It was easy to be hopeful in those early, heady weeks of what has now become known as the #MeToo movement. After the initial allegations against Harvey Weinstein, published in the New York Times, became public, there was speculation that nothing would change — few in Hollywood were willing to acknowledge their own awareness of abusive behavior, and many were slow to publicly rebuke him. But then, with the publication of Ronan Farrow’s piece in the New Yorker, which included on-the-record testimonies from multiple Hollywood stars, came the breaking of the dam. More stars, more stories, more damning evidence. Harvey Weinstein’s career appeared to be over. And then the movement began to spread, through Twitter and Facebook, where thousands of #MeToo posts underlined what can only be called a systemic epidemic — of harassment and abuse, but also of survivors who had, up to that point, internalized the notion that what happened to them was inconsequential. That abusers could act, and would continue to act, with impunity. #MeToo suggested that what happened to us, no matter where it fell on the spectrum of abuse, mattered — and was worth voicing.
When I talk to women about those early weeks and months, when every morning seemed to offer a new story, a new man implicated, they recall it as a sort of frenetic haze. #MeToo felt omnipresent and the momentum felt inexhaustible. While inklings of an impending backlash started surfacing, the message of believing women, and of consequences for the accused, remained steady. It didn’t matter if the abuse happened five months or 50 years ago — men would be forced to reckon with their actions. What that reckoning looked like differed from case to case, but the movement felt like it was fundamentally shifting the dynamics of power. People joke that every man should now behave as if Ronan Farrow will someday write a story about you, but the message behind that joke is incredibly powerful. For years, the sort of emotional and sexual abuse unearthed by #MeToo was normalized, excused, or ignored. For what feels like the first time, these actions now have consequences.
It’s been nearly a year since the Weinstein revelations went public, and the forecasted backlash has arrived, although not in quite the form one might have expected. Accused — and admitted — abusers have attempted to reclaim or otherwise whitewash narratives about themselves, with the blessing of male editors who find abusers’ perspectives “worth hearing.” It took two Farrow stories, and allegations from 12 women, to force out CBS head Les Moonves. Male costars are still bad at allyship. An Italian director wore a “Harvey Weinstein is Innocent” shirt on the red carpet at Cannes. Bryan Singer is somehow still “in talks” for upcoming productions. New York magazine devoted a cover story to Soon-Yi Previn’s defense of Woody Allen in an interview with Daphne Merkin, a longtime friend of Allen’s, who has previously dismissed the #MeToo movement as “a series of ad hoc and sometimes unproven accusations.” And Christine Blasey Ford’s account of being assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which he denies, was immediately met with attempts to discredit her.
The wave of #MeToo allegations, and the varying rigor with which they have been reported, have prompted conversations about the line, often difficult to discern, between date rape and bad sex, between emotional abuse and megalomania. But for the women I know, these conversations do not negate or even contradict the larger movement: They’re difficult, they’re stressful, but they ultimately strengthen the movement instead of diminishing it. These are conversations that in the past simply did not happen — especially not in public. While the conversations we’re having now can be inconclusive — we’re still not sure what to do with these men, definitively — they still make us think more about our behaviors and previously accepted power dynamics, not less.
The same can be said for how we expect an abuser to look, sound, and behave. It would of course be easier to have a black-and-white spectrum of abuse, as well as a clear pathway for what’s supposed to happen to those accused of abuse — but that’s a fantasy. The allegations against Weinstein were horrific enough to seemingly convince even the most skeptical, but they also set up a paradigm in which some people would only acknowledge abuse as extensive and exploitative as his: Either you’re a monster, or you’re a saint, and there’s nothing in between. In real life, the vast majority of abuse takes place in the gray areas, often inflicted by people who can be loving, warm, and compassionate in other parts of their lives. A person can be nonabusive to dozens, hundreds, thousands of people, and still abuse someone.
