Musings on #MeToo (in order of catharsis)
The past week has seen our social media feeds unbearably inundated with posts stating “me, too” — a call of solidarity to fellow survivors of sexual assault and harassment.
This movement was spearheaded in 2007 by Tanara Burke, a black feminist activist. It was subsequently popularized by and attributed to Alyssa Milano, a white Hollywood actress who “[felt] like the time was right for this to happen” and who feels “[really special that she] could be a vessel to create change.”
On October 15, 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.”
Meanwhile, I can’t shake my ambivalence about this cooption of Tanara Burke’s message.
1. Who are we helping?
The Tweet Heard Round the World has flooded social media with accounts of sexual harassment and assault. I’m exultant for every single person who has achieved some peace through publishing or reading these posts. I understand the risks of exposing oneself publicly — especially in cultures that might punish survivors of assault; and I have unbounded admiration for those who have posted about their experiences.
However, this widespread discussion has created an inescapable online battlefield for survivors of sexual assault who are currently struggling to navigate Facebook without encountering half a dozen post-traumatic linguistic landmines. The #MeToo movement aspires to advocate for survivors, but its intentionally jarring language ultimately impairs many individuals’ ongoing healing processes.
2. Social MEdia validation
Social media is engineered for the instantaneous, global sharing of our deepest human experiences. These posts are validated with Likes and Retweets and Double Taps, and I admittedly lapse into the discomfort of measuring my self-worth by the number of people who interact with my social media accounts. My social media presence is deeply self-indulgent. I crave the attention garnered from a perfectly charming-yet-relatable and deeply self-deprecating “candid” Instagram post.
My solipsistic relationship with Facebook is not unique — social media is designed to facilitate these attitudes. And the public has embraced this reality.
I’m inarticulately apprehensive to pursue social media capital by posting #MeToo, though. I’m realizing this discomfort is rooted in the dissonance of receiving external validation for an experience shared by literally every person who is not a cisgender heterosexual man in a patriarchal society.
Instances of sexual harassment and assault are significantly higher for Trans* individuals, people of color, individuals with disabilities, and particularly any intersections thereof (in comparison to able-bodied, cisgender white women like me).
As a result, I’m uninterested in Likes or “I’m so sorry” comments because my experiences with this topic do not make me special. I don’t want anyone to scroll by my name while drinking their morning coffee and offer me a pseudo-compassionate Sad Reacts because this issue is not about me. Don’t give me this attention.
Which brings me to…
3. Syntax and me
“Me” is an objective pronoun — some verb has been done to “me.” Grammatically, the reader is directed to focus on my experience. Which is fine, if this campaign were intended to promote solidarity amongst survivors of sexual harassment and assault.
But, Alyssa Milano promoted it as a means to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
The #MeToo byte fails in this regard.
Its syntactical structure forces survivors to bear the weight of their own trauma by allowing readers to focus on the author’s experience, rather than examining their own complicity. An amorphous, unidentified subject has inflicted unspeakable pain upon “me,” and the reader does not engage in any meaningful introspection regarding the perpetrator.
I’ve been talking with countless “sympathetic” men who are shocked that so many of their peers are survivors of sexual harassment and assault. They are appalled that all the women they know have shared this experience. They wonder what type of man would commit such atrocities against their friends.
These men don’t realize they are the problem.
These are the men who don’t intervene when their friends are engaging in “bullshit locker room talk.” These are the men for whom hearing “no” is insufficient; we must explain and justify our discomfort. These are the men who ask us for our phone numbers when we are running on the treadmill at the gym.
“Well, it’s pretty harmless,” they tell me, “I always leave them alone if it seems like they’re really not interested. But you know, it never hurts to try.”
And I’m scared this movement will create a resurgence of #NotAllMen advocates who recognize that #YesAllWomen. But they do not recognize their roles as the unnamed perpetrators (see: Roxanne Gay’s Op-Ed for the NYT).
At my college commencement, poet Sarah Kay urged our graduating class to “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable” — a phrase that has become a guiding tenet for me.
Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo feels antithetical to this notion. It unintentionally discomforts the disturbed by compelling survivors of sexual harassment and assault to share our experiences. In this way, it becomes our obligation to legitimize our own traumas.
And this campaign does not disturb the comfortable. It does not question the system of toxic masculinity that has permitted such a painful reality for us. It does not compel our male peers to reexamine the ways they have contributed to this universal experience.
So yes, #MeToo.
And also #YouToo, for all the men who have asked me, “Why not?” when I say I don’t want to dance with them.
#YouToo for my medical school classmate who advised me to “show a little cleavage” so I could persuade a faculty member to grade an exam leniently.
#YouToo for every man who has told me to calm down because “it was just a joke, you really don’t have to take everything so seriously.”
#YouToo for every person who has laughed at the notion of safe, or women’s-only, or queer-only, or POC-only spaces.
And #YouToo for every person who’s never contemplated your part in this system. Your privileged ignorance has permitted this toxic culture to thrive. So, internalize your newfound shock, and use it to hold yourself and your peers accountable.