Soon after actress Alyssa Milano had posted a tweet on October 15 that said, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” thousands of people, including author and poet Najwa Zebian and singer Lady Gaga, had responded to it by using the hashtag “#MeToo.”
Similar to the 2012 #EverydaySexism and the 2014 #YesAllWomen campaign, the #MeToo movement has used social media, as what Anna Codrea-Rado from The New York Times describes, “a galvanizing platform for women to discuss their experiences.” Therefore as women rally towards alternative platforms for raising awareness, The Medium hopes to understand why this is becoming important, and what it can hope to achieve.
“Social media has been used as a space for women to speak out and for women to express solidarity with each other,” explains professor Beverly Bain, lecturer in the women and gender studies program in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga, to The Medium. Having served as the executive director of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canada’s largest feminist organization from 1992 to1997, Bain has been an anti-racist and anti-violence feminist activist for over 30 years. According to her, “Social media platforms allow women to speak about issues that are actually very common, speak of what has happened to them, again in solidarity with each other.”
Solidarity has been a unifying theme in garnering support for movements propelled by social media demonstrated by the 2014 campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which was launched after the abduction of more than 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. With #BringBackOurGirls punctuating more than 4.5 million tweets globally, Liz Ford writes in The Guardian on March 19, 2015, “Hashtag activism has helped to propel women’s rights to the forefront of political agendas, bringing attention to issues often under-reported by mainstream media.”
Hashtag activism, as Bain describes, elicits a spontaneous response in women towards supporting each other. “It has created a space for feminist discussion and to raise awareness for issues related to sexual assault and it’s very important for us to have a space where we can talk about these issues and recognize their magnitude.”
The use of social media in feminist struggle has become the cornerstone of what Nancy Chodorow, among others, have described as “networked feminism” in her book Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory published in 1992. Networked feminism refers to the online mobilization and coordination of feminists in response to perceived sexist, misogynistic, racist, and other discriminatory acts against minority groups. However, while Nisha Chittal writes in her April 26, 2015 article in MSNBC news that “a new wave of feminism is here, and its most powerful weapon is the hashtag,” a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published in 2015 finds that the impact of social media in translating women’s voices into decision-making processes have been patchy and unpredictable, reflecting the struggles experienced by grassroots activists.
While describing the importance of social media in signaling sexual assault, Bain notes, “When using these hashtags, we also have to be aware that they don’t go beyond this—they don’t end violence, and we must continue to create strategies and continue to work towards changing consciousness and addressing men’s approaches to sexual assault.” Conversations about sexual assault must inform, as Bain emphasizes, our understandings about gender, patriarchy, and assumptions about the two.
An October 19 article by Alexandra Schwartz in the The New Yorker reads, “#MeToo, #ItWasMe, and the Post-Weinstein Megaphone of Social Media,” describing how the hashtag is being used to raise awareness about the sweeping malignancy of sexual assault and harassment, in the light of the assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
As the UTM women and gender studies professor explains, “It’s important to understand that this didn’t start with Harvey and it won’t end with Harvey.” Bain highlights the long history of sexual assault where the current cultural awareness allowing us to engage in these conversations has been the product of years of activism and feminist struggle. Bain emphasizes, “We have to continue to challenge patriarchy and challenge these institutions that allow this behavior to perpetuate.”
Social media itself requires navigation. Bain describes the duality of experiences derived from a flurry of double taps and retweets: “Using the platforms of social media and mass media puts us in a unique position of responsibility and awareness, because the same platforms are also being used for bullying and by men for starting movements that are against efforts such as the #MeToo campaign. So while it gives women a space to have these conversations and support each other, we also realize that social media is not what is going to end these problems.”
Vice writer Megan Nolan, in her October 17th article “The Problem with the #MeToo Campaign” describes her conflicted solace in its solidarity, while feeling a gnawing despair in its traction. She explains how the selective proliferation of certain movements may reflect underlying privilege. Nolan mentions, “The fact that Tarana Burke’s creation of the movement was ignored, that it is credited to a famous white actress, is not irrelevant here.”
An article by writer Zahara Hill published in Ebony on October 18 has since revealed that Tarana Burke, a black woman, created the “Me Too” campaign against sexual assault 10 years ago with the same name and aims, though without the social media virality.
While illustrating the success of the campaign in its saturation of social media platforms, illuminating the ubiquitous spectrum of experiences related to sexual violence, Nolan writes: “One of the things I find frustrating about speaking about sexual abuse is that you are expected to play your own history as a trump card. If I object to a rape joke, I’m a sour feminazi, until I explain that I’ve been raped, when I turn into a delicate flower who needs protecting and patronizing. There is no room in the discourse for an impersonal non-narrative criticism of the culture.”
Even in our age of heightened awareness, Bain emphasizes the need for consistent and assertive feminist discourse by saying: “What is going to end a culture of assault is consistent underground struggle of women, through various avenues that challenge sexism and patriarchy. And social media is one of the tools we can use and a space we can benefit from to initiate dialogue about the various kinds of assault.”
Social media, while instrumental in feminist movements, can then be understood as only one of the approaches women use to rally and support each other, which requires scrutiny with as much fervor as is poured into its propulsion. As Bain describes, “Dismantling patriarchy and this culture of violence requires consistent, day to day activism, with constant struggle and advocacy for policy change lead by feminist leaders.”