Examining how #metoo has progressed through the years, its achievements and pitfalls
Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence
On October 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano shared an image on Twitter containing the following text:
“Me Too. Suggested by a friend: “If all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”.”
#MeToo originated from Milano’s tweet and became a global news-maker. It trended in 85 countries with 1.7 million tweets and 12 million Facebook posts in the first six weeks alone. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center after a year of Milano’s tweet estimated that 19 million tweets had used #MeToo, which is more than 55,000 tweets per day. An analysis of over 600,000 tweets and Facebook posts with #MeToo showed that tweets varied from containing personal stories and expressing general support to re-posted articles, commentary to discussing offenders. However, “Me Too” as a grassroots movement supporting survivors goes back to 2007 when it was founded by Black Feminist Tarana Burke. Researchers have found it useful to distinguish between the hashtag #MeToo as a moment, and the broader Me Too as a grassroots movement.
When it comes to measuring the impact of #MeToo, it has been hugely successful in drawing attention to and legitimising experiences of sexual harassment for survivors. Feminist scholars and activists have been advocating for a more holistic understanding of sexual violence for decades, an understanding which steps away from ranking individual incidents on the basis of what would traditionally be considered serious, such as rape, sexual assault and not everyday harassment. This was captured in Liz Kelly’s hugely influential continuum of sexual violence that conceptualises sexual violence as continuous in nature and its effects on women as being interlinked. It sees women’s lived experiences of various forms of sexual violence as constituting a continuum, not a hierarchy. Milano’s tweet asked women to share experiences of sexual harassment or assault with the aim of making all forms of violation visible. Under the stream of #MeToo, it is possible to see stories of stranger rape, incest, workplace harassment all next to each other. This juxtaposition of different experiences points to their interconnectedness in how they are gendered and sexualised, how they can flow into each other and how they impact the victim-survivor.
“#MeToo has legitimised experiences of sexual harassment which did not rank as ‘serious enough’ in hierarchical frameworks of conceptualising sexual harassment.”
The links between different forms of abuse and how continuous they are in women’s lives become difficult to ignore in the face of thousands of individual stories shared under one umbrella. #MeToo, thus, has legitimised experiences of sexual harassment which did not rank as “serious enough” in hierarchical frameworks of conceptualising sexual harassment. It has also brought these experiences to the forefront, when they may not be explicitly defined as criminal acts, and has shown how they inform women’s everyday decision-making processes in regards to safety and risk in public and private interactions. In this way, #MeToo has fostered a more survivor-centric, continuum-based thinking of sexual harassment in wider public discourse.
“Allied to #MeToo were hashtags such as #YoTambien in Spain and Latin America, #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig) in France and #RiceBunny and #MiTu in China which sparked and rejuvenated local feminist organising and protests.”
This reckoning with different types of sexual violations brought on by #MeToo has not been limited geographically. #MeToo inspired global movements and lent itself to the rise of activism for context specific feminist goals. Allied to #MeToo were hashtags such as #YoTambien in Spain and Latin America, #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig) in France and #RiceBunny and #MiTu in China which sparked and rejuvenated local feminist organising and protests. In India, women in the entertainment and media industries started using #MeToo to share their stories of abuse roughly a year after Milano’s tweet. This caused a renewal of wide concern with sexual violence which had been largely absent since the 2012 New Delhi gangrape case.
In Argentina, #MeToo was shared by actresses to share their experiences of sexual harassment. It then evolved into #NiUnaMenos (not one woman less), an activist coalition of grassroots protestors and popular actresses demanding redressal of feminist concerns such as through legalization of abortion. China’s #MiTu emerged on new years’ day, 2018 in universities where several senior academics were accused of sexual harassment by current and former students. As of September 2018, more than 50 public allegations were made in China on social media against powerful men coming from different backgrounds, including NGO founders, media personalities, businessmen. Local feminist movements across the world were able to adopt #MeToo for culturally specific causes and they harnessed its burgeoning visibility to further their feminist goals. This ability of #MeToo to permeate borders and extend its platform has the potential for creating cross-cultural coalitions for preventing sexual harassment.
“#MeToo has not included every survivor. For one, #MeToo requires digital literacy and the freedom to be able to share your story without fear of repercussions. This means that a large chunk of survivors including older women, women and children in conflict zones, incest victims, those with abusive partners or otherwise marginalised remain unable to say #MeToo.”
However, #MeToo has not included every survivor. For one, #MeToo requires digital literacy and the freedom to be able to share your story without fear of repercussions. This means that a large chunk of survivors including older women, women and children in conflict zones, incest victims, those with abusive partners or otherwise marginalised remain unable to say #MeToo. Activists point out that the focus in the international #MeToo remains largely on relatively privileged, western, white women often to the exclusion of Black, Asian, Indigenous, Minority Ethnic women and LGBTQIA people. In the international press, faces associated with #MeToo that gain most visibility are primarily middle-class Hollywood actresses, particularly those who brought charges against Harvey Weinstein and at the helm of Times Up!, the legal defence fund set up in conjunction with #MeToo.
“There are many such cases of #MeToo mobilising grassroots protests and strike action, but these #MeToo affiliates did not get nearly as much coverage as Hollywood actresses speaking about abuse. The media discourse around #MeToo erases their stories and the online moment has not been able to remedy that so far.”
In the US, Alianza Nacional de Compesinas and similar groups domestic workers and female janitors highlighted harassment in their industries. McDonalds workers in ten American cities organised a day-long strike protesting workplace sexual harassment. There are many such cases of #MeToo mobilising grassroots protests and strike action, but these #MeToo affiliates did not get nearly as much coverage as Hollywood actresses speaking about abuse. The media discourse around #MeToo erases their stories and the online moment has not been able to remedy that so far. In India, the conversation around #MeToo remained largely restricted to film and media industries, with little attention paid to the plight of women who work under even more precarious conditions. The harassment of garment factory workers or domestic workers have received barely any coverage in the media that has chosen to focus on details of high-profile cases that can be sold for shock value. Nearly two years since Tanushree Datta accused Nana Patekar of sexual harassment, it is unclear if any of the film production companies that publicly vowed to build safer and more equitable film sets have followed through.
While this focus on more privileged and well-known faces of #MeToo can be attributed to patriarchal and commercial media conditions beyond the control of those speaking out, that does not account for instances where women of colours’ voices were actively side-lined. In a joint television interview about #MeToo with Burke, Alyssa Milano was criticized for taking up most of the airtime and interrupting Burke in her responses several times. According to Alison Phipps, because #MeToo has replicated the hierarchies of mainstream feminism that privilege white women, and thus, “Speaking out” can become “speaking over”.
“#MeToo has so far not been able to address the intersections of race, age, class, religion, and other categories of marginilisation in compounding violence against women.”
#MeToo has so far not been able to address the intersections of race, age, class, religion, and other categories of marginilisation in compounding violence against women. This has hindered the vast potential of the online #MeToo moment into becoming a movement for all survivors. However, #MeToo has immense, unprecedented potential for harnessing cross-cultural coalitions against patriarchal oppression that still needs to be actualised. It has been transformative for women and survivors world over and has validated experiences of abuse and trauma that survivors have historically been told don’t matter. It has highlighted that sexual and gendered violence is the unspoken pandemic raging unchecked. This speaks to the work that is yet to be done and the need for #MeToo to become a movement inclusive of all survivors.
Asmita is currently pursuing a Masters in Woman and Child Abuse. She runs the Talking Research Podcast and is an Editor at Bol.
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