, publishing, performance, legal, academic, media, cinema and television, fashion photography and modelling, sporting and political worlds – worlds dominated by male authority – have all been found, amazingly, to be infested to some degree with sexual abuse.

Part of the mesmerisation of these revelations is that kindly gents and sensitive-mouthed young hunks – even the left wing! – are capable of wickedness. It would be nice if it were only dreadful American moguls at fault, predatory wolves we can shudder at and warn against. But #MeToo invokes the silence in ourselves, here, the silence held by our sisters, friends, mothers, daughters, colleagues; it lets out a moan of pain close by our ear; it wants to lift the sheep’s clothing of the husband and brother and best mate. Like all true revelations, it comes home.

Accountability has always been most elusive when most keenly required: scoundrels are smugglers, working in made darkness. #MeToo has the moral prerogatives, and the equal dark perquisites, of scale. Moral panic or moral conscience, cleansing of the Augean stables or mob justice, such movements remind us that light creates its own fugitive, shadow – and the deeper the shadow, the brighter the light appears. There are so many bastards out there still, other kinds of abuse. We may yet be seeing the beginning of a new moment in our society, when there is no hiding, not from wickedness, not from ourselves.

Kate Holden

Kate Holden is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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