The #MeToo movement has long been considered a watershed moment in bringing to light the endemic problem of sexual harassment – surely, society would never go back to the culture of silence it experienced before. The movement entered mainstream discourse on 15 October 2017, when the actor Alyssa Milano and others accused the powerful film executive Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, and Milano tweeted that women should post the statement “me too” on social media if they had ever experienced harassment themselves. (Though it has been widely noted that the “MeToo movement” truly began more than a decade before, in 2006, when the activist and organiser Tarana Burke used the term on MySpace to encourage women of colour to come forward and share stories of sexual abuse.) The response was overwhelming.
What followed was months of endless media reports detailing the abuses of power by mostly men, affecting both men and women, but mostly women, within almost every industry. The coverage was so constant, it was nearly impossible not to feel its effects. It prompted many of us to reflect on and reassess historic encounters we’d experienced from childhood through to adulthood – encompassing everything from street harassment to sexual assaults. Some did this in private, others did so in front of TV cameras or their laptops, ready to talk about or write up their experiences for traditional or social media. They were encouraged by the belief that in doing so they wouldn’t just help themselves, their story would help countless others.
At the time, it was widely believed that the movement would correct an ingrained power imbalance, that our lives would become better and safer, and that the sharp end of abuse would be blunted. But five years on, it’s hard to locate the positive impacts we were once so certain would arrive. Are workplaces more equal? Is sexual harassment less frequent? Can we really say that our lives are demonstrably better now? And what kind of culture have we been left with instead?
The sheer accessibility of the #MeToo movement was both the key to its success and its greatest limitation. Many people involved with the movement understandably wanted it to be a political cause that every woman could rally behind. But despite the good intentions, this allowed it to become watered down: hashtaggable, a shorthand so broad that it could mean anything at all. Social media’s role in this doesn’t feel coincidental – #MeToo’s prevalence online enabled it to travel widely – but also to become incoherent. Instead of a movement with achievable objectives, #MeToo became a symbol of a problem – a problem that most women were already very aware of. Over time, its purpose was flattened under the weight of a hundred different expectations.
Ultimately, #MeToo meant too many disparate things to too many people. As a result, its goals were varied and often conflicted. Should the movement aim to end sexual harassment in all forms, or to introduce new laws around sexual assault? To rehabilitate perpetrators, or to permanently cast out the accused from society? Though the broad aim of “improving the lives of women” is a worthy one, how that improvement is achieved through awareness alone is less clear. When we talk about the consequences of #MeToo today its impacts are largely abstract: people “think” differently now; the “conversation” or “climate” has changed; certain proposed laws or smaller movements are “gaining traction”.
Five years on, we’re living in a depressing dichotomy. Our cultural awareness of sexual assault and harassment has never been higher – and yet, there hasn’t been a correlative reduction in the harms we are so acutely aware of. While there was reportedly a reduction in sexual harassment in 2018, others found large increases in gender-based harassment, which some experts have understood as a #MeToo backlash. The promise of the #MeToo movement was that sharing stories would somehow help, that this was somehow empowerment – but real-world outcomes are yet to be seen. We are left with a generation whose insides have been scooped out and placed messily on a platter for reasons that remain unclear.
But even beyond its questionable effectiveness, there are also downsides to this confessional culture – some women have been retraumatised by sharing their stories, targeted by the same media ecosystem that encouraged them to come forward in the first place. Take Amber Heard, whose #MeToo essay triggered the now infamous case between she and her ex-husband Johnny Depp. The online response – which we are beginning to see repeated in other cases – was nothing short of horrifying.
Of course, #MeToo did result in some positive changes. Many harmful figures did face repercussions – Weinstein is in prison, after all – or were prevented from abusing more people. Some laws (though minor) have been implemented in the US to broaden protections for those who have been sexually harassed.
But years later, the impact of the movement has been less pronounced than we would have liked. Yes, we talk more openly about abuse than we did before autumn 2017. But has our society truly been shaped by #MeToo’s message? Or has it merely learned to move skilfully around it? Our culture – from workplaces to brands to powerful individuals – has become adept at cloaking itself in the language of #MeToo in the knowledge that lip service is all that’s required to address this systemic problem, rather than coming up with any real attempts to solve it.
[See also: “Global problems must be tackled through global collaboration”: Ai Weiwei on his New Statesman cover]