IS TIME UP FOR #MeToo
The most gargantuan of waves is stimulated by a single swell in the ocean: deep at sea, the water ripples in response to its moon, goaded in the direction of land. It gathers speed and volume as it amalgamates with the water in its surrounding vicinity, merging and overwhelming and engulfing, until it billows and climbs to the clouds as if driven by an unseen chariot, racing towards the shore.
This particular swell occurred on the 5th of October 2017, when the New York Times published a damning indictment against the now-infamous Harvey Weinstein, detailing incriminating allegations of sexual assault and rape that would later incarcerate the disgraced film mogul and sully his reputation irrecoverably. A movement that was borne out of Hollywood scandal but which swept up the rest of society in its wake, the #MeToo campaign has been rearing the ugly heads of barbarous sexual assaults which have been brushed under the star-studded red carpet for too long, by providing victims with both a social media platform on which to recount their assaults and solidarity in the form of the distinct hashtag. The unearthing of the heinous crimes committed by Weinstein was the trigger and catalyst required to spur the unravelling of innumerable buried cases of sexual assault festering beneath the polished, glitter-spattered façade of Hollywood glamour. Weinstein’s abominations sparked horror – but savvy contemporary observers warned that Weinstein’s incarceration was merely heralding an onslaught of allegations to follow.
And they were right: flash-forward to today and the wave has unearthed crimes committed by trusted and respected actors such Ben Affleck, Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman. Only last month, the world watched as the trial unfolded of once-reputed US Olympic doctor, Larry Nasser, the ensuing 175 year sentencing for the manipulation, exploitation and assault of over 150 young women leaving many questioning what kind of person we can trust if not those we hold in the highest professional regard. #MeToo has been a vital step forward in the march towards heightened awareness about and punishment for sexual assault, a crime not only prevalent in Hollywood but in the rest of society too.
However, there is now a growing belief that a movement that did so much good at its outset has now started to veer off track. What started as a movement to give silenced victims of sexual assault a voice has arguably become a platform for a free-for-all accusation frenzy, with allegations of sexual assault flying left, right and centre and the whole concept of ‘due process’, in which allegations are investigated before a person is pronounced guilty, has been bypassed. This is why people such as canonised novelist Margaret Atwood have urged that the brakes be placed on the movement to allow ‘due process’ to be observed. Atwood questions, ‘if the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?’, triggering online ire from defenders of the movement who accused her of being a ‘bad feminist’. Anyone who has read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is aware of the foolishness of this epithet and this particular incident exemplifies that whilst this movement claims to be progressive, there is great regression in the blind condemnation of anyone who dares question it. #MeToo is critical because it opens up a discussion about past sexual assaults that have been buried too long; when #MeToo becomes a one-sided dictation of the correct way to see the world is when it stops being a discussion. If a movement cannot withstand criticism from an ally, how can it be credited as a legitimate cause?
The Case of Aziz Ansari
In an article published by Babe.net entitled ‘I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life’, award-winning American comedian and self-proclaimed feminist Aziz Ansari was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in September of last year after a dinner date progressed back to his apartment in New York. His accuser, who remained under the pseudonym of Grace for identity-protecting purposes, alleges that despite repeated ‘clear non-verbal cues’, Ansari persisted in attempting to engage in sexual activity with her. Whilst they did not go as far as having sex, the violation and discomfort Grace experienced due to Ansari’s incessant advances and the activity they did perform found her crying in an Uber by evening’s end.
This story left the media conflicted. Allison Pearson suggests for The Telegraph that this case exemplifies how the #MeToo movement conflates ‘gross predatory behaviour’ with ‘infringements so minor they are barely discernible to the naked eye’, justifiably warning that the ‘indiscriminate hounding of men’ plays directly into the hands of ‘women-haters looking for any excuse to deny us positions of responsibility’. I agree: the absence of fair adjudication gives ammunition to real misogynists looking to belittle and discredit women.
