This keyword essay explores the political value and the limitations of the #MeToo movement. While the debates around #MeToo have largely centered on the politics of law and language, this essay suggests that buried in these debates lies a more fundamental set of questions about the apprehension of political agency in the present neoliberal moment. Along the way, the essay works to disentangle two interrelated yet distinct dimensions of #MeToo: first, as an intervention in corporate and institutional cultures where women are systematically susceptible to abuse; second, as a dystopian commentary on the psychic life of gender today.
The past year saw the advent of a social media–based phenomenon, #MeToo, that has galvanized feminists across the political spectrum through the shared, serial revelation of sexual abuse and harassment in (and beyond) the workplace. Apart from the visceral satisfaction of seeing laid bare a culture of workplace inequity remarkable precisely for being unremarkable, because disturbingly ubiquitous and banal, #MeToo has also afforded the unusual and compelling spectacle of feminist sentiment across divisions of race, ethnicity, and class. In laying waste, seemingly overnight, to the authority of a postfeminist discourse that has saturated the public sphere for the past quarter century, #MeToo undoubtedly (re)opens promising vistas for feminist mobilization on the Left. At the same time, this keyword essay will argue that the routine characterization of #MeToo as a “movement” misrecognizes both its value and its limitations. The debates around #MeToo have largely centered on the politics of law and language. Commentators have noted the bagginess of “sexual abuse” as a category that runs together violence and intimidation with various kinds of misconduct. They have pressed the always vexing question of what constitutes consent or worried about due process, seemingly suspended in the public outing of offenders. Others have noted the perils of a feminism aligned with the carceral state insofar as it envisions criminal prosecution of offenders as a primary mode of redress.1 I aim to suggest that buried in these debates lies a more fundamental set of questions about the nature of activism and the contours of political practice in the present moment.
In particular, I hope to disentangle two dimensions of #MeToo that are certainly not unrelated, but are also, and importantly, not the same: The first concerns #MeToo as an intervention in corporate and institutional cultures where women are made systemically susceptible to sexual harassment (and worse) by men in positions of power. The second concerns #MeToo as a diagnostic of what I will call, for lack of a better phrase, the state of heterosexual culture in the u.s. today—by which I mean, more precisely, the gender politics of heterosexual relations and their attendant imaginaries.2 Along the way, I will suggest that the folding together of these two dimensions—the apprehension of institutional power through and, indeed, as a series of interpersonal encounters—reveals a sense of and orientation to political action that is at once powerfully performative and dangerously limited. This limitation of #MeToo illuminates a central challenge for the cultivation of feminist imaginaries in neoliberal times.
By now, the doubled origin of #MeToo has been widely acknowledged and discussed. Responding to the revelations of serial abuse and rape by producer Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood actor Alyssa Milano created the hashtag, tweeting “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.” In so doing, Milano unwittingly appropriated a formulation coined over a decade earlier by Tarana Burke, an African American community organizer working to develop services and support networks for black and brown victims of sexual abuse, especially young girls. The origin of Burke’s “Me, too,” as told in her own words on the website of the organization she founded and directs, Just Be, Inc., was her encounter with a thirteen-year-old girl, who confided in her about having been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend (Burke). Interestingly—and contrary to some of the recent reporting—the origin of “Me, too” lay in Burke’s inability to offer these words of understanding and solidarity to the girl, whom she instead cut off and referred to another female counselor.3 Thus the (first) origin of “me, too,” rested not in a ready identification, but in Burke’s pain and distress at her own inability to perform one. Burke went on to place the “power of empathy” as the linchpin of her “Me, too” campaign, but it bears emphasis that this is an empathy in a particular context and with a particular kind of socially abjected subject: poor girls of color for whom the trauma of sexual abuse is embedded in a broader experience of social devaluation. When Burke argues for the “power of empathy,” it is not a universal empathy, but a communally specific one—and it is, above all, an empathy that exacts a psychic cost.
