Making Sense of #MeToo: Intersectionality and Contemporary Feminism
Making Sense of #MeToo: Intersectionality and Contemporary Feminism
Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020
Author(s): Caroline Dadas
Caroline Dadas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing Studies at Montclair State University, where she directs First Year Writing and teaches courses in the Public and Professional Writing major. She has been published previously in the journals College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, Literacy in Composition Studies, Composition Forum, and New Media and Society.
Abstract: Based on a review of 100 popular press articles about #MeToo, I offer a rhetorical analysis of the popular discourse surrounding the movement. I analyze two of the trends that emerged from the #MeToo popular press data that I gathered: the need for an increased intersectional approach; and the exposure of continued rifts in feminist thought. Through this approach, I situate the work of #MeToo as rhetorical, grounded in an understanding of how power functions and can be disrupted.Tags: #MeToo, 22-3, feminism, Intersectionality, parrhesia, Twitter
Beginning in October 2017, the #MeToo movement has brought widespread attention to sexual assault and harassment, experiences that remain pervasive. The phrase “me too” was first used by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 during her non-profit work at Just Be Inc. providing resources for people who had experienced sexual assault. In the wake of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a message with the hashtag #MeToo to illustrate the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. When Tarana Burke was interviewed in 2019 as part of the Time 100 Summit, she acknowledged that it is easy for most people to condemn the actions of someone like Harvey Weinstein; she argues that the work of the movement now involves drilling down into less straightforward scenarios. In her comments, Burke references the tendency for people to get upset about allegations against so-called “good guys”: “But when we start talking about…the good guy who’s an ally to women, who looks out for everybody, who’s a stand-up person, but maybe behaves in a way that is too permissive, then [people think] it’s a problem” (Time). As #MeToo has begun to broaden its scope to focus on more nuanced interactions, I review the popular press conversation around the movement, offering a snapshot of the public discourse around #MeToo as it has played out over the last two years, to try to answer the following research questions: Does popular press coverage suggest that #MeToo is disrupting the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to thrive? Whose voices are being amplified in the popular press coverage of the #MeToo movement?
Because popular press coverage not only reflects but also influences how people respond to social justice movements, I focus on coverage of the #MeToo movement from its initial dramatic beginnings to its more recent reckoning with the kind of difficult scenarios Burke references. In this article, I discuss two trends in the #MeToo pieces I analyzed: the need for an increased intersectional approach, and the exposure of continued rifts in feminist thought. This data offers insight into my research questions. While the movement has unquestionably found some success in highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual assault, it remains constrained by limitations. Despite its origins in the work of a Black woman activist (Burke), #MeToo is not sufficiently incorporating an intersectional approach to its activism; rather, it is de-centering the voices of people of color and queer people. Additionally, the movement remains hamstrung by a brand of feminism—present since the women’s movement in the 1970s—that emphasizes individual agency and self-sufficiency.
#MeToo as a Power Disruptor
I situate the work of #MeToo as rhetorical, grounded in an understanding of how power functions and can be disrupted. Throughout my textual analysis, I draw on Jay Dolmage’s (2014) definition of rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (5). His emphasis on power proves critical for a site of research like #MeToo, where participants are attempting to shift power dynamics through the tactic of speaking out publicly. I conceptualize power as a relational dynamic that enables or constrains people’s decision-making capabilities (Sullivan and Porter, 1997; Fischer, 2000; Simmons, 2007). The #MeToo movement has identified the many ways that people can take advantage of their privilege to exert influence on someone else in a way that benefits them. As I will show later, these benefits can include work status, control in a relationship, or maintaining the exclusion of certain groups to the advantage of others within an institution (for example, publicly harassing female candidates so that women are discouraged from running for office). Scholars in rhetoric and composition have developed methodologies that speak to the ability for rhetoric to erode and dismantle these institutionalized systems of power. James E. Porter et al. argue for a methodology of institutional critique that draws on theories of postmodern mapping to discern “zones of ambiguity” and unstable boundaries where intervention might be possible. They explain,
Our viewpoint is cautiously hopeful—though, realistic, we think–about the possibility of changing institutions. Our basic claim is this: Though institutions are certainly powerful, they are not monoliths; they are rhetorically constructed human designs (whose power is reinforced by buildings, laws, traditions, and knowledge-making practices) and so are changeable. In other words, we made ’em, we can fix ’em. (611)
In framing institutions as comprised of rhetoric, these scholars offer a pathway for rhetorical intervention against seemingly impenetrable social structures. If we think of sexual harassment, misogyny, and patriarchy as institutions, #MeToo uses rhetoric to intervene in them, largely by naming the systemic practices of abuse and harassment—often gone unspoken—by which these institutions sustain themselves. This type of intervention builds toward a hopeful future in which abuse and harassment may not be as deeply engrained in women’s experiences as they are today. As Sarah Burgess (2018) contends, #MeToo is less about legislating the past and more about engaging in an act of political imagination:
advocates understand that themselves to be participating in a politics that aims to being about yet-to-be-imagined future. Such a politics, it seems, is built on the ability to define what is appropriate, healthy, and ethical in sexual encounters, without relying on or reproducing the traditions and norms that have created systemic inequalities. (346)
People who participate in #MeToo are using the power derived from speaking out and connecting with others who have had similar experiences to chip away at exclusionary institutions and norms.
