This is the first installment in a bi-monthly column that will explore some of the different cultural facets of popular feminism, the #MeToo movement, and the contemporary cultural awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and in daily life. These essays are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to point up the ways the current environment is responding to gender dynamics, sex, and power.
THE NEW YEAR has only just begun, but what was true in 2017 is still true, incredibly, in 2018: feminism is popular. Everywhere you turn, there is an expression of feminism — on a T-shirt, in a movie, in the lyrics of a pop song, in an inspirational Instagram post, in an acceptance speech. When I listened to Oprah Winfrey’s passionate address at the recent Golden Globe awards — in which she re-positioned African-American Civil Rights history as African-American feminist history, lifting up a multihued room of Hollywood elite — I felt, like many others, both inspired and finally supported by a broad public.
Yet, while the rising visibility of safely affirmational feminism is in many ways exhilarating, it is not an unalloyed good. It often eclipses, in the name of individual cases of abuse, the structural critique academic feminists have been making for years. The mainstreaming of feminism may, in fact, limit its impact, as if seeing or purchasing feminism and contributing to its visibility is the same thing as doing something — something that might effectively change the patriarchal structure of our society.
To be sure, popular feminism’s increased visibility inspires both private conversations and public discussions, and they have the potential to disrupt sexism in a broader way. In October 2017, when multiple accusations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein were publicized, it mobilized, as we know, hundreds of other stories from women about harassment, which were manifest in the multimedia #MeToo movement. And yet, as many have pointed out, the phrase “me too” was actually created in 2006 by an African-American activist, Tarana Burke, a survivor of sexual assault, who wanted to share her story as a way to connect with other victims of sexual assault, especially women of color. The fact that Burke, the originator of “me too,” was largely eclipsed by the high-profile, mostly white female celebrities who came forward regarding Weinstein, and Ailes, and Lauer, and what seems to be countless other scandals is not insignificant. Time magazine’s 2017 “Person of the Year” was awarded to what they called the “Silence Breakers”: women who came forward to expose sexual harassers and predators. Yet though the creator of the movement, Burke, appears on the inside pages, she was not featured on the cover. The mainstream media has covered the #MeToo story expansively, which is an important move — but the stories were often about the powerful men who were accused, or the celebrity women who accused them. Not surprisingly, there soon was a market for #MeToo merchandise, ranging from #MeToo cookies to jewelry to clothing — which may or may not be trivial — as well as new apps that attempt to document workplace sexual harassment, which are more promising.
While the public awareness of #MeToo has helped reveal how widespread and normative sexual harassment is, the majority of attention is focused on very visible public figures, on celebrities. I say this not to dismiss the accusations in any way; rather, I want to point out that while “me too” existed in the 2000s as a mechanism for building feminist community across lines of class, race, and sexuality, popular feminism, however spectacularly visible, may prove less effective in building community. The #MeToo movement is expressed on those media platforms — Twitter and Facebook — that easily lend themselves to commodification and simplification and remain obsessed with those industries — entertainment, media — that provide spectacular visibility. And when #MeToo is printed on a cookie as part of a PR stunt, it produces more and more visibility even while increasingly narrowing the discourse, and while failing to expose systemic, structural sexism across all industries.
Popular feminism is part of the larger “attention” economy, where its sheer accessibility — through shared images, likes, clicks, followers, retweets, and the like — is a key component of its success. Popular feminism engages in a feedback loop, where it is more popular when it is more visible, which then authorizes it to create ever-increasing visibility. Visibility is not a static thing; it has to be in a constant state of growth, which can become an end unto itself. But simply becoming visible does not usher in sweeping change. Visibility is at best a tool for social change, not an end.
Sexual harassment happens in every industry, including (and perhaps especially) in those that are less visible in a media spotlight — when The New York Times ran a piece about sexual harassment among factory workers in Detroit, it did not circulate with anything close to the pace and volume as the recent story about Aziz Ansari has. Harassment happens in different ways depending on where women are in the hierarchy in the workplace. The recent Time’s Up initiative, started by women in entertainment and media fields, does name other less visible industries, such as domestic, farm, and factory work, as sites of sexual harassment. Time’s Up uses the tools of popular feminism, circulating on multiple media platforms, with its first moment in the sun leading up to and during the Golden Globes. But its goal is to direct our attention away from the celebrities who created the movement and toward the people who have been victimized outside of the spotlight.
A reactionary backlash against #MeToo is predictably in full swing: high-profile men and women writing in the mainstream media, in the United States and elsewhere, have labeled the movement “puritanical” or even a “witch hunt.” Indeed, one of the effects of visibility is that it can reduce feminism to a celebrity throw-down on social media, making it easier prey for such a backlash. It is tempting to continue to focus on the highly visible spectacular exposés of the #MeToo movement, but as always the most important work is being done outside the frame of media visibility. Change is happening in the micro-conversations among colleagues and friends that happen on a daily, mundane level; in dinnertime discussions with daughters and sons; in self-reflections about the meanings of consent and complicity. These moments are less visible in the mainstream, but they are helping to build the kind of community needed for social change. The question now is: How do we tell those stories? How do we make them visible?
Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor and director of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Some of the themes captured in this column are explored further in a forthcoming book, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018).