#MeToo and Harvey Weinstein: Telling stories of vulnerable bodies

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags campaign have become internationally recognised as a symbol of resistance against sexual and gender-based violence and abuse. The campaigns inspired people to tell their stories of everyday abuse, assault and discrimination but how much difference can a social media campaign make?

This is the fifth blog in a series on the political economy of the Weinstein scandal

The #MeToo phrase was first coined in 2006 but its use, together with the #TimesUp hashtag, only only went viral on social media in October 2017 following widespread reports of sexual misconduct in Hollywood. The use of hashtags to draw a global attention to an issue is a key innovation of social media, as it erases geographical distance and time as obstacles to political resistance and mobilisation to give every individual user a platform for mass self-communication. Social media offers individuals and groups a chance to form groups to protect their interests, and a site to plan, coordinate and consolidate acts of political resistance.

It cannot be denied that #MeToo makes solidarity visible with the press of a button or the touch of a screen. The digitisation of solidarity that is made clear by the campaign is evident in its comparison by Couldry to the Arab Spring, in that it lends a voice to people who are oppressed by a dominating power – whether it be an oppressive state or powerful male figures who harass and marginalise through epistemic or gender-based violence.

Twitter offers a platform to offer a counter-narrative to that which is dominant and accepted as the norm, and so individuals who offer these counter-narratives claim agency within dominant social structures. Social media users use the #MeToo hashtag to tell their everyday stories of sexual discrimination, assault and objectification, and this allows others in the social arena of Twitter to reassure and support their fellow victims of sexual violence, as well as fostering collective public debate about the extent of this abuse.

Is #MeToo as empowering as it seems?

While #MeToo is commendable for the fact that it allowed non-celebrity women to tell their own stories of everyday discrimination and challenge misogyny, rape culture and everyday sexism, much of the focus remained with the accounts of celebrities who shared their experiences. Regardless of the fact that Twitter allowed a collective consciousness to form between victims of sexual assault, as a tool of protest it favours and enhances the voices of those who can afford access to the Internet, further marginalising and silencing the voices of women on the periphery of this debate who also experience very real sexual violence and discrimination, in favour of those who reveal their personal experiences online.

As Twitter makes digital solidarity easier, the flipside is that it allows citizens to feel that as though by sharing a story or writing an encouraging response to a tweet, that they have ‘done their bit’, when political action against this kind of violence historically tended to take the form of physical protest.

Unfairly labelled as ‘slacktivism’ by some, the campaign has fostered the beginnings of meaningful political resistance. It has nurtured a global dialogue regarding experiences of gendered and sexual violence not only in Hollywood, but in all walks of life, representing a huge step forward for victims of abuse everywhere. Individuals are sharing incredibly personal stories on a global platform that would previously have never seen the light of day.

Therefore, morally we are obliged to use this movement and ensure the multiplicity of voices grows. However, again we must recognise its limitations in order to address them and ensure that #MeToo results in tangible, meaningful change.

Challenging heteronormative assumptions:

A further problem with responses to #MeToo is that it often casts doubt over male stories of gender-based violence and fails to consider them seriously. Too often the public ascribes to ‘gender essentialism’ when it comes to masculinity, whereby acting contrary to gender norms lessens one’s existence as a ‘man’, a ‘woman’ or any other ways in which one may identify. The heteronormative assumption of the #MeToo movement assumes male-on-female violence (42% of gay and bisexual men report physical sexual harassment). This casts men as the villains in these narratives, leading many men to feel as though they are not being taken seriously when they go public with their stories of sexual harassment.  Often, as in the case of Brendan Fraser, this abuse is dismissed ‘as a joke‘; as though a masculine body couldn’t be sexually harassed. Indeed, Fraser states that after being groped by Philip Berk, former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), he was ‘overcome with panic and fear’, but when he came forward the HFPA responded by claiming it was ‘a joke’, not ‘a sexual advance’. The report agreed that Berk inappropriately touched Fraser, but implied that it didn’t count because Fraser couldn’t be a victim of sexual assault. This illustrates a wider problem of victim-blaming in #MeToo stories regarding men: they are not blamed for drinking too much, flirting or wearing ‘slutty’ clothes, but often rather for not ‘playing along’ with inappropriate conduct from the perpetrator. This can also be seen in the Terry Crews case. Crews was advised to give his abuser a ‘pass’, to pretend that the incident hadn’t happened at all. This would have reinforced the narrative that men cannot be victims of sexual assault, consigning the idea that to be a victim is therefore to be a woman, and loading the female body with the characteristics of victimhood.

However, that men everywhere (including Fraser and Crews) overcame these barriers to tell their stories does highlight the solidarity that is fostered by the #MeToo movement. By highlighting men-on-men cases of abuse it is important to signify that everyone is united behind the same message that no one is immune to abuse.

As such, it is vital to harness the momentum and public debate generated by the #MeToo movement and capitalise on this unique opportunity to influence and implement real change in attitudes and responses to sexual harassment and gender-based violence. The campaign may have temporarily caught the public attention and been the catalyst (finally) for a public dialogue about the everyday nature of sexual harassment and assault. The ‘Weinstein effect’ has seen a dramatic increase in sexual harassment claims across the US, nearly doubling in New York and rising by 60% in California.

How far can the #MeToo campaign go?

The first step in solving any problem is admitting that one exists, and #MeToo has finally got the world to admit that there is a problem with sexual harassment and abuse on a global scale.

The commodification of bodies that occurs on such an extensive magnitude shows no signs of changing, so it is crucial that we as a society take advantage of the momentum gathered by #MeToo and capitalise on it to challenge the reproduction of gendered, classist and patriarchal norms to eradicate systemic violence that occurs globally.