The tactic of speaking against powerful institutions as a truth-telling device has a long tradition in rhetoric, illustrated in the Greek concept of parrhesia. As explained by Michel Foucault (2001), “Parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his [sic] personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself)” (19). The speaker is compelled to truth-telling out of “duty,” which comes at great personal risk. We can interpret the risk in participating in #MeToo as involving one’s literal life, in the case of domestic abuse or other violent altercations, or pertaining to quality of life factors such as employment and mental well-being. Foucault also emphasizes that parrhesiastes utilize “frankness” in their utterance(s), thereby opening themselves up to criticism from those who do not appreciate the sentiment being conveyed with such directness (or at all). Because harassers often rely upon a culture of silence and shame to shield the behavior and not face repercussions, #MeToo’s rhetorical strategy of communicating openly about abuse and harassment represents an attempt at intervening in an unstable institutional boundary, per the institutional critique methodology. Once the #MeToo movement reached a certain level of publicity, the “duty” that survivors felt in telling their own story derived, in part, from the hope that the force of the intervention might be more impactful through sheer numbers.
The circulatory capacity of online platforms can enable parrhesiastic discourse not only to reach significant numbers of people but also to yield an affective impact on readers. As Kyle Larson (2018) argues, positioning persuasion as the main goal of rhetorical exchanges ignores the affective capacity of online communications that do not emphasize rational, Western, logocentric argumentation. Through his research on a feminist Tumblr blogger, Farrah, Larson argues that Farrah uses a rhetorical technique called remonstrative agitation “as a performative, parrhesiastic rhetoric to continue and even further incite the affective circulation of counterdiscourse in the pursuit of feminist, anti-imperialist recognition of her humanity in the broader public sphere” (263). Through “remonstrative agitation”—which includes rhetorical anger1 Farrah and other online activists use parrhesiastic rhetoric to counter the dominant discourses that circulate online (and in the culture more broadly) by making counterdiscourses more visible. Through increased exposure to rhetorical stances and points of view that are feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist in nature, activists remain hopeful that readers can learn from these points of view. Larson offers a personal testimonial to the effectiveness of this type of approach: “Increased circulation of counterdiscourse offers further opportunities for those socialized by dominant discourse to reencounter the counterdiscourse again and again over time and therefore to potentially learn from and become a participant in it—like me” (274). Parrhesia in online settings (as with #MeToo) can reflect a remonstrative stance rather than the more logocentric approaches that we often associate with rhetoric. The counterdiscourses that result can affect change by merely being present and available for audiences to encounter.
In the case of #MeToo, enacting parrhesia is implicated in the body, given that the truths being told involve physical contact, verbal assaults on one’s body, and other forms of harassment. Some of the most notable recent work on the body in rhetoric and composition comes from the specialization of disability studies, with its focus on normative practices and how they influence people’s bodies. In elaborating on his definition of rhetoric, Dolmage responds to Aristotle’s canonical definition (“the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion”) by arguing that “the body has never been fully or fairly understood for it role in shaping and multiplying these available means” (3). While Dolmage is interested in how expectations of normalcy attempt to exert control over bodies (9), his point about the omission of the body as an available means of persuasion applies to #MeToo. In truth-telling about the trauma of physical/mental/emotional harassment, survivors have located the body at the forefront of their rhetorical activity. The experience of abuse has been culturally coded as a “private” matter, something that should not be talked about in an open forum like Twitter. By sharing their stories, parrhesiastes are using taboo available means such as calling attention to their bodies.
While #MeToo has instigated discussion of harassment and assault on a broad scale, I want to acknowledge the long history of feminist and queer thinkers, and women of color in particular, for agitating around sexual harassment for decades; these scholars and activists have long called attention to the kinds of behaviors that #MeToo critiques. They have developed a body of work that examines the institutionalized harassment women face in the workplace (MacKinnon, 1979); how overlapping social identities experience discrimination (Crenshaw, 1989; Lorde, 1984); gender performativity (Butler, 1990); the social construction of biology based on gender stereotypes (Martin, 1991); modes of feminist resistance (Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977; Crunk Feminist Collection, 2017); the policing of heteronormativity (Lorde, 1984; Halberstam, 2011); and multimodal feminist archival collection (Eversley, 2015). Through this work—and more that I cannot adequately address here—feminists have undertaken a world-making project, responding to injustices against marginalized populations and offering alternate models for living and working. These interventions have resulted in changes in a variety of sectors, including education (curricula) and the workplace (anti-harassment policies). This collective feminist work has offered research and a theoretical foundation to support #MeToo’s central claim that misogynistic behavior toward women is systemic.
Before I analyze my findings and position #MeToo as a power-disruption tactic, I first provide an overview of my methods for this study.
