For a while it seemed that Harvey Weinstein might have found a way out. He had checked in to rehab, resigned from the company he co-founded, and in a somewhat unusual turn of events, been dismissed from the Academy. He seemed to have poured a lot of time and energy in to spinning a (sycophantic) redemption narrative. He asked for forgiveness. He blamed his age. He underlined his desire to seek help. He even brought his Mum into proceedings.
He may have been granted the possibility to fade in to the shadows of obscurity (after all, what’s one more abusive, predatory misogynist in Hollywood?) had it not been for the work of one of his most vocal critics, Alyssa Milano. Last Monday night she launched the hashtag #MeToo, encouraging all women who had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply to her tweet.
Hash tag activism like Milano’s has been widely discussed, and not always favourably. Everyone can share a status, or click re-tweet, but what impact does this really have outside the confines of the virtual world? As Ceila Buckman rightly points out, a hashtag can too often be used to fill a “good person” quote, that prevents us from finding out what the next steps could be outside of the social media bubble.
The primary criticism of hashtag activism lies in its inherently fad-like nature, which can result in a failure to incite long-term engagement. Although viral campaigns are undoubtedly characterised by their short-term duration, it is certainly unwise to dismiss their ability to incite long-term change. Last year, at FCome we saw the incredible results of our #ascuoladiconsenso and #educationcanednabuse campaign, which was picked up by mainstream media in both Italy and the UK. I integrate hashtags into my own social media strategy for the think-tank consultancy GenPol on a weekly basis. As advocates and researchers of gender equality we have a professional interest in staying closely attuned to the ripples of movement across social media platforms. They are part of what Rebecca Solnit describes as the ability “to see that everything changes and the most dramatic changes are often the most unforeseen.”
Something about #MeToo tapped into Solnit’s vision of the unforeseen. It was ubiquitous. It was universal. To paraphrase a friend “it’s literally just all of us”: Former school mates, university colleagues, teachers, family members, acquaintances from parties, even my ultimate girl crush Blake Lively. As #MeToo continues to saturate screens from seemingly every walk of life, it is also a poignant reminder of everything that still remains unsaid, or invisible. For every woman, man, or non-man who shared a #MeToo story there were many who could not. Gut instincts and personal circumstances are complicated and contradictory. They do not always slot neatly into social media trends.
#MeToo inspires the sort of conflicting emotions that linger long after the click of a mouse. It stirs up memories. The first time you took a crowded bus by yourself to sixth form aged 16, and felt someone press themselves into your back. That feeling of disgust, like a visceral churning wave in the pit of your stomach, as your eyes met those of a man who could have been your grandfather. The men whose eyes have followed you over the years; down streets, across dance floors, along beaches. The hands which have slipped around your waist, without your consent. Then there are the experiences whose palpable traces defy containment in language. Darkness and fear. They are sensations that cannot be explained. Only felt. Me too, me too.
It is for these reasons, and more, that this hashtag can go beyond a slacktivist fad. It is more than just a shared status: not so much a ripple of change but a seismic shift. There is a crack in the fault line. The #MeToo will continue to pour like rain on to charred ground that has been left untended, but has not lost its life-giving potential.
#MeToo is a crucial reminder that multiple conversations need to be had. A hashtag cannot replace the difficult discussions that must take place in homes, schools and communities. It should not seek to diminish the very real problems facing men, or the trans and non-binary people who have been too easily excluded from this debate. It can, and must, encourage further discussion (particularly about existing mental health provisions for men, the need for better support for male domestic violence survivors, and healthy alternatives to ease the unbearable, untenable weight of toxic masculinity). But #MeToo is also an active challenge for all of us (but particularly men) to listen, and to change.
As #MeToo has started to be offset with #HowIwillchange, it is becoming clear that this can be so much more than a hashtag fad if we want it to. We can take steps. We can be allies. We can make space for queer women, trans women/non-men, disabled women and women of colour. We can challenge insidiously sexist, transphobic, homophobic or biphobic remarks when we hear them. We can pay women for their work (see Sophie Mayer’s excellent manifesto for further tips). We can resolve to believe survivors unquestioningly, unequivocally. Always.
The seismic shift of the #MeToo campaign is one from which we all stand to benefit. If history has been on the side of the Harvey Weinsteins of the world then the future is in the hands of those he thought he could consign to silence. The silence has started to lift. The shame is melting like snow on rapidly thawing ground.
#MeToo is painful, yes, but it is so much more. It is a reminder that tides are shifting, that activism in the virtual world is demanding a move beyond an easy click or a simple re-tweet. It is a call to action, both online and off.
It is our turn to hope, and to act.
Us now. #UsToo.