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#MeToo: What took it so long?

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#MeToo: What took it so long?

The widespread discussion triggered by Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein debacle seems to be paving the way for a much-needed change. But it’s telling that Bollywood actors are still reluctant to name the Indian Weinsteins they talk about, writes UMANG AGGARWAL

Finally a protest against the “social epidemic” of sexual harassment, a “collective catharsis”, the talking cure, or just the final acknowledgement after a long, long period of denial and struggle — #MeToo, a social media campaign targeted at sexual harassment and the silence about it, has had many explanations attached to it. This started when in the middle of October, Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a note in response to the whole bunch of sexual misconduct allegations that were made by generations of Hollywood actresses against American film producer Harvey Weinstein, a name associated with movies like Pulp Fiction, The Crying Game, and Shakespeare in Love.

She wrote, “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. If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

While the use of social media as a reliable tool for discussing something serious has often been debated, in this case it amazingly enough took the shape of a safe space where women could share experiences that they had never before felt comfortable sharing or had suppressed under so many layers of acceptable behaviour that they had almost convinced themselves to forget how wrong what had happened to them was.

Naturally, the campaign invited its share of criticism too. From jokes about how 80 to 90 per cent of men would land in jail if the women are being honest, to comments about the hashtag being sexist in itself as it seems to be assuming that men never face sexual harassment, there were quite a few reactions to it. A group of people even argued that this will always only give an incomplete picture as many women who “do not owe their story to the internet” could choose to be quiet about it.

But the most hard-hitting fact that remains is this — the subtext to the original tweet behind this ‘social media trend’ is that women (and even some men) knew that other women too had been harassed. They knew that they weren’t alone. And some of them had even spoken about it in their own way. But they weren’t heard. Or, they weren’t heard so loudly and clearly by this large an audience. This magnitude had not been achieved before. To them, it was common knowledge that at least some degree of harassment is a part of any woman’s life. And yet, somehow, they had kept quiet about it.

“The only way that anything can be done is by talking about it,” was one of the many reactions to this trend. “These posts reaffirmed my sad understanding of the society and of reality,” was another. One can argue that the method or words that were chosen for this reaffirmation could have been better. But despite all that, when it is asked if it was something that deserved to be reiterated no matter through what means, the answer is a resounding yes.

Why didn’t they speak up sooner?

If they knew that something wrong had happened to them, why didn’t the women speak up sooner, is a question that has been asked several times since #MeToo started trending across social media platforms. And the answer to that question is, they all had different reasons: She was too young to have the vocabulary to explain what had happened so clearly, earlier. It took her years to realise that it could be wrong and disgusting even if her own uncle was doing it. She had seen a whole army of women around her keep quiet about similar experiences. She was scared for her career. She was scared of/for her family. As one of the women participating in the trend put it, “You feel almost outside of your body (when you are harassed).” It is not a feeling that is easy to comprehend. Particularly when shutting down any serious conversation about it, or even joking about it, is the norm.

A case in point is what has been shared by actress Angie Everhart about Weinstein. He had reportedly entered her room when she was sleeping, and masturbated. “I told people on the boat, I told people at the dinner I was at, and everybody was like, ‘Oh, that’s just Harvey,’” she had said.

Responding to this, British comedian John Oliver said, “So everyone knew and they just went with it. ‘Oh yeah Harvey’s gonna burst in your room and masturbate, that’s just Harvey.’ He’s like a sex criminal version of the Kool-Aid Man.” But at the time when these topics of debate are being opened up, even if slowly, when one woman spoke about it and then tweeted about it, the internet became the space for this long overdue purgation.

the trends that followed

A large percentage of the #MeToo tweets and posts talked about the importance of men’s participation in the campaign. Women wrote about how one of the biggest achievements of this campaign was that the horrifying harassment experiences that mainly women had been privy to so far, would now stare the men in the face. This could finally affect a change as the perpetrators are usually men.

Some interesting parallel trends found their way to social media as a result. Hashtags like ‘IWas’ and ‘ItWasMe’ became ways for “men with a conscience” to own up to how they had been complicit to a social system that resulted in #MeToo resonating with each and every woman. While the possibility of litigation against the abusers was discussed, vague or generalised tweets were also posted.

Some men even participated in the original #MeToo trend by posting accounts on behalf of the not-so-tech-savvy women they knew and wrote a subsequent #IWill post, taking responsibility for trying to make women feel safer around men.

#NotAllMen was posted by men who argued that it’s important to take those men into account who have never done something so shameful. However, people were quick to diss them for trying to score brownie points for not being “disgusting”.

Not just women

The lopsided view of this trend has been criticised by many. They have argued that women aren’t always at the receiving end of abuse. They are often perpetrators, too. But that is never talked about. So, men wrote about how they needed to participate in this trend to show that it isn’t just women who are harassed. This also became space for people who identify as transgender, gay, or queer to share their experiences of being harassed.

