Essay – Feminism and Social Media: The #MeToo Movement

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Feminist movements have been built on and depend on the idea of unity. Since the rise of social media, social movements have been able to go viral and make their message heard.  Today, social media platforms allow for those with access to speak out and spark change. In 2006, a female activist named Tarana Burke founded the ‘MeToo’ movement. In 2017, celebrity Alyssa Milano made it go viral after tweeting the hashtag ‘#MeToo’. The hashtag spread all over social media, with women from all across North America breaking their silence. The hashtag was used to demonstrate the widespread of sexual violence in world. The most notable outcome of the movement has been the revelations on Hollywood’s elite, Harvey Weinstein. Since then, the movement has continued to grow, sparking protests from females across North America and exposing sexual assaulters. However, the movement is dominated by white actresses in Hollywood. These women, such as Rose McGowan, Alyssa Milano and Gwyneth Paltrow, utilized their fame and power to help spread awareness and to create a call to action to expose and remove dangerous men. The movement has exposed and exiled many powerful men in Hollywood, however, Hollywood is only one small elite community. Many others still live in danger of sexual assault and this social media movement is not helping them. The ‘MeToo’ movement is a privileged white women’s movement. Those who speak out have the luxury and the certainty that they will be believed and sympathized. They have the power to speak out and do not live in a dangerous atmosphere or face any repercussions. As white female celebrities, their allegations are not questioned. People easily believe that a rich, white male will sexually harass a beautiful white woman. While Hollywood claims to be very diverse and inclusive, there are many instances of the allegations made by women of colour being ignored, disregarded, or not treated with the same legitimacy. The ‘MeToo’ movement promotes an underlying message that believability, call to action and sympathy are reserved only for a ‘certain woman’. These ‘certain women’ are rarely the women who are most vulnerable to the issue, women of colour.

The original intention of the ‘MeToo’ movement was initiated a decade ago in the United States by black female victims of sexual violence. The movement was supposed to “let other survivors know they are not alone’ and create solidarity with the victims” (Davis & Zarkov, 2016, p.3). The movement was founded by Tarana Burke who understood the power of social media, and how she could utilize it to support her cause. Along with Burke,  many modern-day activists, in particular feminist activists, use social media as a platform to spread awareness and spark change as “social media embodies feminist values in a number of ways: it eliminates hierarchies, is based largely on personal experience, and provides women with the ability to connect with other women, regardless of geographical and situational boundaries” (Messina-Dysert, 2014, p.10). In 2017 the movement was popularized when white female celebrity Alyssa Milano tweeted the call to action (see figure 1.0). After this, the movement went viral. Female’s across North America were posting ‘#MeToo’ on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. However, Milano’s tweet did not mention Burke or the original movement at all. Many people credited Milano with creating the movement and majority of the women posting on social media afterwards did not know that the movement was intended for black female victims of sexual assault. Despite this misrepresentation, the movement did succeed in going viral and creating a lot of conversations within the media. ‘#MeToo’ allowed for women with access to social media, to connect and sympathize with one another because, as Crenshaw states, “drawing from the strength of shared experience, women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated” (Crenshaw, 1991, p.1241).  More women joined the movement and broke their silence. The movements message grew louder as each woman logged on and became activists from their home. As, “through status updates, tweets, and pins, women become “micro-bloggers” and are able to articulate ideas, promote particular movements, and foster change in 140 characters or less” (Messina-Dysert, 2014, p.9).  The freedom of social media and the simplicity of logging onto a website and posting two words allowed ‘MeToo’ to grow and, “because of the availability of contemporary social media, activists […] argue, social movements can finally become leaderless, horizontal, and spontaneous. They no longer have to face the question of unity so obsessively” (Gerbaudo, 2012, p.19).  International news sources like The Sydney Morning Herald began to comment on the movement stating that, “#MeToo is a statement of not only solidarity, but a kind of distress signal, one which transcends geographical boundaries, echoing far beyond the United States” (Chamseddine, 2017, p.1). Women commended one another for their bravery and contribution to this ever-growing campaign. However, the women speaking out were a very particular type. While it is commonly suggested that “its [social media] democratic modes of participation allow women, without regard to status, to have an equal voice to interact and express their opinion” (Reuther, 2014, p. 1). In the case of ‘#MeToo’, status played a large role in discouraging or disallowing women to voice their opinions and stories. The most notable contributors of the movement are Hollywood actresses. These white, rich and beautiful women expose powerful men as sexual aggressors. Davis commented on the movement saying that “it was also a platform for individual women who were confident enough to stand up and powerful enough to be heard. Many of the women were-well known celebrities and they situated themselves as agents, not as victims” (Davis, 2016, p.5). In addition, another scholar stated on the matter saying, “they can show that women, far from being powerless, are agents in their own fates” (Marchand & Parpart, 1995, p.161). These celebrity accusations are met with sympathy and understanding, a luxury that is strictly reserved for this type of woman. Not all women have the means of access to speak out and become agents in their own fates. While discussing ‘#MeToo’, Zarkov supports this notion, stating “the fact that they are famous and that many are speaking at the same time, makes all the difference in allowing their accusations to be heard and believed” (Zarkov, 2016, p.5).

