Is the #MeToo campaign empowering women to report sex crimes or unfairly putting all men in the dock?
A few months ago Harvey Weinstein was a feared power-broker in Hollywood, but now all has changed utterly as women across the globe speak out about sexual harrassment, writes Sarah Caden.
Early this month, on the weekend of the Golden Globe awards, a rumour started online that Harvey Weinstein had been spotted in Los Angeles. The internet went wild. One of his key accusers of sexual assault, actress Rosanna Arquette, tweeted “It is Very strange, that Harvey Weinstein is at the very same hotel in Beverly Hills that the golden globe press is being done at. I smell a Rat [sic].”
Actress Ellen Barkin also tweeted on the rumoured sighting: “Is serial rapist harvey weinstein in los angeles? on the wknd of the Golden Globes. Why? WHy? WHY? [sic]”
The fact that Barkin felt confident calling Weinstein a rapist was telling of where we’re at in this ground-shifting, status-resetting time. And it was no accident, she made clear, by following up with: “I forgot to say ‘alleged’... because i know better [sic].”
It is now less than four months since the allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein first broke. Though his star was somewhat on the wane in recent years, Weinstein remained a huge name in Hollywood. Through their production companies Miramax and then The Weinstein Company, brothers Harvey and Bob made some of the biggest films in recent decades.
However now, Harvey Weinstein’s name is better known than ever before but for all the wrong reasons. Harvey Weinstein is now synonymous with abuse, misuse of power, oppression of women, the malign behaviour of men in general.
There is now such a thing as a “Weinstein moment”, that tipping point when no more can be silently taken and a furious response to injustice erupts. Now, with hindsight, you might say it had to happen some time. Though you might not say that if you were Dylan Farrow, who spoke out for years about alleged abuse by her father, Woody Allen. She made her claims, no one seemed to believe her — or at least no one stopped working with Woody — but post-Weinstein, they’re apologising and boycotting.
The scales have tipped, the winds have changed, the powerbrokers have been stripped of their power. Men are being held accountable for their actions, and women, it is being said, are in the ascendant.
However, some might say that for ‘being held accountable’, we should read ‘being accused and found guilty without trial or proof’. And to this, then, others would paraphrase Oprah and say “tough luck, time’s up”.
The #MeToo movement, not to mention the #yesallmen movement, have proved a phenomenal force for female empowerment, but that’s not to say they haven’t been divisive, too. Not only on gender lines, but within the ranks of men and women, too.
On October 5 last, The New York Times published a story that alleged sexual harassment perpetrated for decades by Harvey Weinstein. It reported a pattern of behaviour that involved asking for massages, being naked in front of women, offering career advancement in exchange for sexual favours. Actresses Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd came forward as women who had suffered thus at Weinstein’s hands.
He immediately made an apology for having “caused a lot of pain”, while also rejecting the allegations. He then took leave of absence from The Weinstein Company and left Los Angeles to go into treatment.
The manner in which Rose McGowan handled the revelation of her alleged rape by Weinstein was telling for the future for what became the #MeToo movement. First, she conducted it mostly online, and second, she took no prisoners when it came to calling people out on their history of complicity and silence.
It became clear that while Rose McGowan had tried to expose Weinstein’s alleged behaviour before, the world was either unwilling or unable to listen. Or that the means available to a victim to accuse an abuser meant that the odds were always stacked against them. The internet and social media wasn’t concerned with burden of proof, however. Online, McGowan could get it all out there. And she did. And it was powerful.
“I told the head of [the] studio that HW raped me. Over & over I said it. He said it hadn’t been proven. I said I was the proof,” she tweeted. It was reported that in the 1990s, when the rape is alleged to have occurred, that McGowan was paid £75,000 (€86,000) to keep quiet.
“Ladies of Hollywood your silence is deafening,” she tweeted.
Well, not for long. Women of the world weren’t silent for much longer.
After McGowan and Judd — who said Weinstein blackballed her in Hollywood when she stood up to him — there came a wave of support from other actresses, as well as more allegations.
And then came #MeToo.
It was actress Alyssa Milano who set the ball rolling, though it should be said that Me Too was a campaign already started in the US in 2006, with the aim of uniting victims of sexual abuse in underprivileged areas. It was a way of making people feel less alone and to feel some strength in numbers.
A week after the Weinstein revelations first broke, Milano, who had starred in the show Charmed with Rose McGowan, 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.”
It went viral very, very fast, across all social media platforms, and while famous cases continued to get coverage, the true significance was the real women, with real stories of everything from rape to other sexual assaults to sexual favours being elicited or suggested in the workplace as a means of advancement, to uninvited and unwelcome touching, commenting, chastising of a sexual nature.
It seemed that few women in any corner of the world were unaffected by an attitude on the part of men that they could behave in sexually intimidating and aggressive ways without much fear of reproach or repercussions.
Workplace scenarios arose over and over. Women who thought that being good at your job was qualification enough to advance, only to discover that playing ball with men’s sexual entitlement was also part of the picture. And it was women of all ages, in all walks of life. Every woman, it seemed, had some #MeToo moment and not just one, either.