I offer a rhetorical analysis of the popular discourse surrounding the movement based on a review of 100 popular press articles about #MeToo. I chose 100 articles as my corpus in an attempt at being thorough; articles that include the phrase “me too” encompass a wide array of topics and perspectives, and I wanted to encounter as many as I could. I began with a corpus that positioned me to inductively come to working conclusions about what is being said about the movement. Using a grounded theory methodology, I also employed a critical discourse analysis approach. In his work on hashtag activism, Nicholas DeArmas (2018) argues for the usefulness of critical discourse analysis in highlighting power dynamics, especially when comparing multiple texts. This method allowed me to effectively address my research questions, both of which are oriented around the distribution of power. Through close reading, I noted trends that not only appeared frequently in the data, but also trends that, while more limited by comparison, seemed to upset prior assumptions about #MeToo (my last section about longstanding rifts within feminism falls into this category). In other words, while the mainstream media encourages us to focus on a few elements of #MeToo (e.g., the codes “consent” and “backlash” were well-represented within my data set), I am interested in amplifying some perspectives represented in the corpus that may not garner significant attention in the media. One such perspective is the need to center intersectionality within the movement.
I located all popular press articles through a Google search for the term “#MeToo.” In order to foreground articles from a variety of perspectives, I also searched “queer #MeToo,” “critiques of #MeToo” and “#MeToo criticism.”2 In the process of deciding on my final corpus, I ended up discarding several pieces that included a superficial analysis of the movement. After reading each of the articles, I inductively came up with 16 thematic codes based on patterns I saw emerging (see appendix). As I mentioned earlier, some of these themes were present in quite a few articles (such as the topic of backlash), while other themes emerged in just a few articles (e.g. the varied reactions of feminists to the movement). For the purposes of this article, I narrowed my discussion to two themes—both of which are strongly rooted in the circulation of power—that crystalize the promise and challenges of #MeToo: the need for an increased intersectional approach, and the exposure of continued rifts in feminist thought. I offer a rhetorical analysis of these themes in response to my research questions about whose voices are being amplified in the movement and whether #MeToo is beginning to disrupt the power dynamics that allow harassment to thrive. With this rhetorical foundation of power and parrhesia in mind, I now will focus on the popular press publications that have sought to make sense of the #MeToo movement. All articles that I refer to from this point forward are included in my corpus of 100, with the exception of some citations that serve to provide further context; these citations are indicated by an asterisk (*).
Engagement with intersectionality proves a critical factor in the movement’s effectiveness
First conceived by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the theory of intersectionality dictates that oppressions “intersect” at various axes according to identity markers such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. These intersections dictate that, for example, a cisgender white woman will experience sexism differently than a Black transgender woman. At the same time, the theory rejects the temptation to place oppressions along a hierarchy; the visual image of a traffic intersection that Crenshaw has used in her talks illustrates how various identity markers converge in a non-hierarchical fashion. The movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) enacts an intersectional approach to their activism, stating in their website materials that they recognize “the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people” (“Herstory”)* because those are the folx who historically have been shut out of movements or forced to work in the background. The BLM movement’s centering of queer and trans women is a corrective to previous movements that marginalized these voices even as the movements claimed to seek racial justice. Referencing the fact that many of the #MeToo claims that received significant attention in the media came from upper/middle class straight white women, Burgess explains that
The exclusion [of marginalized populations] matters here because the narratives told and heard determine who is recognizable as one that can make a claim about sexual harassment and be believed…Just because one’s voice is included does not mean that it is given the same weight. Access or entry to the scene of address does not guarantee equal footing. To create structural change, then, means that the norms of recognizability…must be contested. (351-352)*
Burgess calls attention to the fact that even when women of color come forward, their claims are not given the same value as those of white women. Perhaps #MeToo’s very origin—founded by an activist Black woman, popularized by a celebrity white woman—has stifled its ability to engage an intersectional approach. Regardless, popular press accounts have articulated both the failures and successes of #MeToo in this regard and also offered insights into how #MeToo can more fully apply the principles of intersectionality.
Some critics of #MeToo have pointed out that, for example, #MeToo has failed to honor queer and transgender survivors of harassment and assault. Neesha Powell (2017) argues that the movement needs to stop pretending that violence only happens to cisgender straight women. She cites the following troubling statistics from the The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse: “46% of bisexual women experience rape in their lifetime; lesbians are significantly more likely than others to experience gang rape; and 55% of trans men and 68% of trans women experience sexual assault in their lifetime” (Powell). Despite these statistics, 75% of my mainstream media corpus focuses on straight, cisgender white women. Meredith Talusan (2018), writing for the publication them, argues that this erasure ignores the particular dangers for the gender non-confomring community, given the rigid gender expectations that many people still hold: “Trans and [gender non-conforming] folks are so much more vulnerable than cis women: We not only experience unwanted sexual advances and provocations, but we are also at risk of being physically assaulted or murdered when those who approach us are unable to deal with their own attractions” (Talusan). Silencing the perspectives of queer and transgender survivors proves especially pernicious when Black queer and trans women have been at forefront of social justice movements for decades. As the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, queer women of color have often functioned as parrhesiastes around a variety of social justice issues. Failing to take an intersectional approach to talking about sexual violence not only ignores survivors but also diminishes the contributions of many current and potential talented leaders.
