#MeToo: What the viral hashtag can teach us about today’s feminism

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#MeToo was a collective unearthing, understanding, and uprising – the after-effects of which continue to reverberate. In early October, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If all the 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.” Survivor stories soon flooded social media, spawning a number of firings and criminal investigations of high-profile men. Most importantly, #MeToo shook loose accounts of abuse that women have long kept secret out of shame, fear, or disillusionment and reinvigorated an ongoing conversation about sexual violence. But especially as feminism has become en vogue, it is important to beware of how such discourse is constructed.

#MeToo, both directly and indirectly, spoke to that warning. Take a look at the rich and famous men who have been indicted by the viral campaign so far. Quite a few names on this creep list overlap into a surprising category: feminist. Funny man Louis C.K. was often praised for lampooning his own gender in his stand-up. “How do women still go out with guys,” he once mused, “when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?” Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood giant whose sexual misconduct allegations triggered the explosion of #MeToo, produced a slew of progressive films like Carol (2015) and The Hunting Ground (2015). The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) even bestowed Weinstein with their Excellence in Media Award in 1998. These are just two of many men who have routinely positioned themselves as “on our side” when their behaviour reeked of misogyny.

“Feminist” entertainment, content that engages with the wide-ranging experiences of women and radically envisions better futures, is not only politically but also economically significant. For this reason, the genre is gapingly vulnerable to instances like this – manipulation by men who want kudos for being an ally but don’t care to respect what that title entails. This situation serves as a painful lesson about what voices we allow to enter into and profit off of feminist spaces. Too quickly we laud men for branding themselves as feminists without considering that maybe that’s all it is: a brand, a self-interested identifier, a means to an end.

What’s more, we seem to be increasingly unconcerned with what “feminism” even means to the men who claim it. There is no one feminism – no single interpretation, or political agenda, or perspective. Feminisms, more often than not, contradict and compete with each other; Hillary Clinton’s feminism is worlds away from Audre Lorde’s feminism. So why do we assume we know the character of male feminists? Men who are self-proclaimed feminists ought to show us how they interrogate masculinity, how they elevate women and their causes, how they work to dismantle repressive power structures. #MeToo is a glaring reminder that, before we see evidence of these actions, men who call themselves “feminists” should be treated at the very least with learned wariness.  

Compounding this issue is the reality that, while some men easily wedge themselves in, important voices remain at the margins of feminist discussions. Particularly in the area of sexual harassment and assault, a more complex network of stories exists in silence. #MeToo offered a platform for women to come forward and have their words taken seriously, but failed to relieve the barriers preventing many women from doing so in the first place – even to an online community. Racialized women, women in poverty, lesbian and bisexual women, trans women, incarcerated women, undocumented women, and sex workers endure unique layers of stigmatization when it comes to sexual violence, so participating in a campaign like #MeToo can feel unwise. Men who have suffered forms of sexual violence face a similar issue in that their experiences are rarely taken seriously and speaking about their trauma is discouraged by toxic masculinity.

This inability to accommodate those who aren’t able to go public with their stories – and who would lack access to resources and support even if they did – constitutes a key weakness of #MeToo. Broadly applied, it also paints a shortcoming of today’s mainstream feminism.  

This fresh surge of discourse clearly affirms #MeToo as a meaningful moment in feminist activism, but it must be more than renewed discussion – #MeToo must be a turning point. Feminism should no longer be in the possession of whoever can get their hands on it; in fact, it especially belongs to those who cannot. Unless we take #MeToo’s lessons to heart, feminist discourse will continue to be couched in elitism that invites and protects predators but not the most disadvantaged.