The Power of Shared Experience
(See more articles like this one over on my blog: Quirk-E)
The phrase ‘me too’ is often an acknowledgement of shared experience. It’s a statement of inclusion or empathy: I feel ill, me too; I want ice-cream, me too.
But, since 2017, the phrase has developed additional significance, becoming entwined with narratives about sexual assault and rape culture. To say ‘me too’ — or, more commonly, to write #MeToo on a social media post — is to express an autobiographical experience about sexual violence within a wider cultural context. An experience that then becomes part of a collective hashtag, creating a connected web of shared trauma, resilience and news about sexual assault.
The #MeToo movement unfortunately remains all too relevant even three years on. In the news right now, there is the on-going Jeffrey Epstein case (about which Netflix have released a four-part documentary series that focusses on the testimonies of the women he abused). Making headlines closer to home, a group of St Andrews students have created an anonymous Instagram account called St Andrews Survivors that has dozens of post recounting people’s experiences of sexual assault on campus, ‘amplifying their stories’ through collective sharing. And, on TV, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is getting a lot of praise from viewers for its honest handling of sexual assault (Coel based the show on her own experiences).
So, yeah, #MeToo and rape culture haven’t gone anywhere, but an increased awareness of sexual violence has arguably remained in the social psyche. And I think that’s down to several factors, particularly the power of personal, autobiographical testimonies but also — and probably more influentially — the way social media has allowed these narratives to become connected; they are now too numerous and too visible on social media to be easily swept back under the social-taboo rug.
Hashtags and Collective Narrative Building
Back in 2018, when I first wrote about and researched the #MeToo Movement for a class, what really struck me was the way social media — Twitter in particular — was allowing survivors of assault to see (or at least read about) each other and engage in discussions about rape and sexual violence that had previously been seen as isolated incidents, too upsetting and too taboo to discuss in the public sphere. But what happened in 2017 was a massive global outpouring of people saying #MeToo, recognising and adding their experiences into a shared digital tapestry of trauma and support.
The hashtag MeToo went viral in October 2017 when the actress Alyssa Milano used it in a Tweet to encourage other victims of sexual violence to share their stories, quoting a friend’s suggestion that doing so ‘might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’ And it did: in the first 24 hours after the tweet was published ‘half a million people’ shared the hashtag (BBC).
Hashtags categorise and summarise social media posts by grouping together related content and searchable phrases under a keyword/phrase — a tag. In the instance of #MeToo, the hashtag itself combines the direct meaning of the phrase — an acknowledgement of shared experience — with the act of categorisation, of integration within a wider, public discussion. Hashtags weave together a larger conversation and collection of content, building a bigger narrative from the contributions of individual people. Using #MeToo can therefore be considered an autobiographical act that simultaneously seeks to increase social awareness about the endemic nature of sexual violence.
The Origins of #MeToo
However, the MeToo movement didn’t really start with Milano in 2017. It was actually founded over a decade earlier in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, and originally aimed ‘to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing’ (Me Too). The main aim of the movement was to build a sense of community between survivors and encourage conversations about the trauma of sexual violence within traditionally marginalised groups. Most of Burke’s work concentrated on helping survivors move past their traumatic experiences together.
You can imagine how much of a shock #MeToo’s sudden rise in 2017 was for the movement’s founder. A movement that once operated in ‘the dark’, as journalist Emma Brockes describes in an interview with Burke, has now achieved global recognition. Burke was initially wary, stating in the same interview that she thought ‘this is going to be a fucking disaster.’ She had witnessed first-hand the vitriol that can be directed towards victims of sexual assault who go public with their allegations. And whilst such backlash did occur — and continues to occur — something else happened too: Burke states that #MeToo had a ‘de-stigmatising effect’ and ‘represents a greater gain than the anticipated risks[.]’
This demonstrates the power of social media; through sharing experiences of sexual violence online, a wider conversation was started that has facilitated a shift in perceptions about and awareness of sexual violence. Without the medium of social media, such a phenomenon of collective narrative building would have been impossible.
In the wake of #MeToo, people have been trying to understand how such a watershed moment took so long to arrive. Sexual violence is certainly nothing new or rare. When researching, I found a really good quote from an article by Joan C. Williams and Suzanne Lebsock that analysed the key factors that lead to the movement’s sudden global rise:
Several changes in the past decade have brought us to this startling moment. Some were technological: The internet enables women to go public with accusations, bypassing the gatekeepers who traditionally buried their stories. Other changes were cultural: A centuries-old stereotype — the Vengeful Lying Slut — was drained of its power by feminists who coined the term “slut shaming” and reverse-shamed those who did it. Just as important, women have made enough inroads into positions of power in the press, corporations, Congress, and Hollywood that they no longer have to play along with the boys’ club; instead they can, say, lead the charge to force Al Franken’s resignation or break the story on Harvey Weinstein.
The ability of social media to transgress traditional media outlets provides a degree of freedom. Digital communication methods such as Twitter offer a platform for people whose voices would not otherwise be heard by a wide audience. Case in point: the #MeToo Movement was not widely known prior to 2017; through social media and its topical relevance in the wake of a myriad of sexual assault scandals, notably the Weinstein case in Hollywood, #MeToo not only entered mainstream dialogues about sexual violence, but now actively shapes them.
However, whilst the hashtag was spread by all manner of people, it was Milano’s tweet and celebrity posts that sparked the original viral landslide of #MeToo. The movement, traditionally aimed at supporting marginalised women of colour, achieved its global fame through a celebrity — and subsequently predominantly wealthy and white — platform.
Arguably, this dilutes the extent to which we can say that the movement has had a democratising effect on narratives of sexual assault, suggesting instead a hierarchy of storytelling power. As a public figure with a significant social media following, Milano was able to share her experience with a far larger audience and within a Hollywood context that the media were dedicating significant coverage to. By contrast, as journalist Alissa Quart points out, the actions of everyday women ‘represent an element of the #MeToo movement seen and heard too little — the protest and outcry of ordinary women, rather than that of celebrity #MeToo advocates, which is often evinced at awards ceremonies or on Twitter.’
As Quart goes on to argue, we cannot forget about the women for whom the movement was traditionally established to help. Burke herself has spoken extensively on why #MeToo needs to work harder to also listen to women of colour. In an article in The Washington Post she outlines how in America, Indigenous women are ‘2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races’ and Black women are also more at risk of experiencing sexual violence.
So how successful has the #MeToo movement really been at giving all survivors of sexual violence a platform to share their stories? Well, it seems the movement is a product of its culture and is therefore shaped by the same biases and inequalities, so it is unsurprising — but still disappointing — that #MeToo has arguably better served privileged, middle-class, mostly white women while it still struggles to achieve the same representation for working-class women, trans women, women of colour, as well as male survivors of sexual violence.
Having said that, #MeToo started a process of collective narrative building that continues to challenge the traditional status quo surrounding sexual assault and how it gets reported in the media. Three years on, #MeToo has by no means eradicated rape culture or the inherent inequalities of feminist activism, but it has made it harder for society to ignore these issues and its set a precedent of publicly calling out sexual violence — and that, at least, is a bit of progress.