Marginalizing the experiences of the LGBTQ community and gender non-conforming folx also presents missed opportunities for learning from these communities about how they negotiate consent, a central concern of the #MeToo movement. In his article “Cruising in the Age of Consent,” Spencer Kornhaber (2019) argues that gay men in particular have much to offer in this area, as historically they have had to develop codes in order to safely find sexual partners. Kornhaber draws on his current-day experiences in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular gay mecca, to argue that a common question between potential lovers, “What are you into?,” represents a marker of consent that, because it does not presuppose any particular behaviors, might be adopted by people of all sexual orientations. Michael Faris (2019) argues that queer sex-education comics offer instructive perspectives on consent as techné: a way of relating to others that is not limited to sexual encounters alone. He concludes that “Consent is a set of ethical practices, not simply a matter of risk and danger, but also of pleasure and boundaries. Further, as many sex-education comics argue, consent is not solely tied to sex: it is an ethical practice, a techné, for being in relation to others” (108)*. The comics that Faris studied emphasize that bodies always exist in relation to one another, with consent representing a critical characteristic of how effectively bodies communicate in a variety of contexts. While affirmative consent has remained a feminist goal for decades (perhaps best known due to Antioch College’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, created in 1990), the #MeToo movement illustrates that consent remains an ill-defined and elusive concept for many people. Looking to queer folx, who have developed a range of relational practices oriented around pleasure, can help inform the discussion around what consent can look like. Leaving queer communities on the margins of #MeToo means missed opportunities for learning from a rich set of embodied knowledges. Keeping #MeToo focused on white, cisgender, straight women is not only exclusionary to marginalized populations but also counterproductive to achieving the goals of the movement.
In spite of these shortcomings, a limited intersectional approach has yielded forward progress in at least one high-profile cases of abuse that has garnered increased attention since the beginning of #MeToo. In January 2019, the Lifetime television network ran a mini-series entitled, “Surviving R. Kelly,” chronicling the R&B star’s long history of sexual abuse allegations; the following month, he was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse in Chicago. Despite his marriage to a 15-year old girl, Aaliyah Haughton, in 1994; a profile in the Chicago Sun Times in 2000 regarding his interest in underage girls; an indictment of 21 counts related to child pornography in 2002 (he was acquitted at trial); and a Buzzfeed article in 2017 accusing him of holding several women against their will in a sex cult (France), Kelly has thus far avoided jail time, enjoying widespread popularity throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The series represented one of the few sustained, in-depth examinations of sexual abuse of women of color in the mainstream media since the #MeToo movement began (a follow-up series of the same name ran in January 2020). One of the criticisms of #MeToo has been its initial, well-publicized focus on the Harvey Weinstein survivors, the majority of whom are wealthy, cisgender, white women. Ten articles in my corpus of 100 argue that from its inception, the movement has failed to center voices of color, transgender women, and non-binary individuals. Instead, #MeToo has largely reflected “white feminism”: “a common term for a particular set of feminist dispositions and discourses that consciously or unconsciously uphold Eurocentrism and white supremacy for the expedient advancement of Western, white women” (Larson 280)*. Moments where the focus has been placed on women of color have provided reason for hope. In one such instance, Lisa Respers France (2019) argues that the #MeToo movement gave momentum to increased attention to the alleged crimes of R. Kelly. France writes,
For years Kelly’s fans had heard rumors—and even made jokes—about him having a ‘thing’ for young girls. What’s changed? The entertainment industry is now viewed through the lens of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, making accusations like this harder to dismiss. (CNN)
While women of color have for years played the role of parrhesiastes, calling out R.Kelly’s behavior, the kairotic environment of the #MeToo movement has granted their voices greater impact. The founder of #MeToo, Tarana Burke, sat for an interview in “Surviving R. Kelly,” solidifying the connection between the movement and increased (legal and public) attention to Kelly’s behavior. Even so, the series argues that the lack of intervention in Kelly’s prolonged abusive behavior toward young women underscores a societal disregard for women of color. #MeToo has stumbled in enacting a sustained intersectional feminism that calls attention to this plight, with numerous critics calling for a more inclusive feminism at the core of the project.
Though this instance offers reason for hope, people offering critique and analysis through the lens of #MeToo should more deliberately draw on Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, a theory that has informed feminist analysis for decades. As many commentators have pointed out, especially in the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election, Black women have long been at the forefront of social justice activism; #MeToo needs to more explicitly center their voices, while also paying increased attention to the violence targeted at women and girls of color. Brittney Cooper (2018) has recently emerged as a powerful feminist voice, arguing that
I’m advocating for people-centered politics that hold the safety and protection of the least of these—among them Black women and girls—as a value worth fighting for. I’m asking what will it take to have a politics that puts Black women and girls (cis, trans, and everything in between) at the center and keeps them safe. What will that look like? Because I sure as hell know what it doesn’t look like. (85)*
Cooper is careful here to include transgender women, a population that experiences consistently high levels of violence, particularly among communities of color. Cooper’s plea models an intersectional approach that recognizes how significant strides in women’s equality will not be made until the full range of women’s experiences and backgrounds are honored. Enacting exclusionary practices and politics—particularly in relationship to communities of color and LGBTQ folx—is a self-defeating proposition that will ultimately stifle movements like #MeToo.
