Melissa Ames and Sarah Burcon, authors of How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman's Life
The Long Road to #MeToo: The Historical Echo Chamber of Gender Training and Feminist Backlash
As 2017 drew to a close, multiple articles went to press declaring 2017 as the “Year of the Woman.” The year began with the largest in-person protest ever - the Women’s March, which drew three to four million people to over 500 marches occurring worldwide on January 21, the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. The year then ended with the rise of the #MeToo movement, which found women speaking out about dozens of male sexual predators, and the Time’s Up movement, which drew attention to the continued sexism plaguing the entertainment industry (among others). It’s not hard to argue that it was a historic year in the fight for gender equality, but how did we get here, and where will we go next? Thankfully, Humanities scholarship -- research focused on the study of human experience and the cultural texts that record and give insight into it -- can help us put this year into context. Studies focused on rape culture and media (mis)representation, and so much more, allow us to see where 2017 falls in the long trajectory of feminist progress and backlash.
For example, academic work stemming from Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies helps explain why not everyone views 2017 as an unproblematic year of forward progress for women. Despite being touted as one of the most successful moments of on-the-ground activism, the Women’s March did not escape criticism. Although the final march mission statement evolved to focus on intersectional feminist issues, critics felt that it “suffered from the same problems the women's movement has been plagued by for a century: centering cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied white women in its execution.” These critiques echoed the writings of feminist scholars like bell hooks and Alice Walker who - decades ago - spoke out about the ways in which mainstream feminism silenced many women’s voices. Decades of debate within and surrounding feminism also help explain the controversy that grew up around the #MeToo movement.
At its onset, the #MeToo movement received great praise. On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “Me too. Suggested by a friend: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Within the week, over a million social media posts included the hashtag #MeToo, which Tarana Burke had first used years prior, with a striking half million occurring within the first 24 hours. How influential was this online movement? Well, it prompted TIME magazine to name women: “The Silence Breakers: The Voices that Launched a Movement” as its 2017 Person of the Year. In an article for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert argued that #MeToo’s power “is that it takes something that women had long kept quiet about and transforms it into a movement… It isn’t a call to action or the beginning of a campaign”; rather, “it’s simply an attempt to get people to understand the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in society.”
But those critical of hashtag activism, or slacktivism, were concerned that bringing attention to the problem wasn’t enough. Sandee LaMotte noted that “social media is littered with the digital bones of once-vibrant hashtags and memes, so getting the momentum behind #MeToo to translate into literal action could be an uphill battle.” Referencing other instances of digital feminist activism, such as #EverydaySexism, #WhyIStayed, and #YesAllWomen, which faded away from public attention, she argued that the movement needed to “move from identifying the problem to actively solving it.” LaMotte argued that the formation of Time’s Up, a movement attending to systemic harassment in the entertainment industry and other fields, was on the right track with its efforts to raise money to fund legal expenses for victims of sexual harassment.
So the #MeToo movement was leading to good things. End of the story, right? Wrong. As 2017 moved into 2018, articles began detailing the conflicting ways in which people -- oftentimes women -- were reacting to the increasing accusations of sexual abuse being featured in the media. In a New York Times article, “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings,” Daphne Merkin critiqued the movement as inducing a return “to a victimology paradigm for young women,” in which they are portrayed “as frail as Victorian housewives.” She critiqued the movement as lacking clarity in terms of “the spectrum of objectionable behavior,” asking, “what is the difference between harassment and assault and ‘inappropriate conduct.’” (To which Samantha Bee, star of Comedy Central’s Full Frontal, responded: we know the difference between rape, workplace harassment, and sexual coercion - “that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about any of them.”) Merkin closed by arguing that we are awash in a society that is deeply ambivalent about how we want men and women to act in sexual encounters:
Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual — one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman — whether it happens at work or at a bar. Some are now suggesting that come-ons need to be constricted to a repressive degree. Asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both innately clumsy and retrograde, like going back to the childhood game of “Mother, May I?” We are witnessing the re-moralization of sex, not via the Judeo-Christian ethos but via a legalistic, corporate consensus.
Critiques of the movement, like Merkin’s, proliferated after a January 13th article in Babe detailed a sexual encounter between popular comedian Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman, given the pseudonym “Grace.”
Unlike many of the previous accusations against famous men that went viral over the latter months of 2017, this one differed in that the behavior being called into question came at the end of a date. The article sparked immediate controversy over the so-called “gray area” between acceptable and unacceptable sexual dating behavior.
