I was talking to a friend the other evening, catching up over drinks on the chaotic months since we had last seen each other. Breakups, work nightmares, the ever-looming potential of nuclear winter and the goddamned postal vote all competed for brain cells to mire in our ever-present millennial fog. As we merrily shared what had recently caused us grief, one of us remembered #MeToo, that momentarily inescapable hashtag of pain laid bare, the moniker to announce the coming onslaught of gossip and galling revelation, and how quickly it vanished back into the unreclaimed night.
What started as a trickle of hashtags, a game of safety and invisibility in numbers, quickly grew to become personal, overwhelming, and eviscerating. Longer and longer posts appeared, ritual defenestrations from our hard-won rooms of our own into a world that remained silent and complicit. The gamut of responses from fellow victims alone ran from deep sympathy, love, and solidarity to complete and utter standstill (switching off modems at the wall and burying phones under concrete slabs). I was firmly in the latter camp.
It is worth noting at this point that I did not send a tweet, or write a Facebook post, or engage any further than the several compulsive pressing of buttons on one’s phone that it takes to turn it off and lock it away when your entire feed is full of trauma. It is further worth noting that this is not for lack of being able to add my voice to the throng – this is a subject that I’ve openly touched upon in previous writing and poetry – rather, I am just very, very tired.
Name after name tumbled out of the presses, and now from the mouths of victims, hurt and brave and fed up beyond belief. More names too, through private messages, IRL whispers, industry gatherings, networks, polycules, lineups, gangs, cliques, and angry mobs; the backchannels women have always kept the lamps burning in now running hot with traffic.
And then there was the indeterminate and indistinct nature with which public posts were made: a filing of highly personal and hurt-filled barcodes from the retellings, leaving something brutal and faceless, unintentionally running together like the various tributaries of the internet were conjoining into a single, uninterrupted stream – an eternal flame of attempted closure.
But where is that flame now? Now that those corridors of rumour are reduced to another dank haunt within minutes of no longer trending. Everyone I know is either burned out from oversharing or from wondering whether or not they felt able to share at all.
This isn’t to say that closure can’t be found in unzipping one’s darkest moments on a world stage. I am no stranger to the meagre but nevertheless present benefits provided by the first-person industrial complex, but simultaneously cannot contort myself to believe one must engage in a psychological disrobing to feel comforted. Some of us may happily be nudists, but clothes remain de rigueur with good reason.
I often come back to Clem Bastow’s words on the matter. She writes:
The real surprise of #MeToo was, in fact, no surprise at all: that nearly every woman on Earth had experienced sexual harassment or assault. There is, surely, nobody left to persuade that these dreadful acts occur daily, hourly.
I remember saying to a friend some time ago that it was becoming the case that if a woman I knew had not opened up to me about her experiences of assault, then I was starting to believe that she was simply not able or ready to, rather than that nothing had occurred, so numerous are we and our wounds. Whenever trigger warnings around rape come up – the so-called fatuous frolicking of a left wing too far up its own arse to face the music – invariably a man will ask to what minority are we bending over backwards to coddle. I have begun to think ‘all of us’, though am yet to say it aloud. I will continue to bend, regardless.
Bastow points out early on in her piece that this was not the first hashtag to bring awareness to this issue, or even the first outing of #MeToo. In 1997, Tarana Burke, founder of nonprofit Just Be Inc., came up with the name after seeing the effects of abuse on her community, and taken aback at how powerless people felt to talk about it. ‘Me too’ was to give name to a movement of recognition, but also of real support. Founded as a ‘youth organization focused on the health, well being and wholeness of young women of color’, Just Be Inc. provided programs, education and assistance, and focused on having boots on the ground.