#MeToo has affirmed that longstanding rifts within feminism still exist
#MeToo has proven polarizing not only in its initial tactics—a wave of firings and public humiliation—but also based on its premise that harassment and assault are systemic problems. Several public commentators have criticized the movement as infantilizing, believing that #MeToo implies that women are powerless in the face of inappropriate behavior. Commentators Daphne Merkin, Bari Weiss, Masha Gessen, Kate Roiphe, and Caitlin Flanagan have all published pieces decrying the loss of individual agency that #MeToo allegedly implies. While it would be easy to attribute the differences perspectives on #MeToo to a generational divide, the public opposition of commentators such as Weiss (who is not yet 40) suggests that age is not necessarily a determining factor in one’s orientation to the movement. Rather, disagreements among self-proclaimed feminists about #MeToo tread well-worn pathways within feminism regarding the role of individual responsibility when it comes to navigating abuse and harassment (Donegan). While this debate has existed for decades (with white women often espousing an ethic of personal responsibility and women of color often pointing to structural inequalities), #MeToo represents a kairotic moment for increased theorizing around this issue.
In her 2018 piece for the Guardian, Moira Donegan claims that this divide among feminists is more serious than a rift caused by different generational perspectives. The debate over #MeToo demonstrates that “feminism has come to contain two distinct understandings of sexism, and two wildly different, often incompatible ideas of how that problem should be solved. One approach is individualist, hard-headed, grounded in ideals of pragmatism, realism and self-sufficiency. The other is expansive, communal, idealistic and premised on the ideals of mutual interest and solidarity” (Donegan). These approaches place different emphases on the role of individual agency in combatting sexism, racism, homophobia, and other social ills. Folx who argue that #MeToo infantilizes women, for example, tend to claim that women should remove themselves from situations where they are being treated badly; that saying “no” can prevent assaultive behavior; that the #MeToo movement only reinforces the idea that women are defenseless. The more “communal” perspective, as Donegan puts it, emphasizes the structural nature of misogyny–that harassment and assault, while differing in degree of violence, both stem from the same underlying cause of misogynist thinking. Institutional critique fails when the institution (i.e., patriarchy and the systemic harassment of women) is not acknowledged as existing. For this reason, it is not easy to combat that structure through individual actions such as saying “no.” In fact, women feel as though they cannot say “no” in situations that they recognize as potentially dangerous for many reasons, including the fear of escalation to physical violence and long term retribution.
Several self-proclaimed feminists, some of them mentioned above, have argued that #MeToo has laid out unrealistic standards for men to achieve. In one of the more forceful examples of this line of argumentation, Bari Weiss (2018) uses an incident involving Aziz Ansai as an example of #MeToo’s alleged overreach. As the story was reported by journalist Katie Way (2018), Ansari used sexually aggressive behavior toward a woman, Grace (a pseudonym), on their first date. At the time that the story broke, Ansari had just won a Golden Globe for his television show Master of None and was a respected comedian.3 The story gained a good deal of press coverage, with some commentators arguing that Ansari’s behavior reflects a broader lack of understanding of consent. Among those who publicly critiqued this reading of the incident, Weiss argues, “If you go home with him and discover he’s a terrible kisser, say, ‘I’m out.’ If you start to hook up and don’t like the way he smells or the way he talks (or doesn’t talk), end it. If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door” (Weiss). Weiss draws upon the individualist philosophy of sexism to argue that Grace bore the responsibility for extricating herself from the situation; Ansari would have had to have read Grace’s mind in order to know that she was uncomfortable.
Adjacent to Weiss’ personal responsibility argument is the notion that public conversations about consent through vehicles like #MeToo inevitably paint women as weak. Caitlin Flanagan, writing for the Atlantic, picks up on this same thread by bemoaning that “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it” (Flanagan). Generalizing about women in “pretty outfits” minimizes Grace’s experience, refusing to consider why she may not have felt comfortable/able to simply “call a cab.” While she bemoans the apparent inability for Grace to take forceful action, at the same time, Flanagan expresses regret that Grace (and women like her—whatever that means) have garnered some measure of power. Notably, at one point in her piece, Flanagan writes that she found “the most significant line in [Grace’s] story” to be when Grace bemoans “You guys are all the fucking same.” Flanagan uses Grace’s exasperation to infer that this type of encounter has happened to Grace “many times before,” foisting the blame onto the survivor. Flanagan preemptively declares Ansari’s life ruined as a result of the incident (though he would quickly reemerge in 2019 with a Netflix standup special), showing more concern for him than for a woman who allegedly has had several men not respect her wishes. She fails to recognize the institutionalized pattern of harassment and instead casts the incident as related to the survivor’s personal will.