Figure 1

            The women who are given all this power and responsibility to speak out, are the ones who are least vulnerable to the issue. They do not face the same repercussions for exposing someone and they are supported, not doubted. Khan states “the difference, however, between how women have responded to this conditioning across cultures is access to resources: financial, technical and intellectual” (Khan, 2018, p.1). In addition, Davis states, “there are still many women who would not be able to participate in what has now become the #MeToo movement, either because they don’t have access to the (social) media or because the sanctions would be too great” (Davis, 2016, p.5). There have been many instances before #MeToo, where women of colour have spoken out about sexual assault and not received the same response. Busia and James suggest that women of colour, as a minority are generally disregarded or categorized into either one factor, race or gender, by stating that “indeed, much of the discussion of inequality in the USA has been centered on the dynamics of either race or gender which translates into discussions of white women or Black men” (Busia & James, 1993, p. 18). They are not as welcomed into the feminist movements as white women are. For example, Nafissatou Diallo, a maid at a New York hotel, accused French politician, Strauss-Khan of sexual assault. As stated by Zarkov, “She stood no chance, precisely because their social locations were so hugely, un-comparably different: she was a black immigrant hotel maid, he was a white national of a powerful European state and the director of one of the most powerful financial agencies in the world” (Zarkov, 2016, p.5). In addition, the Huffington Post interviewed ten women of colour to see how the #MeToo movement differs for them. The results concluded that “the women we spoke with mention being treated differently by men inside and outside of their own ethnicity or race, as well being influenced and affected by norms within their own cultures” (Prois, Moreno, 2018, p.1).  Allegations made by women of colour are disregarded because of their ethnicity. Their accusations are rarely followed by action and these women are at greater risk. Even since the ‘#MeToo’ movement began, women of colour, whether in or out of Hollywood, are not taken as seriously. This notion is supported by many online platforms, one of which stated that “the individualized coverage of these cases ignores countless people, many of whom are women of colour who […] work in low-wage jobs where the power imbalance is even less conducive to reporting sexual harassment” (Lockhart, 2017, p.1). Another source stated that “They [women of colour] described fielding sexual innuendo and advances at work while dealing with cultural expectations to be compliant and quiet, or demure and sexy. Several women described feeling a lack of agency over their own bodies rooted in longstanding history” (Prois, Moreno, 2018, p.1). Even when the accusation is made against a man of color by a woman of color, the allegation is still not taken seriously. For example, “When Anita hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, she stood no chance because she was the only one who spoke against him. Worse still, because both she and Thomas were black, she was accused of kindling racism against Thomas and harming the black cause in the US” (Zarkov, 2016, p.5). Also, it is important to note a category of women completely denied from the movement, sex workers. These women are extremely vulnerable to sexual violence but are unable to either report it or see repercussions for it. Cooney comments on this subject stating that “these consensual sex workers say the most public voices in the #MeToo movement could be doing more to support them […] and that their particular issues haven’t been raised by the celebrities supporting the Time’s Up movement” (Cooney, 2018, p.1). Instances where claims made by women of color were disregarded in Hollywood, are quite common as well. In 2017, Aurora Perrineau, made allegations against the television show Girls writer, Murray Miller. Perrineau is a biracial actress who claimed the assault happened when she was seventeen years old. Girls creator Lena Dunham, defended Miller and scrutinized Perrinueau. This instance “raises legitimate questions about whether movements like #MeToo, for all its current momentum, will bring about change that will truly help all women. And further, the episode raises difficult questions about who deserves redemption, and who gets to decide” (White, 2017, p.1).  