Following the revelation that Milano’s coinage amounted to an unintended appropriation, Milano and other high-profile Hollywood figures moved, to their credit, not only to acknowledge Burke’s work but also to perform a public alliance with activists working on issues of gender, race, labor, and immigration. Thus, for instance, at the 75th Golden Globe Awards, organizers Burke, Rosa Clemente (hip-hop activist and 2008 Green Party vice presidential candidate), Ai-jen Poo (head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance), and Saru Jayaraman (Restaurant Opportunities Center United president) attended as the invited guests of various celebrities, including Michelle Williams, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, and Meryl Streep. This careful attempt by the (largely white) cohort of media stars to honor the work of women of color organizing for women’s rights in low-wage employment sectors such as the food industry, farm labor, and domestic work speaks to the now widespread feminist literacy in intersectional politics. What I would describe as the guardedly receptive response of these organizers to their interpellation within the hashtag version of Me, too, tends to signal an acknowledgment of the value of networks and exposure. Yet the apparent convergence of political projects, protesting the sexual harassment of female elites in media industries and of female subalterns in low-wage sectors, belies their fundamental asymmetry. The difference resides not only in the relative privilege and access to publicity of these two cohorts but in what that entails for the form of their mobilization. The community organizers are, precisely, organizers. In the sectors where they operate, giving girls or women a voice means countering the radically atomizing effects of precarity: It means carefully building contexts for people to assemble and to define their aspirations. It means canvassing, tabling, phone banking, and running meetings, over months and years. It means developing networks and a capacity for collaborative action in real time and real spaces. While the theme of women’s vulnerability to male harassment and abuse is common to #MeToo and the projects of the organizers invited to the Golden Globe event, there is a world of difference between the labor of organizing people on the ground and the act of tweeting out to one’s followers an offender’s name. Ironically, the very presence of these organizers in the #MeToo mediascape throws into relief the contrasting character of #MeToo as a form of political mobilization that no longer operates in the field—within any specific industrial sector, institutional terrain, or communal framework.
My point here is not the obvious one—that #MeToo is social media based—but rather that its politics are exclusively realized in the production of publicity: #MeToo is an open platform for the public revelation of unchecked male privilege and abuses. It is less the means to an end (an incitement for women to organize—to assemble a “movement”) than the realization of an end: an autonomous (extra-institutional) framework to effect the social elaboration of new, equitable norms of male conduct. The political fantasy in which it traffics is that women could, collectively (as a multiracial, multi-ethnic, economically diverse class summoned into virtual being on Twitter) delegitimate and dismantle this privilege through the serial exposure on a mass scale of the men who (ab)use it. And indeed, aside from an always intransigent Republican party, industries and corporations and institutions seem to be validating the fantasy, responding to these revelations with the removal from power or from office of the offending males. As the ranks of the exposed swell and the social capital of the violators plummets, they put all men on warning that the risks of harassing or abusing women henceforth outweigh the benefits. Social media, it seems, have liberated us from the long, slow labor of activism in the field: of organizing people in a workplace or a sector or a community to understand their conditions, claim their agency, and make effective demands on those in power—precisely the kind of labor to which organizers like Burke, Clemente, Poo, and Jayaraman have committed themselves.
In this sense, I would argue that #MeToo bears some resemblance to (and certainly, emerges out of the same political matrix as) Occupy Wall Street (ows), despite the fact that the former is a virtual mobilization while the latter involves the occupation of real spaces in real time. Both projects bypass conventional modes of political engagement, replacing demands on established power with a practice of autonomous world building. On this model, we summon the world we desire by opting to live in it now, whether that means planting a socialist polity in the heart of New York’s financial district or performing a new norm of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and abuse and imposing it on men everywhere. Inasmuch as it restores a utopian dimension to political thought and practice, this is a valuable and compelling and perhaps a necessary model. But unlike the socialist prospect enacted by ows, the feminist prospect enacted by #MeToo is, I suspect, all too commensurate with the status quo. The fundamental limitation of the ows movement was its ephemerality—even if one might argue that it created the context for the Sanders campaign, along with a wave of Far Left candidates running for public office at the state and local levels. But the limitation of #MeToo lies in its alignment with a corporate-managerial culture focused on best practices, risk assessment, and individual accountability. If the private and (to some extent) public sectors have proven generally responsive to #MeToo’s collective female complaint, this is not because they have been brought to heel by the power of feminist publicity, but because the very form of the complaint is calibrated to the aim of an ever more thorough and efficient management of human capital.