Both Weiss and Flanagan portray #MeToo as a vehicle for spoiled, aggrieved women to seek revenge on men who have not accommodated their romantic fantasies. Neither writer acknowledges the structural inequities and institutionalized discrimination that women have historically faced in every area of life—the workplace, the home, the streets—and how those inequities bring to bear on romantic encounters. For them, #MeToo has become an excuse for women to air their individualized grievances with the intention of taking down well-meaning men. In response to both Weiss and Flanagan, Osita Nwanevu of Slate acknowledges the complexities of the Ansari story, maintaining that it is precisely for that reason that it should fall under the purview of #MeToo:
It is by no means clear what we’re all to do with a man like Ansari. But one thing is for certain: if #MeToo is to be a movement that merely indicts the worst of the worst, then we might as well start winding it down. It will never, then, be truly useful to the vast majority of women who have not been preyed upon by millionaire moguls promising them roles or bosses who can lock doors from their desks. (Nwanevu)
While the ill-intent of men such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer (both invoked above by Nwanevu) remains obvious to most, Nwanevu argues that the value of #MeToo lies in its ability to instigate conversations about less clear-cut scenarios. How might public conversations around consent develop in ways that help all people better negotiate romantic encounters? What factors bear upon a woman’s decision about whether she remains in any given situation with a man (i.e., physical safety, fear of retribution, etc)? How do age, race4, and sexuality, among other factors, affect interpretations of consent? These more nuanced conversations seem far afield from the initial wave of #MeToo tweets, but as Nwanevu and others have pointed out, the early approaches and tactics of #MeToo can give way to discussions about less-straightforward instances of coercion, silencing, and harassment. The Ansari story represented just one opportunity to have such a discussion, though commentators such as Weiss and Flanagan imply that a “call a cab”/”I’m out” mentality would render the need for such discussions moot.
Debates over the role of personal responsibility in the face of sexism will likely steer the conversations around #MeToo in the future. If, as Flanagan and Weiss argue, sexism can be overcome with grit and persistence, #MeToo and movements like it will evade more difficult discussions about issues such as consent, where there are no straightforward answers. The personal responsibility argument is reminiscent of a bootstraps mentality: the idea that through determination and hard work alone, people are able to create a more comfortable way of life for themselves. Women, for example, should be able to “pull themselves up” from situations where sexism is at play if they would reject an alleged learned helplessness that these writers see as increasingly common. The bootstraps perspective historically has been directed at people of color, with the implicit argument that they could counter the effects of racism if only they tried hard enough. Notably, both Weiss and Flanagan are white, as are Daphne Merkin, Masha Gessen, Kate Roiphe: all writers who have publicly argued, to varying degrees, that #MeToo has infantilized women and denied their agency. Writers of color, both men (Osita Nwanevu, cited above) and women (Tarana Burke, Brittney Cooper, Stephanie Jones-Rogers—all of whom have engaged publicly in discussions about #MeToo) will have experienced the effects of racial prejudice, with women of color having experienced multiple axes of discrimination; these experiences make them more likely to adopt the perspective that countering the patriarchal institution involves more than simply willing oneself outside of it. In an interview with Elizabeth Adetiba for the Nation, Tarana Burke calls out the difference between a movement that is focused on individual transgressions and one that examines structural oppression:
Understanding the structural and historical nature of misogyny positions #MeToo as a communal project, one in which personal actions and reactions are part of a larger patriarchal system that is entrenched and normalized. From its earliest days, feminism has struggled to keep the voices of women of color, lesbians, and transgender women at the center of its work. This failure makes it even more critical that #MeToo maintain an intersectional approach and honor/learn from the voices of people of color. Doing so will steer the conversation away from one of personal responsibility toward an interrogation of the larger structural forces that limit women’s choices. (Burke)*
As Burke points out, centering people of color makes the movement more likely to become more focused on structural oppressions. Because people of color have felt these forces, they are more likely to steer the movement toward addressing the root causes of misogynistic behavior.
This overview of 100 of popular press articles about #MeToo demonstrates how the movement has evolved over time—and provides clues as to how it might continue to develop. Viewing the utterance #MeToo as an act of parrhesia, or truth-telling, begs the question of whose truth is being told and listened to. In response to my research question on this issue, my conclusion is that we are failing to center the voices of women of color, queer folx, and transgender women; if we continue to do so, #MeToo’s reach and effectiveness will be limited. Those of us who carry white privilege need to be vocal when people of color find inadequate representation in these conversations; academics who are writing about #MeToo (or any topic, for that matter) need to ensure that they are citing scholars of color and building on their work in an ethical manner. This principle extends to all categories of representation. Tarana Burke bemoans that “the women of color, trans women, queer people—our stories get pushed aside and our pain is never prioritized…We don’t talk about indigenous women. Their stories go untold” (Time). Those of us who do have privilege need to take concrete action to give these stories their due. Foucault’s definition emphasizes that a parrhesiastes “recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people” (19).* Truth-telling is not merely for the benefit of oneself, but also for the benefit of others. In the case of #MeToo, telling one’s story can inspire others to do the same, thus creating a wider discourse around an issue than previously existed. This collective truth-telling also challenges the taboo around abuse survivors sharing their experiences in an open forum. Expectations around what are appropriate public topics of discussion have long impeded women’s ability to find support in cases of abuse and harassment. #MeToo, in this sense, challenges not only expectations for public spheres but also patriarchy as an institution: the notion that women can be abused/harassed and should not upset the status quo by complaining about it.
