Last month, the news came in many had hoped for, yet could not quite believe. Harvey Weinstein had been found guilty of the crimes that had been the face of an international movement, highlighting the many ways in which women are silenced, exploited and assaulted in their place of work, in their social circles, and in their homes. This triumph filled the hearts of women everywhere with anticipation for a better time, a safer time, where a mum of two would not be denied a promotion because of her ‘responsibility’ to care for her children, or where stories of catcalling would not be met with a resounding “Well what did you expect, wearing that?” For me, Harvey Weinstein’s conviction validated the opinions and beliefs advocating equality that I had long fought with others about. Being dismissed in the classroom at school as ‘the angry feminist’ who needed to give it a break was heartbreaking. Someone else, often a man, but sometimes a woman, telling me that my experiences of sexism were unimportant, irrelevant or uninteresting left me feeling so defeated. Now, I felt empowered, as the issues I had always tried to voice were given the attention they deserved.
I then, when scrolling through twitter, came across a video from a recent Trump press briefing, where, when referring to predictions for the spread of COVID-19, he replied “I was never involved in a model. At least not this kind of model”. What I can’t help feeling is that this isn’t the vision that the #MeToo campaign had for the world of 2020, where the President of the United States can make jokes more suited to the locker rooms of country clubs of old.
At this point I think, “Well, did the #MeToo movement work?” and to answer that we need to seriously review what it was trying to achieve. If I were to put into words, or even one word, what a movement of that scale wanted, it would be ‘recognition’. The movement was holding us at a stop sign, and urging us to consider our surroundings – were they safe enough for us to proceed, or must we eliminate some dangers first?
And in surveying our society, the movement exposed what many had long known yet rarely said. There was a fundamental problem in the treatment of women in professional, social and domestic environments. Hollywood was ripped open by stories of actresses who had been exploited by the powerful directors that had made their name in the industry. The disparities in pay and the low proportion of women in senior positions shook the business sector to its core. There would no longer be tolerance of such practice.
Of course, this is a huge success. Women now had the solidarity, the backing of over half the population, to challenge instances of injustice. In 2016/17, 41,000 cases of rape were reported in England and Wales. By 2018/19, this figure climbs to 56,000. Survivors have found a voice which we should celebrate. What I find troubling is the lack of people who are listening, in several different ways.
In February, Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds announced their engagement, and have now welcomed their new-born to Number 10. No one seems to remember the allegation made by Charlotte Edwardes that he groped her at a lunch in 1999 when he held the position of editor of The Spectator. Where did it go? They were swallowed up in the news cycle as the Conservative party conference began to make headlines and very little was heard of the allegations again. Democrats have, as if dominos, pulled out of the race to be the Democratic candidate for the 2020 US election, leaving Joe Biden the presumptive nominee. Tara Reade’s allegations have become simply a reference point in journalism surrounding his success, the peripeteia needed for stylistic purposes above all else. An apathy seems to have grown, a tolerance, as we accept that our leaders have been involved in various sexual scandals. Earlier this month Linda Hirshman wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “I believe Tara Read. I’m voting for Joe Biden anyway”. Some would throw the word ‘idealist’ in my face, but I refuse to believe that we shouldn’t demand more from our politicians and our political parties, and support for Biden as the lesser evil means becoming complicit in the rejection of a victim. We have come to accept that at one point or another they will all make headlines for events perhaps a decade ago, and as women throw their careers on the line to expose the worst experiences of their lives, we sit around our tables on a Sunday morning, groan at the headline, consider that we may have a rapist as a representative for our country, and then move on as other events overtake it. Headlines are becoming little more than headlines.
With any movement, you have to differentiate between the people that have to listen, and those that will have to choose whether to listen, and sometimes people fall into both those categories, due to the different roles that they hold in their lives. Those that must listen are those that, for example, have to protect themselves legally or visually as the head of a company. They therefore have to respond to claims of discrimination or a systemic problem with internal career progression that means women are less likely to move up the ranks than men. Movements can be hugely successful in holding enterprise to account and pushing change in the public sphere. The difficulty comes in creating change on the personal level. How do we change, for example, rape culture? Is exposing instances of rape or sexual assault enough to stop the crime? This is the limitation of any movement. There is a danger that it may become supporters speaking into an echo chamber and being hailed by other supporters, while those that would not subscribe to recognising that victims are in no way to blame for the crimes of their rapists are able to switch off the news, ‘play the devil’s advocate’, or blurt out the stories of men falsely accused as a justification for not listening to allegations. A prime example that popped up in my Facebook feed earlier this month was a group of policing students at the University of Derby where screenshots of their group chat were leaked, including suggestions that while one had sex with a woman the others could hide and watch, and where photos of girls were discussed, including explicit descriptions of having sex with them. It’s only one of a string of such incidents across university campuses where women have been made to feel unsafe in their learning and living environment. We have to recognise that while locker room talk or harassment has been pushed further into the fringe, it is still very much present in our educational spaces, in our workplaces, and especially in the halls of Parliament.
The rapidity of the news cycle is a huge challenge for a movement like this, as is a focus of maintaining viewership. As a consequence, Donald Trump’s misogyny rarely makes prime time news hours because, what has changed? When the President is unapologetically sexist, there is little to report on. This is how a complacency develops. It’s no longer newsworthy, so we should no longer be concerned with it. When it does rarely make the news, it’s no more than a day, even hours, that it stays relevant, before it is filed away under “News that made us give up on politics” at the back of a store room, maybe given five minutes on Have I Got News For You?. No great solution comes to mind, apart from to ensure you are receiving news content from varied sources, and that, when you feel something deserves attention, or that attention is needed to ensure some level of accountability, share it and promote discussion. While social media has quickened the pace of our news cycle and created such a problem, it can also help us ease it.
Coming back to the long forgotten sexual assault allegations against many of our politicians, the obstacle to obtaining justice for these people lies in the difficulty of obtaining evidence twenty years later. This is, of course, symptomatic of a tolerance at the time for such behaviour, and the need to collect evidence or even report it was overlooked. This is not a mistake we can fix for past victims, but certainly one we can ensure is not made again. The movement has been hugely successful in empowering women to hold perpetrators to account, and this must be encouraged. As hard as it is, we cannot let ourselves be deterred by the brushing under the carpet of cases like Charlotte Edwardes’. It may be easy for a sceptic to dismiss the past, but it will be impossible to ignore this now.
While I’m not saying we abandon the past, or even give up on generations which have grown up watching sexual harassment jokes be made in sitcoms by male actors being paid more than their female counterparts, I do think that the next stage in this movement involves a serious focus on the young. It is easier to educate than it is to re-educate, and it is the duty now of all women and men who have seen the power of #MeToo movement to instill in the next generation the principles that are going to cause huge progression towards gender equality, building on the legislative success of present, and achieving a longer term change in our cultural thought, that means there is no longer a tolerance for the behaviour we’ve turned a blind eye to for so long.
In Michelle Obama’s new Netlfix documentary Becoming, she talks about how when Barack Obama was elected President, many political commentators naively claimed that the United States was entering a post-racial era. I strongly believe that is the danger here- to sit back and think the work is done. I implore you: sit up, pay attention, back to work.