By Maren Mitchell.
The Harvey Weinstein revelations of October 2017 shook the modern world. It dominated media outlets for months and sparked a sexual harassment and assault movement like never seen before. #MeToo was initiated in the wake of the scandal by American actress Alyssa Milano, who tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Twitter erupted with millions of women coming together in their shared experiences, revealing the sheer magnitude of the problem.
But this was not the birthplace of ‘Me Too’. It was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a civil-rights activist from New York City, in an aim to combat sexual harassment and assault against women of colour. Although the movement gained momentum, it could not have competed with its younger sister brought to life 11 years later by Hollywood.
It takes a huge amount of bravery for a woman to speak out against workplace abuse like the case with Weinstein. According to a 2016 study conducted by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one in four people is predicted to have been subject to workplace sexual harassment. In the UK, 8% of women subject to workplace harassment are thought to report it. Reluctance to report abuse is primarily due to fear: of disbelief, of blame, of inaction and of social or professional retaliation. And rightfully so; in the US almost two-thirds of people who file a complaint lose their jobs.
A trend of abuse as a means of exerting power over the less powerful can be seen in the victims of sexual harassment, going beyond just gender. Amongst men, gay men are most at risk and amongst women, women of colour. In addition, disabled women are twice as likely to be victim of sexual abuse than non-disabled women according to UK statistics. Furthermore, the abuse tends to occur most often in male-dominated industries but also amongst low-wage jobs and service-based occupations where employees are reliant on tips. With such an imbalance of power, it is not surprising that abuse occurs under the radar so often that eventually it is just deemed the industry’s cultural norm. Those subject to the abuse often cannot afford to be too brave. To shatter a workplace’s culture is to fight, and to risk a lot.
Enter Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd and a whole host of white, rich, famous women. To call out their privilege is not to deny them the right to justly speak out, but it is telling. Due to their privilege, these women hold power that most victims do not have. We do not disbelieve or blame them because we presume to know and trust them. Action must follow because their voices are too loud for it not to. They hold positions of status too strong to face social or professional retaliation. They defy all the reasons as to why women do not speak out.
The ‘Me Too’ movement of 2006 did not gain worldwide attention because, devastatingly, the women of colour it supported did not hold enough influence societally to counteract the exertion of power the movement was up against. We cannot tackle inequalities in binary form. We must acknowledge the intersectionality within them; in this instance, it is one of gender, class and race. The majority of the loud voices that were speaking out against Weinstein in 2017 sit in a position of privilege for two out of three.
By their nature, movements must take us to new places. In order for ‘Me Too’ to continue taking us there, it must fight against inequality from the grassroots. If it does not, speaking out will continue as a luxury for the privileged—trusting the hidden hand of moral righteousness to solve the problem will not work. We need formalised hiring and promotional processes and panelled, structured interviews within our workplaces. We need unionised workforces increasing the likelihood of women being paid more and equally. We need circulation amongst workforces of a clear definition of ‘harassment’ as abuse is more likely to be reported when the word is visibly defined. Where Weinstein accusers had The New York Times and The New Yorker, we need our own form of third- party investigation.
It will take more than this. It will require huge cultural shifts away from systemic misogyny, racism and classism which result in such stark power imbalances. But these are small steps in the right direction; away from the horrifying advances of the Harvey Weinsteins of the world and towards a place with a little less ‘me too’.