The concept of parrhesia finds complication in the present day, which is influenced by post-truth logics. The decreasing ability for factual evidence to persuade an audience leaves the tactic of truth-telling imperiled. Burgess analyzes this current day challenge in detail, and in reflecting on #MeToo, she explains that “If the problem is, as the body of literature advocating for deep, structural changes to systems of oppression evidences, that we must alter the norms that determine who might be believed, then it is ‘post-truth’ discourses that are at play in setting these norms” (355)*. While incidents of sexual violence have often been reduced to “he said/she said” scenarios (with “he said” often holding primacy), “post-truth” calls into question even those incidents with clear factual grounding. This quandary is made even worse, according to Burgess, by the #MeToo hashtag’s implied mandate that all #MeToo tweets should be believed without question. Along with the rise of #MeToo, the phrase “believe women” has gained traction in the public. Burgess worries that this kind of automatic belief helps fuel post-truth logics, precipitating a reliance on affective politics to legislate sexual harassment and assault (361)*. One of the two reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, Jodi Kantor, has commented publicly on the “believe women” catchphrase, explaining that she and her co-author Megan Twohey “do, in many ways, want to live and work in the spirit of that statement. But there’s a conflicting impetus in journalism, which is that everything needs to be scrutinized; everything needs to be checked. And we believe that really solid, well-documented reporting protects women…the best way to get people to believe women is to document those women’s stories really thoroughly” (Kantor)*. This kind of scrutiny need not derail the movement but rather counter post-truth impulses that can easily be marshalled against accusers. In his own time, Foucault was also concerned with “knowing how to recognize [parrhesiastes]” (170).* Recognizing a truth-teller means working to center women of color so that they can be more readily accepted in this role. It also means not shutting out others who may not agree with #MeToo politically (Burgess 363*), as doing so could facilitate a further slippage into post-truth logics. These tactics fly in the face of current norms, but they represent hopeful attempts at intervening in institutionalized oppression.
This challenge to institutional norms speaks to the kinds of interventions that Porter et al imagine in their institutional critique methodology. Returning to my other research question, the popular press coverage that I analyzed suggests that #MeToo is disrupting the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to thrive. The high numbers of women saying “me too” suggest a collective attempt at altering an institution that has limited their self-efficacy: the patriarchy. Through parrhesia, women are attempting to make this institution more visible, citing the ways that it bears upon their very bodies. Like all institutions, according to Porter et al, the patriarchy contains unstable boundaries that are dependent on silence and fear of retribution or not being believed; parrhesia represents one tactic by which women are seeking to further destabilize those boundaries. In order to eradicate this institution, it is not enough for women to simply “call a cab” when they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. Likewise, in the workplace (another thematic code that emerged in my data, though I do not have space here to address it), calling attention to all forms of unequal treatment is a crucial part of intervening in an institution that was not designed for women to be present. Decades after women entered the workforce en masse, we are still seeing signs (e.g., harassment, lower wages than men) that we are not completely welcome. The #MeToo movement’s best chance for effecting change is—despite the grousing of some self-proclaimed feminists—remaining focused on the collective and the institutions, whether that involves calling attention to how women are treated in the workplace or in the bedroom.
Consider a case where a woman is sexually harassed at work. Oftentimes, if she wants to stay in that job, she must endure being objectified and marginalized within the work environment–or she must risk the possibility of retribution and/or a loss of professional contacts by reporting the harassment. This kind of scenario maintains a hierarchy within the workplace, with women experiencing routine professional setbacks through no fault of their own. #MeToo, then, challenges this hierarchy, in the workplace and beyond. Echoing an institutional critique approach, Melanie Yergeau and John Duffy (2011) argue in Disability Studies Quarterly that “rhetoric functions as a powerfully shaping instrument for creating conceptions of identity and positioning individuals relative to established social and economic hierarchies. Yet this perspective on rhetoric is incomplete if it does not acknowledge the capacity of individuals to respond to and re-imagine such shaping rhetorics” (Yergeau and Duffy)*. Their conception of rhetoric emphasizes the agency of individual actors when it comes to reimagining hierarchical structures. Through this re-imagining of “shaping rhetorics,” women are envisioning #MeToo as a way to resist quid pro quo arrangements, threats against their reputations, physical violence, and implications of being lesser-than. #MeToo represents a tactic by which those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment have attempted to disrupt institutional structures, enacting the kind of agency that is endemic to rhetoric.
- Recent publications such as Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage have attested to the rhetorical value of women showing their anger in the public sphere.