But to arrive at that conclusion, we, as a society, have to keep talking about all the different, nuanced, difficult-to-process examples of abuse — and acknowledge that one person’s experience of a man, or even 65 people’s experience of a man, does not obviate another’s. One daughter’s experience of a family does not erase her sister’s or brother’s. Those conversations are unsettling, but that’s what a conversation about abuse should be. It should rattle you. If the person who’s experienced the abuse has had to live with the consequences, we can live with the relatively small discomfiture of these conversations.
This work is exhausting. Thinking about it all the time is exhausting. Fighting back every time another abuser is given the space — in the comedy club, on the pages of some of our most venerated magazines — to explain their actions and exonerate themselves, that’s exhausting. Being a survivor repeatedly reminded of others’ inability to get it, that’s exhausting. Feeling like history is repeating itself, that’s extremely exhausting.
Necessary work is often like this: tedious and repetitive. It can feel futile and aimless, especially in the face of repeated evidence that men in power, despite so many careful attempts to explain the dynamics at work, just do not get it. It’s sometimes hard to remember that there are millions who do get it. Men, women, teens, grandparents, moms, dads, bosses, employees — we are doing the hard work of changing our societal minds. But we need continued assistance. We need explainers on how insidiously, and effectively, the accused have been able to reframe themselves as the “real victims.” We need people to break down exactly what’s wrong with offering Jian Ghomeshi a cover story to explain himself, or with Louis C.K.’s rape whistle joke, or with granting an alleged abuser judicial power over women’s bodies. We need to keep explaining until those explanations have been internalized and understood.
Sometimes, doing that work makes me feel like a broken record: a shrill, harping, man-hating, bitching broken record. But I don’t hate men — and neither do the other people I know who are doing this work. I hate abuse, and the patriarchal, misogynistic dynamics that allow it to continue. The voice whispering “Don’t be such a bitch” in my head? That’s the remnants of decades of messages telling me that a woman who spoke up, who refused to shut up, who rendered herself unruly — she would be shunned. She would become unfuckable, unemployable, unlikable. And while there’s an argument that the only way for feminists to win over the most skeptical is to make ourselves, and our messages, as attractive as possible, we must refuse to heed it.
No movement accomplishes its goals in a year. #MeToo was not even, in truth, the start of a movement, but the culmination of decades of advocacy — and the start of a new chapter. I always tell people that the history of feminism is two steps forward, one step back: that any crack at the dominance of patriarchy will result in an attempt to mend that fissure, to build it back even stronger than before. Backlash is the best indication that progress has been made. Our task, then, is not to capitulate in the face of the current pushback — or allow this Anita Hill moment to give way to a decade of postfeminist backlash, as happened in the 1990s. As Rebecca Traister notes, even amid that backlash, women ran for office, refused to settle down, and helped render sexual harassment an actionable form of gender discrimination. “The seeds sown during the Hill hearings have come into full flower in the past two years,” she writes.
As much as our current moment can feel like one of regression, it’s just one hard step in a very long and arduous journey forward: an indication that change is hard, but change is happening, and will only continue to happen if we shepherd it along.
When asked why she hesitated to come forward with allegations of abuse against Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford’s answer echoes the sentiment of so many: “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” As of today, the Senate Judiciary Committee has announced plans for a public hearing at which Ford and Kavanaugh will testify. And no matter what happens in that hearing, Ford speaking about her experience, in the face of that annihilation, will matter. This exhausting fight matters. The refusal to stop talking about abuse, and the power differential it sustains — it matters.
In moments like this, it might feel like the goals #MeToo seemed poised to accomplish have been compromised. We’re still figuring out what do to with, or about, those accused — what rehabilitation could look like, what happens if we simply expect these men to disappear. But what we’re learning, men and women alike, is how to better center women’s experiences as we continue to have these conversations. That doesn’t feel like failure. It feels like the uncomfortable, contested, yet quietly hopeful hallmarks of change. ●