The event prompted one of the most scathing critiques of the #MeToo movement, Caitlin Flanagan’s article, “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari.” She writes:
Twenty-four hours ago...Aziz Ansari was a man whom many people admired and whose work, although very well paid, also performed a social good. He was the first exposure many young Americans had to a Muslim man who was aspirational, funny, immersed in the same culture that they are. Now he has been—in a professional sense—assassinated, on the basis of one woman’s anonymous account. Many of the college-educated white women who so vocally support this movement are entirely on [Grace’s] side… I thought it would take a little longer for the hit squad of privileged young white women to open fire on brown-skinned men. I had assumed that on the basis of intersectionality and all that, they’d stay laser focused on college-educated white men for another few months. But we’re at warp speed now, and the revolution—in many ways so good and so important—is starting to sweep up all sorts of people into its conflagration: the monstrous, the cruel, and the simply unlucky. Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.
Flanagan’s article prompted immediate response. Writers like Rivu Dasgupta criticized her for reducing sexual assault to “sexual regret” and for failing to raise the even larger questions, such as: “why do we instinctively focus on a woman’s fight, flight, or freeze response, when we should be questioning the man’s aggression instead?”
However, the vast majority of the articles critiquing the Ansari story focused on what it means about our current dating system. An article in Jezebel argues that the fact that Ansari did not cease his sexual advances when asked, “and that Grace says she felt pressured to go along with it, exposes cracks in the modern dating contract… [it] is a statement about the ways women are conditioned, even with decades of entrenched feminism, to concede to that perceived power.” The piece continues on to critique the way that Babe handled the story, arguing that it was a lost opportunity to “discuss the ways consent can feel blurring.”
Some maintain that publicizing stories such as Grace’s, without listening to the other side, is problematic: “Rushing to judgment without due process defies core values that Americans hold dear. Everybody should have the opportunity to state their case, whether a victim or an alleged perpetrator. The flip side - quietly sweeping a scandal under the rug - is equally offensive.”
Despite the controversial nature of Grace’s story, feminist cultural critic Jessica Valenti, who predicted the backlash from the #MeToo movement long before it came, stated that it was “going to end up being the most important story that’s come out.” This story opens the door for conversations about how we are conditioned to believe sexual encounters should unfold and how we can combat those messages. Valenti writes: “the people who are outraged -- or even just concerned -- about the direction of this movement should ask themselves whether they’re comfortable with sexual norms that say anything short of rape is OK. Or if they want a world where women’s pain and fear is treated as an expected part of romantic sexual interactions.”
And, sadly, research proves that women have long been trained to put their partner’s sexual pleasure above their own pain. In “The Female Price of Male Pleasure,” Lili Loofbourow discusses how the Ansari story may help us understand this long history and move away from it: “the next time we're inclined to wonder why a woman didn't immediately register and fix her own discomfort, we might wonder why we spent the preceding decades instructing her to override the signals we now blame her for not recognizing.”
Loofbourow’s attention to how society indoctrinates us all into gender roles echoes our discussions in How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman’s Life: From Toddlers-in-Tiaras to Cougars-on-the-Prowl. We argue that contemporary popular culture has created a slew of stereotypical roles for girls and women to (willingly or not) play throughout their lives: the Princess, the Nymphette, the Diva, the Single Girl, the M.I.L.F, and more. All of these roles contribute to a culture wherein women and girls are portrayed (and trained to be) objects for the male gaze. Popular culture plays a major role in this gender socialization at specific moments in a woman’s life: as a young girl, an adolescent, a single/dating woman, a bride, a wife, a pregnant woman, a mother, a middle-aged woman, and a menopausal/maturing woman. Cultural texts continue to present women and girls as falling at either extreme of the “Madonna versus Whore” spectrum. On one hand, women are trained to be passive, coyly playing hard to get when courted by male suitors. On the other hand, they are vilified when they play the role of sexual aggressor. Throughout each stage of a woman’s life, these contradictory messages work to silence women and create an environment in which sexual harassment and abuse are normalized. They create the patriarchal foundation that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements work to dismantle.
Modern day society has a love-hate relationship with feminism: we simply don’t know what to do about the controversial “F” word, and this is apparent in the cultural products aimed at girls and women at every juncture in their lives. The mixed messages – about feminism, gender, sexuality – are everywhere: in toy boxes, on bookshelves, in blog posts, on film screens, in songs, on television, in commercials, on Twitter, in magazines, on stage. You don’t have to look too closely into these ongoing dialogues to catch the array of conflicting lessons that are being delivered: girls and women are taught that femininity is expected, but devalued; that they should be sexy, but virginal; that they should be independent, but not too independent; that they should look younger, but act their age. If girls and women are constantly being bombarded with these conflicting messages, is it any wonder, then, that they are conflicted about what constitutes a “bad date” and what is sexual assault? That they often put the needs of their partners before their own because it’s expected? Or that it’s taken them this long to say: “Time’s Up”?
* The opinions expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
About the authors
Melissa Ames is an Associate Professor at Eastern Illinois University specializing in media studies, television scholarship, popular culture, feminist theory, and pedagogy.
Sarah Burcon is a Lecturer in the Program for Technical Communication at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She specializes in technical communication, feminist theory, popular culture, and linguistics.
Their book, How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman's Life is now available in paperback.