- Because Google has become attuned to my search patterns over time, I acknowledge that the results that were generated are likely oriented toward what the search engine determines are my political and ideological leanings (Noble 2018). For example, a number of the articles that comprise my corpus are from the New York Times, a publication that I read regularly. Additionally, the Times broke the initial Weinstein story and has maintained a focus on the issue through regular opinion pieces, profiles, and news items.
- Ansari never disputed the story publicly and issued a statement in which he said that while he believed that his encounter with Grace was consensual, “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said. I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
- Some commentators have speculated that race may have played a role in how/why Ansari, who is Indian, was treated in the media subsequent to the encounter described in Babe. Others have critiqued the Babe story for sloppy reporting, particularly pertaining to the timeline/sequence of events in Ansari’s apartment.
Appendix: Codes for Popular Media Articles
- Impact of #MeToo
- Reticence to report abuse
- Reporting on #MeToo
- Preserving a record of #MeToo
- Pop culture coverage
- NYU case
- Harvey Weinstein
- Media men
- #MeToo has lost its way
- Blue collar workplaces
- Burgess, Sarah K. “Between the Desire for Law and the Law of Desire: #MeToo and the Cost of Telling the Truth Today.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. vol. 51, no. 4, 2018, pp. 342-367.
- Burke, Tarana and Elizabeth Adetiba. “Tarana Burke Says #MeToo Should Center Marginalized Communities.” Where Freedom Starts: Sex, Power, Violence, #MeToo: A Verso Report, Verso, 2018, pp. 14-17.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage. New York: Picador, 2018.
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8.
- DeArmas, Nicholas. Using Hashtags to Disambiguate Aboutness in Social Media Discourse: A Case Study of #OrlandoStrong. 2018. University of Central Florida. PhD dissertation.
- Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2014.
- Donegan, Moira. “How #MeToo Revealed the Central Rift within Feminism Today.” The Guardian, 11 May 2018. Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.
- Eversley, Shelly. Equality Archive. 2015.
- Faris, Michael. “Sex-Education Comics: Feminist and Queer Approaches to Alternative Sex Education.” The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics. Special Issue: Comics and/as Rhetoric, vol. 3, no. 1., 2019, pp. 86-115. Accessed 4 Jan. 2020.
- Fischer, Frank. Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
- Flanagan, Caitlin. “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari.” The Atlantic. 14 Jan. 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
- Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. Pearson, Joseph, ed. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001.
- France, Lisa Respers. “‘Surviving R. Kelly’ is Resonating More Because of #MeToo.” CNN. 17 Jan. 2019. Accessed 4 Aug 2019.
- Greenberg, Zoe. “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is the Accused?” The New York Times. 13 Aug. 2018. Accessed 13 Aug. 2018.
- Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke, 2011.
- “Herstory.” Black Lives Matter. Accessed 10 June 2019.
- Kantor, Jodi and Megan Twohey. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. New York: Penguin, 2019.
- —. Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air, 10 Sept. 2019. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
- Kornhaber, Spencer. “Cruising in the Age of Consent.” The Atlantic. July 2019. Accessed 2 Aug. 2019.
- Larson, Kyle. “Remonstrative Agitation as Feminist Counterpublic Rhetoric.” Peitho, vol. 20, no. 2, 2018, pp. 261-298. Accessed 4 Aug. 2019.
- Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984.
- MacKinnon, Catharine A. Sexual Harassment of Working Women. New Haven: Yale, 1979.
- Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York UP, 2018.
- Nwanevu, Osita. “There is No Rampaging #MeToo Mob.” Slate. 16 Jan 2018. Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
- Penney, Joel and Caroline Dadas. “(Re) Tweeting in the service of protest: Digital composition and circulation in the Occupy Wall Street movement.” New Media & Society, vol. 16, no. 1, 2014, pp. 74-90.
- Porter, James E., et al. “Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 610-642.
- Powell, Neesha. “Here’s How We Can Center Queer & Trans Survivors in the #MeToo Movement.” Everyday Feminism. 29 Nov. 2017. Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.
- Simmons, W. Michele. Participation and Power: Civic Discourse in Environmental Policy Decisions. Albany: State University of New York P, 2007.
- Sullivan, Patricia and James E. Porter. Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1997.
- Talusan, Meredith. “How #MeToo Stands to Marginalize Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People.” Them. 27 Oct. 2017. Accessed 21 May 2019.
- Time. “’Our Pain Is Never Prioritized.’ #MeToo Founder Tarana Burke Says We Must Listen to ‘Untold’ Stories of Minority Women.” Accessed 15 Nov. 2019.
- Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.
- Vie, Stephanie and Douglas Walls. “Overview.” Because Facebook: Digital Rhetoric/Social Media, special issue of Kairos, vol. 19, no. 9, 2015. Accessed 10 Jan 2016.
- —. Social Writing / Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2017.
- Way, Katie. “I went on a Date with Aziz Ansari. It Turned into the Worst Night of my Life.” Babe. 13 Jan. 2018. Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.Weiss, Bari. “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” The New York Times. 15 Jan. 2018. Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.
- Yergeau, Melanie and John Duffy. “Guest Editors’ Introduction.” Disability and Rhetoric, special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2011, n.p.