The very design of #MeToo, in other words, identifies the root of the problem it exposes as a structure of male privilege, expressed in the psychic organization and behavior of male subjects. It has shown little interest in how that privilege is instituted and reproduced—since the gambit is precisely that by proscribing the expression, one transforms the structures. This is the reason that #MeToo tends to make no distinction between abuses of institutionalized power (e.g., harassment by someone who controls your employment) and the exercise of what is perceived as a generalized male supremacy (controlling or disparaging behavior by any man toward any woman)—the difference, say, between Harvey Weinstein and Aziz Ansari. But that disinterest is perilous for the altogether simple reason that power expressed at the level of the subject is not constituted there. Thus, for example, in an industry where women are systematically relegated to lower-value positions or underpaid for the same labor by comparison to their male peers (which, of course, describes most industries and sectors), it seems clear that the reform of male personality will not change women’s vulnerability to harassment, sexual or other. Its expression might require more careful management, to be sure, yet male privilege will remain perfectly alive and well. Obviously, the reverse is also true—and the creation of equitable working conditions for women does not by itself produce gender equity, without specific, concerted attention to matters of sexual culture that articulate the workplace to its broader social contexts. My point, then, is simply this: #MeToo defines as the problem a pattern of male behavior that appears to reproduce itself indifferently across varied social sites and contexts. But the fact that male supremacy is ubiquitous does not mean that it is monolithic. To be sure, male supremacy operates in the corporate boardroom, on the studio casting couch, on the warehouse floor, in immigrant-staffed nursing homes, and in the bedrooms of couples everywhere—but it is not, therefore, the same male supremacy. Male supremacy cannot be redressed absent confrontation with the specific institutions and organizational structures where it is reproduced. I read something akin to this analysis in Burke’s tweet of February 21, 2018. “Founder is acknowledgment,” she writes. “But watch carefully who are called ‘leaders’ of the movement. It’s as if 25+ years of on the ground movement building is not enough or maybe spending most of that time invested in the lives of Black and brown Girls isn’t enough” (my emphasis).
#MeToo represents a form of media-based activism that brackets the laborious, bottom-up work of organizing: analyzing institutional power; disseminating the analysis; forging alliances; and carefully building the conditions for the realization of political agency within defined institutional, organizational, and civic arenas. The achievement of #MeToo has been to interrupt and reverse the reign of a postfeminist common sense by enjoining a mass identification with a feminist complaint. This is no mean achievement. And yet, at the level of workplace culture, what #MeToo seems most likely to yield is not gender equity, but elaborated structures of surveillance and metrics of employee accountability that can serve any number of managerial aims. Here, one might recall the career of “safe spaces” on college campuses nationwide. Demanded by women and students of color as a means to make possible the discussion of sensitive political topics (creating safety for the institutionally marginalized to speak), the “safe space” has been embraced as an administrative value and is now routinely used to shut down debate (e.g., discussions of racism are disallowed when white students profess to feel unsafe). This is the common fate of the political demand transmuted into an institutional code of conduct. By addressing the problem of male privilege at the level of the subject, #MeToo may be dislodging a few power players and shaking up a few corporate hierarchies, but it is ultimately gifting managers with a version of feminism that remains absolutely compatible with the subordination of the workforce to continuous and proliferating forms of assessment.
As a project of institutional transformation, then, it is hard to conceive that #MeToo will fundamentally redress either cultures of gender inequity or of managerial impunity. And yet, it is precisely by centering intersubjective relations as the ground zero for the exercise of male power that #MeToo provokes this mass feminist witnessing. Simply to dismiss its subject-centered view of power is to overlook what #MeToo stands to offer, namely, a rather startling report from the field of the heterosexual imaginary. Much of the published debate on this dimension of #MeToo has moved between supporters affirming the damaging consequences of men’s ongoing claim to property in women’s bodies, and critics who observe how so many of the #MeToo narratives appear to erase women’s sexual agency altogether, particularly by suggesting that men can be culpable for their pursuit of consensual relations. As Masha Gessen observes, “In the current American conversation, women are increasingly treated as children: defenseless, incapable of consent, always on the verge of being victimized. This should give us pause. Being infantilized has never worked out well for women.” This should, indeed, give us pause, but perhaps the more telling point is that this narrative—which for Gessen so clearly decodes as ideological—feels to so many of #MeToo’s supporters as just the reverse: as at last a confrontation with their real conditions of existence.
