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17 January 2018updated 17 Jan 2024 7:21am

Will the feminists of the future claim the #metoo movement – or disown it?

The backlash against the movement has started, and it includes many prominent women. 

By Glosswitch

It’s 30 years from now. I’m hunkered down in the underground bunker, halfway through knitting another fallout protection onesie for the grandkids. Suddenly, one of them shuffles over with a question.

“Granny, what did you do during the #metoo wars of 2018?”

I smile, misty-eyed at the memory of all those hashtags, call-outs and hopes for change. Then finally I answer.

“Nothing, Borissina. What do you take me for? Some kind of sex-hating, agency-phobic, due-process-denying prude?”

“No, Granny.” Satisfied, she returns to playing with her sister Remoana. Told you Granny was a real feminist, I hear her whisper.

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Obviously I could be wrong about how future generations will view #metoo. It may be that this particular wave of feminist activism never has to come crashing down. Perhaps this is our moment, the point at which everything changes forever. Perhaps the proponents of #metoo and #timesup will never find themselves consigned to the overflowing feminist dustbin marked “problematic”.

I doubt it, though. These things have a way of falling apart. It doesn’t matter how right you are, or how important your cause. Feminism always ends up eating itself.

We’re watching it happen already. One by one, more and more women are coming forward to say that actually, they’re not too sure about this whole “women coming forward” thing. In The New York Times Daphne Merkin argues that many of us must be secretly “rolling our eyes” at “the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied [#metoo] from its inception”. In the same publication Bari Weiss worries that “what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment” is being transformed “into an emblem for female helplessness”. The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan goes so far as to denounce “the hits squad of privileged young white women” who’ve decided to “open fire” on men such as Aziz Ansari.

Meanwhile, along with 99 of her not quite as famous compatriots, the French actress Catherine Deneuve has signed a letter claiming that the current “frenzy […] far from helping women empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, the religious extremists, the reactionaries and those who believe — in their righteousness and the Victorian moral outlook that goes with it — that women are a species ‘apart,’ children with adult faces who demand to be protected”.

There’s something very familiar about each of these attacks. It’s not just that they all come from women. The same words appear time and again: puritan, Victorian, fragile, religious, childish, helpless, hysterical. Supporters of #metoo are depicted as too naïve to understand that human relations are messy, and too bloody-minded to make any distinction between rape and an unwanted hand on the knee. They are, we are meant to conclude, putting the whole of project of women’s liberation at risk by taking us “back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches”. We’re told these #metoo feminists have gone full circle, choosing to see themselves as “as frail as Victorian housewives”.

I don’t believe this for one moment, not least because we have been here before. The same tired, ill-thought-out criticism gets thrown at feminists every time we question male sexual entitlement. While there are criticisms of #metoo dynamics which have been genuinely thoughtful, such as those of Margaret Atwood and Laura Kipnis, most have depended on knocking down straw women. A simple statement of boundaries is supposed to make #metoo supporters vengeful, neurotic followers of call-out culture. This is boring and untrue. However, that’s not to say this tactic isn’t highly effective.

I was a feminist in the early 1990s. We may not have had hashtags back then, but we still had our anger. I was 16 when, in 1991, marital rape was finally made illegal in England and Wales. Writing for The Spectator, the journalist Neil Lyndon described the change in law as a being motivated by a “terror of Eros”, condemning a feminist orthodoxy which “insists that male that male sexuality is actively antagonistic to women”. It’s strange to note how similar this language is to that which appears in many of today’s woman-led attacks on #metoo. The frankly idiotic suggestion that description is prescription – that women make themselves victims by naming their victimhood – has its roots in men’s rights activism, but has been repackaged as nuanced, rational feminism more times than I’d care to remember.

The most obvious example of this may be the 1993 book The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, written by the same Katie Roiphe now associated with the outing of the author of the Shitty Media Men list. The cooler-than-thou tone and lazy, half-baked arguments throughout this book could form a template for today’s attacks on #metoo. Responding to what she sees as the extremism of “rape-crisis feminists”, Roiphe goes all-out to present basic observations of social reality as examples of self-inflicted victimhood (“by viewing rape as encompassing more than the use or threat of physical violence to coerce someone into sex, rape-crisis feminists reinforce traditional views about the fragility of the female body and will”. Coercive control? Never heard of the thing!).

On one level, this is nothing more than high-level trolling. What are statements such as “rape is a natural trump card for feminism” and “regret can signify rape” supposed to do, other than cause offence? Yet at the same time, this type of trolling can slowly get under the skin. As Ariel Levy was to put it in Female Chauvinist Pigs, “Nobody wants to be the frump at the back of the room anymore, the ghost of women past. It’s just not cool.” The association of women having sexual boundaries with women being weak and passive is false, but it becomes compelling if the message is repeated often enough. 

It may be disheartening for those hoping #metoo is a game-changer, but women have been calling out male sexual aggression for millennia. Yes, we’ve been constantly gaslighted, but it has not taken until 2018 for the scales to fall from our eyes. It can be comforting to insist that feminists of the past made enormous mistakes – that they really were the caricatures we’re seeing in those #metoo backlash pieces – whereas this generation is getting it right.

Reassuring though this is, it simply isn’t true. We’re each of us flawed but we still owe a debt to the “prudes” of yesteryear, the women without whose work we’d have far fewer choices today. And right now it’s worth considering how many of us who are being called prudes today were calling other women prudes the day before. Debates around pornography and sex work throw up terms such as “pearl-clutching” and “slut-shaming” in much the same vague, stigmatising way as “Victorian” and “puritan” are being used in relation to harassment. 

In Backlash, Susan Faludi described the path of American women’s progress as “a corkscrew tilted slightly to one side, its loops inching closer to the line of freedom with the passage of time – but, like a mathematical curve approaching infinity, never touching its goal”. Woman, she said, “is trapped in this asymptotic spiral, turning endlessly through the generations, drawing nearer to her destination without ever arriving”.

#Metoo will help individual women and push our understanding of consent that little bit further along – and by way of a thank you, it will no doubt be remembered as a movement led by extremist, hysterical sexphobes. Such is the way of these things. We’ll talk about “that time when feminists took things too far” and we’ll blame this “taking things too far” for the fact that we’re still fighting the same old battles.

It’s happened before, it’s happening now and it will happen again. That it will keep on happening is proof of the intractability of patriarchy, but also of the fact that we never give up. There will always be backlash because there will always be feminism. In the future we won’t be saying #metoo – but I hope we will still be defending our bodies and boundaries.

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