Not only does “MeToo’ discriminate and ignore women of colour, it also creates a sense of fear within the men inside Hollywood and the women outside of it. Davis states, “it has also generated a ‘trial by media’ where individual men are publicly ‘blamed and shamed’ for actions for which they often suffer severe consequences before having a chance to defend themselves” (Davis, 2016, p.6). Men in Hollywood fearful of the power of the movement. Those who have been accused, have been fired and exiled. Their reputations have been ruined and anything they say after the accusation is disregarded. This fear generated by the movement also affects the women outside of it. This notion of removing dangerous men from the workplace is an idea only so easily achieved in places of privilege such as Hollywood. Men outside of this do not face the same repercussions. Thus, a woman of colour, or any woman who is not a part of the elite, is not guaranteed that her assaulter will be punished. Thus, by her speaking out, she could be putting herself in further danger if no one stands by her, or, as Zarkov states, “in other words, we should not expect that office workers, teachers, shop owners or policemen will be equally easily publicly ‘blamed and shamed’ or dismissed from their jobs because they have harassed and assaulted dozens of women (and men)” (Zarkov, 2016, p.6).  Therefore, as Loya states, “by this logic, Latina and African American women who are sexually assaulted bear an additional burden because they are already disproportionately affected by income- and asset poverty and face limited access to legal, medical, and social support services that may aid in violence prevention and recovery” (Loya, 2013 p.1300).  This has been seen in instances like the Chicago Ford plant issue. Where, female employees at the plant were sexually abused and mistreated and unable to speak up. A victim of the case told The New York Times that, “those who complained before them, they say they were mocked, dismissed, threatened and ostracized. One described being called “snitch bitch,” while another was accused of “raping the company.” Many of the men who they say hounded them kept their jobs” (Chira & Einhorn, 2017, p.1).  Overall, the main issue with ‘MeToo’ is the lack of access to the internet. As Vivian and Moran state, “access to information will become so essential to everyone’s well-being that we could end up with a stratified society of info-rich and info-poor people” (Maurin & Vivian, 2009, 143). Thus, if the movement continues to ignore the fact that not everyone has access to the internet or the freedom to speak their mind on social media, then the movement will continue to shrink.