The differences between these two campaigns is stark. #MeToo, the late 2017 hashtag, was predominantly white, cisgender and heterosexual in focus, relying on the public performance of trauma as absolution, and with no initial tools either created or highlighted to help once the dust had settled, and we moved on to the next crisis. It’s worth noting that actor Alyssa Milano, unaware of Burke’s work when she initially tweeted the slogan, has since connected with Burke and tried to shift the emphasis back to Burke’s survivor-focused activism (but the first I heard of that was thirty minutes ago – that history disappearing in the signal-to-noise ratio).
For all the faults of the second-wave feminist movement, there was an astute focus on the knowledge that trauma was a widely shared female experience (more recent iterations of this knowledge have included the experiences of women who aren’t cisgender and middle class), and healing from this was to be by necessity a pivotal part of our praxis – including finding ways to not have to recount and relive the experiences that we have faced, and finding support, trust and belief, regardless of our oratory skills. There are many aspects of my person that might have a second-waver spinning in their grave, but this I hold onto, this need to relieve rather than relive. Bastow plunges the knife in beautifully, contextualising the valid issues we might have with that movement, but adding: ‘It is not hard to imagine a future feminism that will look back with the same angst at the fourth-wave reliance on trauma and the damage it does to its own.’
It doesn’t help that many otherwise very left-leaning people rely on the call for incarceration for perpetrators – forgetting that the state is the very thing that has caused us pain again and again through disbelief and disenfranchisement. Then again, at least these people have a destination for this hypothetical mass-cleansing of ‘bad people’. I all-too-often see those around me calling for assault perpetrators to be disowned, cast aside, thrown out of spaces, cut off and expunged in their entirety, without any thought as to where this large population of harmful perpetrators might go. Out of sight and out of mind is is reductive and places the risk in any circle but our own.
In her recent piece, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick neatly addresses some causes of endemic rates of assault, looking at how economic conditions and expectations act as a form of subjugation, and offers some solutions, but it still all feels like bandaids for a society so deeply rooted in patriarchy.
We’ve come close to stopping asking ‘have you?’ – it becoming clear that we practically all have, in some capacity or another – but white feminism™ has left us little in terms of what questions come next. There is almost a level of taboo in suggesting we refocus the question along the lines of ‘I’ve been raped, now what?’; the latter fragment seemingly discarding the cataclysmic way the former can impact a person. But honestly, now what?
We’ve experienced an unseen level of action in Hollywood especially, with powerful and abusive men being stripped of their budgets and underlings, but I am ever the broken record – now what? Actor Olivia Munn, while addressing her accusations against Brett Ratner – producer, director, rapist – hits the nail on the head, positing that the ‘incredibly gross people will be thrown into the fire in the hopes that the masses will quiet down.’ The industry still hums with names that just haven’t yet been spoken loudly; or maybe just haven’t raped someone famous enough. Sure, a few names have been tarred and feathered in the press, but what about the (inevitable) others? What about the music industry, radio, journalism, the corporate sphere, or literally anywhere that men exist? If the hashtag proved anything, it is that Weinstein-types aren’t only prevalent in his industry, but in every other.
This said, it still feels naff to declare anything about #MeToo, especially to claim its specific success or failure – them being solid yardsticks that this loose hashtagtivism can’t really claim to come close to – yet, how can we just let it go? Never before has there been performance of private pain on such a broad scale, and to such heartbreakingly little end. What do we even want from it: to be heard? To be understood? To be healed? It’s no secret that these things come with time, patience and guidance, not 280-character reprieves, and selling otherwise lets us down en masse.
Mainly, I’m lost, left drifting. The flood of #MeToo still hasn’t really receded; the dove scout dying at sea. I struggle to know what the next step might be, as so many of us seem to be doing, and whenever I get close I’m reminded of another, ‘more current’ monstrosity. If anything, we just have to keep asking questions. The difficult ones. The painful ones. What ownership do we need to take of society’s messages to men? Who do we enable through inaction? Where do we find the time to support our loved ones through careful change? What does rehabilitation for horrible people look like outside of the capitalist state? What does raising boys to not rape look like? What am I using my energy for, and where is that being directed?
How does one unfuck the world?