This perspective, which I half intuited from the published debates, was finally clarified for me in a classroom conversation about the charges against Aziz Ansari, in which I noted that his accuser seemed at no point to have simply called a halt to the encounter or attempted to walk away. I felt when I offered the remark that even so much as commenting on the accuser’s conduct was likely to come across as a retrograde intervention, and I commented on that circumstance as well, in part to ask a question about whether there seemed to be a generational divide in responses to #MeToo. My graduate students were uniform in their view that there was nothing contradictory or surprising about the accuser’s acquiescence in what she would go on to describe as an abusive encounter. One student, in particular, captured what was obviously the group sentiment when she observed that this woman may have endured a past sexual trauma and (or) have anticipated that her “no” would not be respected. Saying no is risky, this student suggested, because it creates a scenario where the man might cross the line and forcibly continue the encounter. The woman might very reasonably have decided, she explained, that going along with an unwanted encounter was more tolerable than incurring the risk of rape by the act of saying no. Acquiescence in (unwanted) sex, she argued (to the general approbation of the class), can be understood as a defense against the greater trauma of coercion.
It is one thing to say that all women—certainly all heterosexual women—are never unaware of the possibility of coercion. It is quite another to say, as did my student, that this awareness fundamentally governs their orientation to sexual contact and preempts their capacity to say (and perhaps even to know) what they want. In the end, what seems truly arresting and significant about #MeToo is the possibility that it is symptomatizing a situation, rendered so acutely in my students’ identification with Ansari’s accuser, in which women routinely conceive that they cannot say no and therefore, I would add, can never really mean “yes.”4 We can lose ourselves, of course, in the familiar debates about sexuality and power: What does equality mean in the context of sexual relations? Can desire ever get clear of the workings of power? Should it? Is there a difference between the imposition of power and a (consensual) restaging of power in the mode of sexual play? If consent is inevitably acquiescence in coercion, what other vistas of sexual freedom might we imagine? But doing so is to miss the vital ethnographic content of what #MeToo reports. #MeToo is not (and should not be) a provocation to debate all over again whether Catharine MacKinnon was right in her analysis of gender and sexuality (she wasn’t), but rather to notice that her vision of a monolithic male power that irreducibly structures heterosexual relations appears to correspond to how many women experience sexuality in the present moment: a scene structured in and by male dominance, where the extent of women’s agency lies in the management of risk. The peculiar achievement of #MeToo as an exercise in feminist world building is to expose the deeply dystopian character of lived heterosexual relations. The task for (what we used to call) sex-positive feminisms is not to refute this vision of heterosexuality (as though engaging in the normative work of theory, the question of how we ought to conceive heterosexuality), but to reckon with its apparent hold on the psychic life of gender.
I am deeply indebted to the members of my winter 2018 graduate seminar in feminist theory, whose conversation on #MeToo moved me well afield of my original response and, in general, broadened and deepened my understanding of the phenomenon. While I suspect that few of them would concur with the analysis I offer here, I hope they will nevertheless discern how thoroughly their perspectives have challenged and honed my own.
See, for example, Gessen, “Al” and “Sex”; Levine; and Ward.
It is notable that #MeToo not only began as the outing by women of their male harassers but has retained this nearly exclusive focus on male abuse of women, rather than provoke (as one assumes it might have) more diverse sorts of revelations about male harassment of other men (Kevin Spacey seems the lone exception here), or of alleged female harassers (of men or other women). This seems all the more remarkable as straight men are by no means the sole or even the primary targets against whom accusations of sexual harassment are leveled in the workplace. As many commentators have observed, existing sexual harassment statutes are routinely used to discipline gay men and women. From this perspective, it seems plain that #MeToo is fundamentally a reckoning with the politics of heterosexuality.
Even the normally reliable 6-0300015Guardian gets this wrong. See Sayej.
Laura Kipnis makes a cognate argument in her analysis of sexual culture on college campuses. While insisting on the ways in which university administration of sexual harassment and abuse complaints has institutionalized a view of women as vulnerable and sex as injurious, she is also attuned to the ways in which this understanding is deeply embedded and reproduced in the lived forms and imaginary of hook-up culture.