#MeToo’s globalization nearly six years ago publicly dignified women’s testimonies of sexual violence and opened a path toward the legitimization of these experiences in justice systems around the world. At the height of the movement, the pain of #MeToo testimonies and the scale of misogyny commingled with hope: it was possible to imagine a reality in which #BelieveHer replaced dismissal, shaming, and silence. Today, imagining that reality requires denying how Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has eroded civil and human rights in the United States. The Supreme Court decision is a reminder that the law can reverse its own progress.
To verbalize the existential and legal implications of the ruling many turn to fictional worlds, most frequently to Margaret Atwood’s canonical dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The leap from hope to dystopia is jarring, and it requires sustained attention: dwelling in the divide are unresolved questions that can be traced to #MeToo’s own place between “the lived and the literary,” as Diana Rosenberger argues in her theorization of #MeToo via Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740).1 Following Rosenberger’s turn to the eighteenth century, one might go further and consider if women’s condition is an indeterminate space between the lived and the literary. Mary Wollstonecraft argued as much when mounting her defense of women’s human rights, denouncing their reduction to a “fanciful kind of half being.” In the scale of being, woman was either angel or “wild chimera” with no real place in the human realm.2 Then as now, contesting this displacement often means writing the self into humanity: Pamela’s epistles, Phillis Wheatley’s poems. Through analyses of utopia, confession, and the epistolary novel three essays invite us to situate #MeToo in the history of this indeterminate condition and to draw on the practices of literary criticism to find a path forward. Considered together, they provide an urgent lesson: when women’s—or anyone’s—humanity is contested, the taxing labor of writing the self into legitimacy easily slips into the apparent certainty of gendered scripts, into fictions that essentialize the gender divide.
Avoiding these fictions requires hard work from any collective that is defined by a shared gendered experience. For some critics of #MeToo, the movement is bound to essentialism. Sarah Louise Macmillen reaches not for dystopia but utopia to tease out essentialist assumptions that run through #MeToo and structure Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland (1915). In Macmillen’s analysis, Gilman’s gynocracy exemplifies “utopic naiveté” or the assumption that eradicating one force that ails women (men and the masculine) is the means to eliminate oppression.3 Furthermore, the gynocracy’s conflation of women with nature and men with industry replicates the dichotomies of a sexist society. These, in turn, are compounded by the hyperrationality and implicit racism of Herland’s white women, reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s deceptive Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Macmillen argues that some of #MeToo’s discursive strands parallel Herland’s “dangerous” erasure of “dissent and difference” in service of the “utopian elimination paradigm” whereby the public shames perpetrators to vindicate the victims.4 In the aftermath of the movement’s explosion, the consequences of the paradigm are clear. On the one hand, the dignifying effects of such a vindication, especially because it tends to happen through the virality of social media, are short-lived, and there are few material gains involved. On the other, the dynamic of shaming only develops a fiction of its own—the fiction that justice has been attained—because it stands in for the reformation of sexist institutions.
The limitations of shaming and essentialism came into full view when the famous writer Junot Díaz shared his experience as a survivor of rape and confessed to actions that, while not criminal, damaged the dignity of numerous women (his former partners). Díaz’s confession collapsed the perpetrator and the victim into a single person, showing how the reality in which “black men and boys are sexually preyed on” is the same one that #MeToo victims inhabit.5 Yet another painful lesson that emerges from this essay is that sharing trauma does not, by default, cultivate symmetrical relationships among victims of abuse.6 Carefully tracing the narrative techniques of Díaz’s autobiographical narrator, Yunior, to his confessional essay “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” (2018), Ruth McHugh-Dillon foregrounds the “uneasy intimacy” Díaz creates as he entwines an apology and a confession, and how he eludes dialogue in favor of monologue.7 Addressing his essay to “X,” an “admirer” and survivor of abuse whom he met briefly at one of his readings, rather than to the women he hurt, Díaz sidelines his victims and forecloses the possibility of any kind of “communal relation.”8 Are Díaz’s confession and apology a fiction? To propose so would amount to erasing his and his victims’ trauma. Rather, the root of the asymmetrical relationship that his novels and confession establish between men and women might be found in an interview in which he admits that for “a lot of guys” it is “a huge leap of knowledge” to “imagine women as fully human.”9 As long as men, even victimized men, participate in the fiction that women are half beings, neither women nor men will heal. The legitimization of women’s experience will not be attained by essentializing men.
Underlying the concern that #MeToo can perpetuate an essentialist fiction of its own is an existential concern with the inadequacy of language and form to convey the complexities of gender and sexuality.10 The erasure of the long fight for LGBTQ+ rights from discussions about #MeToo, Macmillen argues via Laura Kipnis, further occludes an alternative.11 Rosenberger provides a starting point by inviting us to close-read #MeToo with the awareness that the self and the collective, gender and sexuality, are fashioned and read “through forms and platforms.”12 By reading to foreground the “discursive realities” that entangle #MeToo’s victims, supporters, and critics in gendered practices of self-expression, regulation, and interpretation, we might find a way out of essentialist fictions.13 Perhaps then we could turn to Maggie Nelson’s recent On Freedom, which calls us away from the false choice between two fictions—“a once-and-for-all happy and liberated sexuality” and The Handmaid’s Tale—and toward an aspiration “to make conditions more conducive to practicing freedom, which is . . . a matter of making space, of increasing degrees of possibility and decreasing degrees of domination.”14