On November 9, Jodi Kantor, one of two journalists who took down Harvey Weinstein in an investigative piece for The New York Times, voiced a premonition about the nature of the #MeToo Movement in an interview.
“I think this story is getting bigger, not smaller,” Kantor said. “I think it’s like a wave that hasn’t receded yet.”
The subsequent weeks proved her correct.
On November 29, Matt Lauer was fired from “The Today Show” after NBC received internal reports of sexual harassment allegations. On January 11, five women reported that actor James Franco engaged in “inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior” with them. On January 14, a woman with the alias Grace told the story of what she called “the worst night of [her] life” with comedian Aziz Ansari.
The #MeToo movement has spawned the outpouring of hundreds of women’s stories, all congealing to create a thematically singular narrative: one where men grossly abuse their institutionalized power at the expense of women.
These accounts come in many forms. Some, like the reports against Harvey Weinstein, are stories of clear-cut sexual assault, the kind of assault that may be punishable under law. Other stories, like Grace’s description of an encounter with Ansari, are accounts of men taking an unsure and uncomfortable “okay” to mean “yes.” This is the kind of assault that is personally violating, even if not criminally so.
This story and others like it have been met with criticism, even from liberal media outlets. This is often an issue of semantics. In Emma Gray’s article in the Huffington Post, she rejected the labeling of this as “assault.” Call it “assault,” call it a “violation,” make up a new word and call it that. What it is, definitively, is wrong. For others, if an encounter is not punishable under the law, sharing your story is viewed as a “disservice” to the #MeToo movement. In her article “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” Bari Weiss discredited Grace’s discomfort, chalking it up to “bad sex.”
“The article in Babe was met with digital hosannas by young feminists who insisted that consent is consent only if it is affirmative, active, continuous and — and this is the word most used — enthusiastic,” Weiss disdainfully noted.
For Weiss, reluctant consent is equal to enthusiastic consent. After all, both options are protected under the law. So yes, we live in a time where these narratives are powerless to affect institutional change through legal means. But these narratives have also never been more crucial.
The lack of affirmative consent is part of a wider problem: a gendered power imbalance. And what every story has agreed upon is that this unequal power dynamic is central to the culture that promotes assault. This largely stems from socialization. Women have been taught to make others feel comfortable at the expense of their own comfort. As a result, a woman has a hard time saying no. She wants to be kind. She wants to look out for a man’s feelings, making sure he isn’t offended, making sure his ego isn’t wounded.
And as Gray wrote in the Huffington Post, “Men are taught that they are entitled to women’s time, attention, and physical affection—and that if those things are not readily offered to them, they should be aggressive and take it.”
And this is where critics of some #MeToo stories have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose and impact of the movement. The only real way to change the power dynamic as it exists now is a hierarchical transformation. People in positions of power need to be replaced and allow those traditionally not in power to have a turn. In America, the oppressors benefit directly from their domination of the oppressed, making such a shift in power wildly unlikely. But the hashtag is not directly interested in replacing those currently in power. Rather, it aims to give women a space to share their stories. It aims to voice the violations that thousands of women and girls have experienced. It helps to create an understanding among women that their struggle is not only theirs, but the struggle of many.
What the hashtag #MeToo has given women is a unified narrative, which does not automatically mean that institutionalized power dynamics will change. It should be noted that the internet fosters an environment of oversimplified, overgeneralized declarations that lack nuance. And while these stories unite to form something larger than each singular story, we must also view each woman’s testimony as important for what it singularly says.
Every time a woman comes forward detailing a time she was assaulted, or violated, or wronged by a system that does not punish men for their aggressive entitlement, she strengthens the narrative. She thickens and verifies it. That is the goal of this movement. It is not only to bring down sad excuses for men like Harvey Weinstein. It is also to create a unified narrative, a narrative where women are writing and telling their own stories. Finally.
Jodie Kahan is a member of the class of 2021. Jodie can be reached at email@example.com.