“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”
The above words are from a tweet shared by actress Alyssa Milano on October 15, 2018. Although her show of solidarity was one of many in the days following Ashley Judd’s accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the tweet quickly grew in a media firestorm of its own. Within less than 24 hours, thousands of individuals had replied to Milano directly, and even more had updated their personal social media statuses to share their experiences with sexual misconduct. And #MeToo was born.
In the succeeding months, more famous men—from Kevin Spacey and Aziz Ansari to Matt Lauer and Mario Batali—faced accusations of sexual assault, some of which dated back years. In that time, the media also highlighted slow but steady evidence of progress, including Bill Cosby’s conviction and its implications for the future of sexual misconduct trials and the number of survivors rallying together in hope and healing. #MeToo, it seemed, had exploded from a social media movement into the movement of the 21st century.
The #MeToo Firestorm and Feminism
It is probably no surprise that, from the outset, the #MeToo firestorm was closely associated with feminism. At the Women’s Marches in January 2018, for instance, signs emblazoned with #MeToo-inspired slogans cropped up among the usual girl-power quotes and puns. Initially, the association between the two movements seemed positive. For many individuals, #MeToo served as a gateway to feminist activism, or vice versa. But over the past several weeks, two events called into question the efficacy of the relationship between #MeToo and feminism.
First, in August, NYU announced that Avital Ronell, superstar Chair of its Comparative Literature and German departments, was suspended for the upcoming academic year in response to accusations of sexual harassment. Her accuser, Nimrod Reitman, claims that Ronell used her institutional power to coerce him into taking part in unwanted sexual behavior.
Weeks later, it was revealed that Italian actress Asia Argento—a.k.a. one of Harvey Weinstein’s earliest accusers and one of the faces of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood—settled a complaint filed against her by a younger actor she reportedly assaulted when he was 17.
Both revelations garnered significant media attention, most of which attempted to answer one question: what happens to #MeToo when a feminist is accused?
The answer to that question, I believe, is that nothing happens to #MeToo—at least, nothing bad. But in order for the movement to emerge from the latest headlines unscathed, we need to reconsider both the perceived and actual links between #MeToo and feminism.
Due largely to the nature of the media’s coverage of the relationship between the two, #MeToo is often painted as an uprising of women against male behaviors only. In it’s December 2017 issue, TIME published a story on #MeToo. While male survivors were featured inside, five women, including Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift, were seen on the cover and hailed as “silence breakers.” TBut that image, while important, is only one section of a much bigger picture. #MeToo is not about sex, nor is it about men and women: it’s about privilege and power, and society’s willingness to cower to their influences.
As a college student, I was immediately struck by the Avital Ronell incident. Coming from a university that boasts some of the world’s most elite academics, it is not difficult for me to imagine Reitman’s situation. In the same way that Harvey Weinstein convinced young actresses their careers were on the line if they refused his advances, powerful professors have an unbelievable hold over their students. That dynamic remains the same regardless of the victim’s gender identity.
In an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a former student of Avital Ronell named Andrea Long Chu admitted that “It is simply no secret…that Avital is abusive. This is boring and socially agreed upon, like the weather.”
That kind of attitude is a huge problem, and it’s a pattern I have personally witnessed in the academic world and beyond. Somehow, in our increased focus on definitions of success and achievement, we as a society came to believe that power—in the form of brains, money, position, or all three—justifies abusive behavior. Everyone in Hollywood knew that Harvey Weinstein was a rotten guy to be around, but they let it slide because he was in charge. The same apparently goes for Avital Ronell on NYU’s campus, as well as countless others in every industry all over the world. And yes, that includes women as well as men.
Abuse Transcends Gender
There is no such thing as the perfect activist movement. While feminism has made incredible strides in promoting equality for women, it needs to acknowledge that abuse transcends gender, and that women—--even feminists—--can be perpetrators as well. Although the only truly guilty party in these horrible stories of sexual assault is the abusers themselves, it is also essential that we acknowledge how sexual predation feeds off of power. Furthermore, we must also resist the temptation to condemn some perpetrators but exonerate others because their sex or background does not conform to the narrative we have imagined. In order to achieve this, #MeToo’s critical eye cannot be limited to certain scenarios, but must hold everyone—feminists and male CEOs alike—accountable.
Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has brought us the opportunity to create genuine, lasting change in how we interact with one another. Our voices matter now more than ever, and it’s important that we use them loudly, but also wisely. However terrifying it is to admit that no issue can be confined to a vacuum, it is only once we allow the #MeToo to exist in its entirety—read: not as a subsection of feminism—that we can make real progress.