However, I am less supportive of her later concurrence with The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan’s accusation that Grace’s allegations were ‘more akin to revenge porn than a plea for justice’. The insinuation that power-greedy opportunist Grace fabricated a story of sexual assault to avenge her dissatisfaction that the date did not progress into a relationship is where I draw the line. Yes, Grace may not have been sexually assaulted in legal terms, and her allegations may be questionable at best and innately damaging at worst. But to jump to the conclusion that she was merely looking to date a powerful celebrity and when her aspirations did not come to fruition shamed him publicly under the guise of sexual assault does a disservice to woman everywhere. It perpetuates a damaging portrayal of the female character as manipulative, vengeful and exploitative, attributes often employed in rhetoric used to disempower and belittle women, playing on out-dated stereotypes of the female psyche. By presenting Grace in this way, it discredits her serious allegations as being spurred by her personal, spiteful vendetta, an unnecessary and damaging leap to make. It may be that Grace is ‘crying wolf’, so to speak, by alleging that a sexual assault occurred when it in fact was only an unpleasant situation in which a man pushed the boundaries of the acceptable in an exchange with a woman. However, the suggestion that she must have had malicious and petty intent, which is completely impossible to validate, harms true victims of sexual assault at a time when their accusations are finally being taken seriously and questions such as ‘well, in what you were wearing, weren’t you asking for it?’ are finally being condemned. And maybe Grace did have unsavoury motives – but this is arguably a groundless accusation which, after the #MeToo critics’ demands for a reversion back to ‘due process’, is entirely hypocritical.
Vox’s Anna North disagrees with Pearson and Flanagan too. Whilst she concedes that Ansari’s case is not deserving of the treatment of cases like Harvey Weinstein’s, she believes that it tells us less about workplace sexual harassment and more about ‘our broken attitudes toward sex’ as a society. She argues that the Ansari case is ‘ordinary’, but ‘that’s why we have to talk about it’: his actions exemplify and are indicative of a wider issue in the relationship between men and women. As the article states, he persisted in performing sexual activity despite the resistance of his date, to the extent that she leaves in tears; whilst in her own recounting of what happened his behaviour is not worthy of legal action, it is an indicator that there is something wrong with the socially constructed and deeply entrenched views that we as a society have about the boundaries in sexual relationships between men and women.
I’ll be honest and say that, like the media, I’m conflicted. North has a point: perhaps Ansari’s behaviour, in ignoring Grace’s reticence and pushing her to perform acts with which she was uncomfortable, is emblematic of a broader issue with the way in which society has conditioned men and women to behave. On the other hand, though, Ansari may just be inept at reading signals – they were ‘non-verbal’, after all – and just not that great at sex. By her own admission, Grace did not describe a sexual assault: she described a series of unpleasant miscommunications that culminated in an uncomfortable sexual exchange. Her damning allegations may mar the promising career of a comedian who is genuinely invested in providing support for women’s strife, because she took her grievances to a public platform to shame Ansari, rather than the police, where she should have gone if she genuinely believed she had been assaulted.
So, does the case of Aziz Ansari mean the #MeToo movement has gone too far?
Grace was able to publicly shame a man without due process because of the platform #MeToo gave her. As an online movement that lacks a regulatory body supervising and vetting allegations, self-proclaimed representatives of the campaign can report upon anything they wish, leading to some people taking the movement to extremes or exploiting it for their own personal gain. That said, I believe that there is scope to assume that just because unofficial ambassadors of #MeToo have veered off track does not mean the movement itself has. A community of individuals make up a movement; the misguided acts of the few do not represent, and as such should not discredit, the whole. The responsibility for the reputation of an entire movement cannot be shouldered by individuals, but by the masses.
#MeToo is radical and unprecedented and pervasive. But, then again, revolution often – nay, always – is. Megyn Kelly once argued that women ‘have been conditioned to not make waves’; #MeToo subverts this sentiment. This particular wave, one manufactured by a movement that started with an online hashtag and culminated in a ground-breaking reactionary response from all over the globe, has just broken at the shore. And the ensuing destruction will make way for the genesis of a new society.