Can #MeToo go beyond white neoliberal feminism?

Who can say #MeToo and who will be heard?

March Supporting Sexual Assault Victims Held In Los Angeles
Demonstrators participate in the #MeToo Survivors's March on November 12 in Los Angeles [David McNew/Getty Images]

Alicia Garza, the cofounder of Black Lives Matter, recently paid tribute to Tarana Burke, the African American activist who began the “Me Too” campaign in 2007 as a grassroots movement to aid sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities where no rape crisis centres existed and few sexual assault workers were on the payroll. Garza, herself a survivor of sexual assault, explained that for her, the importance of “Me Too” lies in the “power of empathy, this power of connection, is really about empowering people to be survivors, to be resilient, and also to make really visible that sexual violence is not about people’s individual actions, that this is a systemic problem”.

These words are not only directed towards the Donald Trump and Roy Moore types and the conservative backlash against #MeToo, but should also be read as a counterbalance to the trenchant feminist critiques of the campaign.

Activists and feminists have, rightly, pointed out that it is only when powerful, wealthy and mostly white women come forward that influential men have been forced to resign from high-profile positions. This raises the absolutely crucial question of when and where claims of sexual harassment and assault are heard and whose voices count.

Other critics have noted that the denunciation and the tendency to conflate more “casual” sexual harassment with sexual assault can lead to scapegoating, lack of due process, and a new “sex panic”, where sexuality will be even more forcibly policed. Historically, such processes have translated into more intensified policing of non-normative sexual practices, particularly among LGBTQ people.

Along similar lines, women of colour have voiced their grave concerns about the incredibly bloated and racist criminal justice system, claiming that the mere criminalisation of perpetrators is problematic.

#MeToo has already shifted debates about workplace norms, created new and surprising alliances


Finally, another concern coming from the left has to do with its individualistic nature. This line of critique suggests that #MeToo is about “me”, the individual’s resilience and survival and does not and likely cannot mobilise people politically. Thus, it can easily become part of a neoliberal feminist discussion, which ultimately individualises and atomises each person who uses the hashtag while disavowing the socioeconomic and cultural structures shaping our lives. In this way, it also elides the women who are perhaps most vulnerable to violence – sexual or otherwise – such as immigrant, domestic workers, and low-income women of colour.

Insofar as this is the case, then the #MeToo discourse not only helps to disarticulate the systemic nature of gendered and sexual violence, but it actually places the onus on individual women to come forward and speak their pain. 

These criticisms are both valid and forceful. But Garza, in her single sentence quoted above, manages to address many of the issues raised, while highlighting the fault lines as well as the incredible potential of the #MeToo campaign. 

First, Garza reminds us that “Me Too” began as a grassroots movement, founded by an African American woman, whose aim was to reach women in underprivileged communities, particularly young women of colour. From the outset, the movement had a very specific therapeutic and political vision that helps explain its affective pull, as well as why women feel empowered when speaking about their painful and often traumatic experiences. As Burke puts it: “Me Too” is about “using the power of empathy to stomp out shame.” 

The Time magazine named the 'Silence Breakers', those who have shared their stories about sexual assault and harassment,                         'person of the year'. The magazine's cover features Isabel Pascual, Ashley Judd, Taylor Swift, Adama Iwu and Susan Fowler [AP]
The Time magazine named the ‘Silence Breakers’, those who have shared their stories about sexual assault and harassment,                         ‘person of the year’. The magazine’s cover features Isabel Pascual, Ashley Judd, Taylor Swift, Adama Iwu and Susan Fowler [AP]

While the mainstream press has noted – albeit mostly in passing – Burke’s coining of the term, much less has been said about the origins of “Me Too” as a grassroots movement, its therapeutic vision or its initial mission to help underprivileged women find their voice. Thus, Garza’s intervention reminds us, yet again, how often “black women’s work” and their voices have been erased from mainstream US narratives.

Second, Garza highlights one of the main tensions or paradoxes in the current #MeToo movement. On the one hand, she says that #MeToo is about empowering individuals who have experienced sexual harassment and assault, transforming shame into a language of empowerment, survival and resilience. The desire for emotional transformation and the effort to enable survivors to speak and work through their pain clearly has its roots in the movement’s original therapeutic vision.

On the other hand – and in the very same breath – she insists that sexual violence is about systemic patriarchal violence, which, she contends, feeds off of shame and silence. 

Garza has a point. Notwithstanding the strength of the different critiques, the “#MeToo” campaign has, within a short period, managed to bring about noticeable social change. Its incredible domino effect has begun to transform not only public discussion but also the cultural landscape in ways that no one could have predicted even six months ago. Indeed, we are witnessing a new phenomenon in which self-entitled and privileged men who think they can do whatever they want with impunity are actually being sacked as a result of sexual assault and even “casual” sexual harassment. This is historic.

#MeToo has already shifted debates about workplace norms, created new and surprising alliances where female farmworkers are not only speaking out, but expressing their solidarity with Hollywood actresses; it is breaking the silence around gender inequality in this particular form – sexual harassment and assault – pushing the mainstream media to abandon the bad apple approach and to note that the problem is, in fact, pervasive, if not structural.

In this context, it is crucial to remember the motivations behind the original “Me Too” campaign, as well as the words of its founder: “I appreciate the hashtag, and I appreciate the hashtag elevating the conversation, but it’s not a hashtag, right? It’s not a moment. This is a movement.”

It is certainly true that the current #MeToo campaign could devolve into another aspect of an individualistic neoliberal feminism, leaving men like Donald Trump and Roy Moore unscathed. But it is also true that it could gather more momentum and broaden the conversation to include urgent and difficult discussions about structural sexism, male self-entitlement, and – just as importantly – other forms of intersecting systemic oppressions. Burke and Garza are leading the way. Whether we follow their lead and help mobilise the moment into a mass movement is, in many ways, up to us. So, yes, “MeToo.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.