What #MeToo highlighted, then, was the extent to which women had silently accepted that part of being a woman was to be treated thus. Women hadn’t been entirely silent, of course, they had always discussed this among themselves. But #MeToo took it out in the open and shattered what was suddenly seen as a complicity of silence.
Also, women hadn’t always been silent in terms of reporting rape and abuse, but worldwide, they reported that the victim wasn’t supported by the legal system as it exists. There were too many women who regretted reporting abuse, whose lives were ruined by speaking up and not being believed. By shouting out on #MeToo, however, the voices shouted back, “We believe you”.
Social media came in to its own with #MeToo. The speed with which a movement could gain momentum online was extraordinary and the power it gave to voices that had felt silenced was unprecedented. And make no mistake, while Hollywood remained a big-noise element, it was ordinary women with very ordinary, workaday stories of abuse who made up the true force of #MeToo.
Still, the Hollywood angle continued to create headlines. When actor Matt Damon suggested in an interview that there was a “spectrum” of sexual abuse, he felt the wrath of the internet and of his peers. “We’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation,” Damon said.
Damon’s comments saw him called out on two counts. Alyssa Milano, for one, pointed out to him that the “micro makes the macro” when it comes to sexually oppressive behaviour.
There is no transgression that is okay, and every act of oppressive intent or effect adds to the general attitude that it’s fine for men to behave this way towards women.
Further, Damon’s comments pointed to a growing concern, principally but not exclusively among men, that the accusations of #MeToo could ruin men’s careers and lives, sometimes undeservedly. To that concern, many had an attitude of ‘tough luck, it’s your turn now. Shut up and take your medicine’. #boohoo.
To date, the likes of Michael Douglas, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, James Franco, Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Piven and Richard Dreyfuss are among those accused of, at the very least, inappropriate and unacceptable sexual behaviour towards women. Not all have rejected the allegations.
Latterly, comedian Aziz Ansari was accused online of sexually harassment by a woman who went on a date with him. Some said that this was just a bad date, others said that instead it speaks of the ingrained, even unconscious sexual entitlement of men, particularly as Ansari would have considered himself a feminist. All men, the argument goes, have to look at themselves and realise they have it all wrong — and they need to change.
Now, four months on from the birth of #MeToo, the movement is viewed as effecting a cultural sea change. Women aren’t going to silently accept certain behaviour any more and it is being demanded of men that they drop their perceived entitlement to behave in ways that have always been unacceptable to women, but which they got away with, because they could.
The workplace is feeling the effect. Much of the #MeToo calling out has concerned the experience of women that the only way to get on is to shut up and take the comments, the groping, the sexual harassment.
Men have, of course, taken issue with #MeToo, though theirs is not really a voice to which anyone is keen to listen right now. We have listened long enough in silence, would be the general feeling on that score, but there have also been women involved in inevitable backlash against #MeToo.
In France, actress Catherine Deneuve was among the 100 women who signed a statement that characterised #MeToo as a symptom of Anglo-American “puritanism” and defended men’s right to their behaviour in the name of “sexual freedom”. Later, after a huge backlash, Deneuve apologised to all victims of sexual crime. Her intention had not been to support those whose attitudes were “worse than spitting in the face of those who have suffered this crime”, she said.
Germaine Greer also caused controversy when she suggested, last week that if actresses slept with Weinstein because he said ‘be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then that was tantamount to consent.
Greer conceded that Weinstein’s economic power made it difficult to speak out, however, and also exhorted women who are harassed, groped or assaulted to speak out straight away, loudly, in the moment it happens. Well, yes, you might say, but was anyone listening until that speaking out became an online juggernaut?
Handmaid’s Tale author and long-standing feminist Margaret Atwood lately found herself in the firing line from feminists for signing a letter in defence of a US college lecturer accused of sexual assault and fired from his job not only before he was found guilty, but before he knew what the charges were against him. She compared the current climate to the Salem witch hunts, on the basis that we are now operating on the basis of “guilty because accused”, as opposed to “innocent until proven guilty”. She spoke of the danger of this and was, arguably, characterised as a traitor to feminism.
And how it will all shake out, long-term, is yet to be seen. Only days after the circulation of the rumour that Weinstein was back in LA, came footage on online gossip site TMZ of just how far it had all come. It was mobile phone footage, taken in a restaurant in Arizona, where the disgraced producer is reported to have been having treatment since October.
In the clip, a man approaches Weinstein, as if to say hello. Then he repeatedly slaps Weinstein in the face and calls him a “piece of shit”. Weinstein looks shocked, but does not retaliate. The man with him, however, spends the time of the incident telling the holder of the phone/cameraman that he can’t film this. Not that it has any effect. As Weinstein and his companion walk away, the men are heard to agree that there’s nothing can be done to stop them — either with the filming or the slapping.
And it’s true. The power is gone from Weinstein.