APRIL 19, 2020
AS THE RECENT VERDICT in the case of Harvey Weinstein has been covered in media outlets around the world, pundits, journalists, and commentators have pondered the long-term effects of #MeToo. At the center of all this coverage is the concept of believability. The idea that women would make false accusations against powerful men has been a familiar part of the media landscape for some time, but #MeToo has allowed for a context, even if limited, in which women are actually believed — and this has been too much to handle.
Whom do we believe and why? These are questions that circulate not only within discussions of #MeToo but within the broader context of a so-called “post-truth” era, where concerns over trust and misinformation abound. What if we were to posit that, alongside a crisis of truth, there is also now a crisis of privileged white men’s believability?
We see this crisis of believability in the various ways #MeToo has become embedded in popular and media culture, which has tended to favor highly visible white women as the primary victims of sexual harassment and assault. On top of the thousands of memes, tweets, and aspirational blogs, the movement has now become a central topic in popular media, with the streaming series Unbelievable (from Netflix) and The Morning Show (from Apple TV+) airing just in the past year. #MeToo has been a topic in the Democratic presidential debates, especially with Michael Bloomberg’s entrance into the race, with the infamous NDAs his employees were forced to sign becoming a focus of criticism. #MeToo is also a topic of countless media interviews and op-eds, where implicit and explicit questions are often asked: Has the movement gone too far? Has it not gone far enough? Has it changed workplace culture? Or is it simply another case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
The mass media has given us a way to imagine what the ramifications of #MeToo might be. Here, believability is often caught up in the tension between mainstream popularity and backlash. In Unbelievable, the key character, Marie, is coerced by the police to say that she made a false accusation of rape. At the end of the series, when female investigators connect her case to other rapes and reveal the police coercion, Marie is asked if she would do anything differently. She replies, “I know I’m supposed to say, if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t lie. But the truth is, I would lie earlier and I would lie better.”
This moment suggests how deeply women understand that they are rarely believed: when they’ve been sexually assaulted, there is not a “truth” that sets women free. We’ve seen this demonstrated time and time again; for example, in the Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford performed their testimonies in a measured and emotionless manner, in order to seem credible, to be believed. Ford also injected the “relatability” factor, while Hill had to work harder to be believed because black women so rarely are. These two cases, along with countless others, reveal the labor involved in being believed: performing believability is yet another extra shift in women’s work. And often that labor reaps no rewards; as we all know, neither Hill nor Ford were believed by their target audience in the Senate — at least not enough to prevent the confirmation of two Supreme Court Justices.
Women’s believability has always been at the core of cases of sexual violence, including online harassment. As we know from decades of activism around rape culture, consent is a slippery legal term, one that is almost always framed within a he said/she said context, and thus relying on questions of trust and credibility. Additionally, the Harvey Weinstein trial put on public display the common belief that, when women continue to have a relationship with a perpetrator after an incident of nonconsensual sex, that lack of consent is impossible to imagine — because, after all, why would she stay with him? Why would she write loving emails, or send flirty texts, if he forced himself on her? This kind of defense denies decades of evidence of the multiple reasons why women stay with partners who harm them — fear of lost livelihood, concern for children, self-doubt and self-loathing, the list goes on.
By many reports, at least 90 women have come forward and accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and/or rape. In 2002, a New Yorker article hinted at the rumors surrounding Weinstein; it is now well known that he aggressively suppressed journalists who were investigating these rumors. In his recent New York trial, four women were called to testify, alongside the two main accusers, as a way to establish that there had been “prior bad acts.” It is a welcome relief that Weinstein was found guilty of some of the charges and was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Yet, on the two counts of predatory behavior — that is, on the question of whether there had been a pattern of sexual violence — he was acquitted. (Weinstein is also coming up for trial in Los Angeles on the basis of accusations by two more women.)
In other words, despite the sheer number of his accusers, this was not sufficient evidence to establish a pattern of behavior. Because, quite simply, the US “justice” system doesn’t work in favor of women. As Andrea Singer recently wrote, our world is one “in which the scales of justice are so sorely tipped in favor of men that they are almost always presumed innocent — with the result that women are not heard.” For women, the labor involved in making themselves believable rests on the implicit presumption that they are always unreliable and untrustworthy.
Just a few days after the Weinstein verdict, MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews interviewed then–Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren about another powerful man, Michael Bloomberg, and his alleged comment to a pregnant employee that she should “kill it.” Though Bloomberg denies ever saying it, the comment has been corroborated in a number of ways. When Warren said she believed the female accuser, Matthews was incredulous: “Why would he lie? Just to protect himself?” Warren replied, “yeah [… ] why would she lie?” As Rebecca Traister has commented, “Questions of power and believability are deeply intertwined: Whose word is reflexively taken seriously?” (Not long after this exchange, Matthews retired from his position with the network.)