One can’t help but think of the representation of sexual exploitation even in popular media. Friends, an all-time favourite American sitcom, mentions more than once that Joey Tribbiani, a struggling actor, gets the “offer” to sleep with the casting people in order to get a role. On one occasion, he even does. And everyone laughs about it. Because if nothing else, he gets sex out of the deal. But whenever the female characters on the show are in a position where they would have to sleep with someone in order to get ahead, that is shown in a slightly more serious light.

There are two ideas to take note of here: First, even if in comical light, the silence about and mild submission to sexual harassment in society is portrayed well here. And two, the discussion takes a more serious tone only when there’s a woman at the receiving end of it.

The question of power

“There is a strange power in saying, ‘You know what? This happened to me too’,” one of the women participating in the #MeToo trend said in a BBC documentary on the topic. Other women talked about how good it felt to finally speak up. And how heartbreaking yet strangely empowering it was that other women had unbelievably similar experiences of abuse as them. Many women mentioned that this was the first time ever that they would be speaking to anybody about what had happened to them. If accounts of even women as popular as Angelina Jolie or a Gwyneth Paltrow come as a shock to everyone, it is probably safe to say that the accepted thing to do is to ignore it and pretend to move on, no matter how old or successful you are.

There are many reasons as to why a large group of women found this hashtag empowering. The idea of sorority and some sense of solidarity or of “not being alone” or “not being the only one who has gone through such a thing” is one of the reasons women have cited. The hashtag also proves that it is finally becoming ok to talk about sexual harassment in a public space and to condemn it, as a group.

Is it the final moment of acknowledgement for society? Society could be moving from denying the existence of such experiences to being angry about it, then negotiating the terms by trying to find out what exactly caused it — clothes, timings, conduct, body language, audacity — to finally accepting that the only reason is the abuser?

An obvious lack of agency or power is reflected in the fact that so many women had experienced it, known that they were not the only ones at the receiving end, and still kept quiet about it. This agency somehow came to them through the hashtag in question. And them talking about it has had an impact even as far as power is concerned.

Going back to the one case that triggered this trend; Weinstein did lose his position of power. After years of silence about what he had been doing to women, when they finally decided to open up about their abuse at his hands, the power equation did change. And if nothing else, that is what this social media trend has achieved. It has used the power in years of silent suffering and disgust to dethrone the one who seemed to have made a habit out of abusing power and getting away with it because which woman would take the risk of talking about it, being questioned, and maybe even ruining her career? When a whole army of them do, it’s harder to dispute it, fortunately or unfortunately.

What about other Weinsteins?

The final eruption of everything that, even according to the likes of Quentin Tarantino had been talked about in hushed tones but rarely condemned, has also brought to light many glaring tales of unpunished abuse at the hands of other famous people. James Toback, Donald Trump, and Casey Affleck are some names that have famously come up in this rage against unreported sexual harassment.

As many as 38 women have opened up about abuse at the hands of Oscar-winning writer and director Toback. Selma Blair and Rachel McAdams are two of the well-known women who have talked about how “powerless, uncomfortable, and scared” Toback’s ways made them feel and how they want him to be “held accountable” now that they are finally in an atmosphere where they are heard. Large groups of women have also asked why Donald Trump, who has also allegedly harassed women, is being left out of the whole debate.

The 2010 allegations against Casey Affleck are being discussed again because people can’t digest the idea of him presenting the next Oscars. Many posts have also asked how much longer one would have to wait to see the Oscar awards being taken back from the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, and Roman Polanski as there have been cases of sexual harassment against them too in the past.

Among all the other celebrity contributions to this discussion, there’s something interesting to note about what Bollywood actresses have said about this. Priyanka Chopra, arguably Bollywood’s biggest international name, has spoken about how there are many Weinsteins, or as she puts it, powerful men who want to abuse women back into their “lane”, even in India, but hasn’t named anyone. Richa Chadda has talked about how it’s baffling that people find the “enormity of #MeToo” surprising when dealing with sexual misconduct is almost like “tax” that women have to pay in order to survive. Aishwarya Rai’s former international manager Simone Sheffield has mentioned that Weinstein wanted to meet the actress “alone” or “in private”, but the actress hasn’t talked about it herself. Kalki Koechlin has reportedly said, “I don’t think we provide an environment to our women to speak up about sexual abuse.”

Responding to #MeToo and the complicit silence around abuse, actors like Colin Firth and Quentin Tarantino have mentioned that they, too, had heard about Weinstein’s “behaviour”. The argument is that the right space for them to talk about this has been created only now.

What about Bollywood? Indian actors have claimed that Bollywood is guilty of its own Weinsteins. This means that here, too, there are celebrated actors who have abused and harassed men and women and gotten away with it because of their powerful position. It also means that these men are still known for their creative legacy and brilliance instead of being shamed for their exploitative ways. But is a safe space for them to be identified and condemned yet to be created in India? The shaming of a Hollywood celebrity caused such a stir here. How much longer would it take for the Bollywood abusers to be fearlessly named? How much greater would the magnitude of that be in the Indian society?

 
 
 
 
 

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