The issue with the ‘Me Too’ movement is that even though it has gone viral, in reality it is so small. The movement is more concerned with individual exposure, than exposing the actual issue, and it is concerning that “making a person (especially the accused) visible will be mistaken for making the problem visible” (Zarkov, 2016, p.6). Thus, the issue with ‘MeToo’ is that it is no longer truly a feminist movement as, “feminism is an analytic perspective, attainable by people of any gender, that explores the relationship of women to power, on both interpersonal and structural levels, and takes as fundamental that gender should not impede recognition of a person’s humanity, access to equality, or exercise of self-determination” (Zwissler, 2012, p.355). Therefore, by not supporting and allowing women of color or women of lower class to be heard, ‘#MeToo’ is no longer a feminist movement. If the movement continues to create this idea of exclusivity and destruction, then it will only create further objection. Exposing someone does not expose the issue. ‘#MeToo’ takes down assaulters, after they have already assaulted. As ‘MeToo’ is so rooted in Hollywood, how can those at home feel any sense of relation to the women who are speaking out? The movement separates the rich and famous from everyone else. Men who assault women but who are of high status will not receive the same repercussions as men of low status.  In addition to this, one cannot assume that women, especially women of colour, will speak out when the movement does not truly support them, or listen to their voice. If feminist movements do not truly embrace and protect every woman, they will never succeed. The ‘MeToo’ movement must support women of colour, women living in poverty and women without the means of access to speak up. A movement based on tweeting two words and firing men in Hollywood, causes publicity scandals, not equality. The only way to end sexual violence is to involve both men and women, of all races, classes, and genders, into the conversation together.

References:

Alyssa_Milano. (2017, 02, 15). “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. [twitter post] Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/alyssa_milano/status/919659438700670976?lang=en

Busia, Abena & James, Stanlie, (1993). Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. London: Routledge.

Chamseddine, Roqayah, (2017, 12, 09). The Women Left Behind by the #MeToo Movement. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/the-women-ignored-by-the-metoo-movement-20171207-h00kso.html

Chira, Susan & Einhorn, Catrin, (2017, 12, 19). The #MeToo Moment: Blue Collar Women Ask, “What About Us”. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/us/the-metoo-moment-blue-collar-women-ask-what-about-us.html?rref=collection%2Fseriescollection%2Fmetoo-moment&action=click&contentCollection=us&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection

Cooney, Samantha, (2018, 02, 13). ‘They Don’t Want to Include Women Like Me.’ Sex Workers Say They’re Being Left Out of the #MeToo Movement. Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5104951/sex-workers-me-too-movement/

Crenshaw, Kimberle, (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 1241-1299.

Davis, Kathy & Zarkov, Dubravka, (2018). Ambiguities and dilemmas around #MeToo: #ForHowLong and #WhereTo? European Journal of Women’s Studies, 3-9.

Gerbaudo, Paul, (2012). Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press.

Khan, Themrise, (2018, 02, 16). Khan: The North-American-ness of #MeToo Ignores Women’s Struggles in the Rest of the World. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from: http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/khan-the-north-american-ness-of-metoo-ignores-womens-struggles-in-the-rest-of-the-world

Lockhart, P.R., (2017, 12, 19). Women of Color in Low-Wage Jobs are Being Overlooked in the #MeToo Moment. Vox. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/12/19/16620918/sexual-harassment-low-wages-minority-women

Loya, Rebecca, (2014). The Role of Sexual Violence in Creating and Maintaining Economic Insecurity Among Asset-Poor Women of Color. Violence Against Women, 1299-1320.

Marchand, Marianne & Parpart, Jane, (1995). Feminism Postmodernism Development. London: Routledge.

Maurin, Peter & Vivian, (2009) “The Internet,” The Media of Mass Communication (5th ed.). Toronto, Ont.: Pearson Allyn and Bacon: 131-146.

Messina-Dysert, Gina & Ruether, Rosemary, (2014). Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders. New York: Routledge.

Moreno, Carolina & Prois, Jessica, (2018, 02, 01). The #MeToo Movement Looks Different for Women of Color. Here Are 10 Stories. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/women-of-color-me-too_us_5a442d73e4b0b0e5a7a4992c

White, Gillian, (2017, 11, 22). The Glaring Blind Spot of the ‘Me Too’ Movement. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/the-glaring-blind-spot-of-the-me-too-movement/546458/

Zwissler, Laurel, (2012). Feminism and Religion: Intersections between Western Activism, Theology and Theory. Religion Compass. 354-368.

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