This question of whose word is to be taken seriously highlights the “crisis of truth” in our era of rampant misinformation. Men’s rights activists, politicians, CEOs, and others have been circulating the idea that women routinely falsely accuse men of rape and sexual assault, contributing to the social construction of women as liars and powerful men as victims of their lies. When it comes to a woman’s claim of sexual assault, this suspicion frames her every word, in a criminal justice system where proving “truth” is seemingly impossible. This is not the “burden of proof” that underpins the legal system; it is rather a burden of doubt that undermines the testimony of every female accuser. Traister again: “Power provokes trust; a comparative lack of power provokes suspicion.”
This tilted playing field of believability has prompted a backlash against #MeToo. The notion that some prominent women are making false accusations, often through hyperbolic media exposés, works to discredit all women who come forward with claims of sexual assault or rape. Media outlets have amplified the idea that #MeToo may have unleashed a bunch of hysterical and vengeful women who have decided to use the media spotlight to go after powerful men. This scenario also constructs and protects men as victims, with female accusers purportedly “ruining” the lives of “innocent” men, from Stanford University student Brock Turner to actor-comedian Aziz Ansari to Brett Kavanaugh — claims that have been taken up with relish by men’s rights organizations and a horde of online misogynists.
The idea that men’s lives can be “ruined” by a false accusation has helped to create a context in which many men are at best nervous and at worst terrified. As Singer says, men’s “fear is the problem. It is the reason women can’t be heard about the issues, large or small, that affect us.” Another television series that focuses on sexual violence and explicitly on #MeToo, Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, revolves around a powerful man’s fear, his proclaimed innocence, and the question of consent in relationships built on extreme power differences. When watching this show, one can feel the character’s terror, his desperate attempts at self-preservation, as much as they can feel the effects of his predatory behavior, his easy manipulation of victimhood.
This media landscape that continues to frame sexual assault cases within a he said/she said binary also provides a platform for men’s fear to be transformed into a kind of victimhood. Almost exactly a year after the #MeToo movement shot to prominence, a #HimToo campaign emerged during the Kavanaugh hearings, stoking fear about men’s safety when faced with purportedly false accusations. Thus does victimhood become exchangeable in this context of spectacularized media visibility. #HimToo is not just a hashtag campaign, it signals a social shift: victimhood is now transferable from the women who accuse to the powerful men who are accused.
In the #HimToo backlash, the “safety” of today’s men becomes the primary concern, obscuring the centuries of women who have not felt safe in their homes, workplaces, or public spaces. What does this tell us about the believable subject? In some ways, the current moment feels urgent because those who have been privileged to define the truth historically — primarily white men — have begun to witness their truths being questioned, their credibility eroding.
While male victimhood is not new, of course, its current iteration in #HimToo serves to make the labor of believability feel overwhelming for women. There has been a redistribution of vulnerability, one that allows for the erasure — indeed, the denial — of the everyday dangers faced by women living in patriarchal societies. #HimToo functions to deny the ongoing trauma involved in living in a world that dismisses sexual harassment as routine male behavior, as well as the trauma of reliving that harassment and assault online, in statements to the police, in commentary by mainstream media, in court testimony. It places an ever greater burden on women to perform credibility, to manifest believability.
When Matthews displayed incredulity at Warren’s belief in a female accuser, she responded, “I’m just really tired of this world.” Not being believed, constantly having to “prove” that you didn’t ask for violence and violation, is exhausting. This exhaustion is expressed in powerful ways in the recent protest anthem by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis, entitled “Un Violador en Tu Camino (A Rapist in Your Path).” The anthem — and accompanying dance — does not merely describe a single incident of female victimhood at the hands of an individual man but also targets the structural sexual violence inherent in institutions, such as the police and the legal system. Translated from Spanish, the song includes these words: “It wasn’t my fault; not where I was, not how I dressed. […] the rapist is you.” This anthem is about, among other things, exhaustion, reaching a limit of endurance.
Protestors performed “Un Violador en Tu Camino” in front of the New York courthouse where Harvey Weinstein’s trial was taking place, as a refusal to accept his denials and his accusations that women were lying about him. In this song of refusal, we can hear the labor of believability — for, while Weinstein was found guilty of some of the accusations, the burden on women to prove their credibility continues. And if a pattern of behavior on the part of a single individual is so difficult to “prove” in a courtroom, how much more difficult is it to establish that institutions not only tolerate such violent patterns but encourage them? It is a good thing that so many feminist critics are making the question of believability a central issue now, in such sustained and public ways. And it is important to recognize, as Rebecca Solnit has pointed out, that, while we might be exhilarated by this change, we can also still be exhausted by the endless labor of believability.
Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor in the Media and Communications department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018). Along with Kat Higgins, she is currently working on a book on gender, believability, and the post-truth era.
Banner image: “Un violador en tu camino – ensayo en la Alameda Central de la Ciudad de México” by Wotancito is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.