M is for #MeToo: how a Hollywood moment became a global movement

The thirteenth letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade.

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In October 2017, when Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, journalists at the New York Times, and Ronan Farrow, reporting for the New Yorker, broke stories chronicling multiple accounts of sexual harassment against the Hollywood film-maker Harvey Weinstein, they did not just expose one serial abuser – their articles marked a cultural tipping point.

At the start of the 2010s, “lad” culture loomed large. Nowhere on the internet inhabited the toxic masculinity of those years more than LadBible, a publisher known for viral social media videos which flirted with misogyny in the name of “banter”. Even as late as November 2015, Vice reported that LadBible was the 12th most popular site in the UK, “above both the Guardian and the Telegraph, and only one place below Twitter.” How did we get from there, to here? 

In a 2012 Independent article, Laura Bates wrote about LadBible and its partner sites as being “part of a growing culture in which the sexual targeting of female students as ‘prey’ is actively encouraged, even when it verges on rape and sexual assault. It is an atmosphere in which victims are silenced and perpetrators encouraged to see crimes as merely ‘banter’ – just part of ‘being a lad’”. The same year, Bates started her own website, the Everyday Sexism Project, which, she wrote, “exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced on a day to day basis. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don’t even feel able to protest”. But, whatever the severity, “by sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women every day and it is a valid problem to discuss.” 

The first inklings of a global #MeToo movement followed Bates’s everywoman approach – that no account of harassment is too small or too big to report, no accuser too ordinary or too famous to stand up. On 15 October 2017, five days after Farrow’s New Yorker story, and ten days after Kantor and Twohey’s New York Times report, the American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, then we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” (Though credited with bringing the movement into the mainstream, Milano was not the originator of #MeToo. Sexual harassment survivor and activist Tarana Burke first used the phrase in this context on MySpace in 2006.) The day after Milano tweeted, the hashtag had already been used on Twitter more than 500,000 times. Facebook reported that 45 per cent of platform users in the United States had a friend who had used the hashtag. Many notable women in the entertainment industry, including Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lawrence, Lady Gaga, Björk, Molly Ringwald, Viola Davis and Laura Dern have since shared their #MeToo stories.

The resultant reporting in the New Yorker and the New York Times uncovered the conspiracies and accomplices, spreading into the upper echelons of politics and the media, that had worked to protect predators such as Weinstein. The actor Rosanna Arquette called this web “the big boys’ club, the Hollywood mafia.” Emma de Caunes said: “I know that everybody – I mean everybody – in Hollywood knows that it’s happening. Weinstein’s not even really hiding. I mean, the way he does it, so many people are involved and see what’s happening. But everyone’s too scared to say anything.”

Weinstein has been charged but is yet to be convicted. He is due to go on trial on 6 January 2020 on rape and sexual charges, having denied allegations by approximately 70 women of sexual misconduct dating back decades. Other notable sexual harassment cases – including that of Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh – have not led to justice for the accuser. Axios lists only six notable convictions in the wake of #MeToo, though, it reports, at least 201 “powerful men” have lost jobs or major positions. Outside Hollywood, too, the repercussions of #MeToo have been felt: as the Guardian reported in October, in the UK there has been a sharp rise in the number of complaints of rape and sexual assault made to police in the last two years. The number of convictions for rape, however, has plunged. 

Socially, if not legally, the #MeToo movement has been an awakening. Its success lies in its production of a new eagerness for public debate; for renegotiation of the acceptable actions and attitudes towards women, sexual harassment, and the ways in which powerful men are let off the hook and protected.

Looking ahead, beyond the decade that bore #MeToo and onto the decade that will see its many longer-term repercussions play out, we have to expect more.

In 2020 and beyond, survivors, activists and advocates will work together to ensure that #MeToo is not merely a Hollywood or social media movement – but that it effects systemic change, and burns deep into our collective consciousness.

This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s. 

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.