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Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, Bill Cosby: If there is a standard metric by which the progress of the #MeToo movement has been measured, it is the conviction of high-profile men accused by women and girls of sex crimes.
Small wonder, then, that the defamation case between the actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, which turned on Heard’s self-description in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed as a representative of domestic abuse, has been read as a low-water mark for the movement: After and even before the jury found last week that each had defamed the other, awarding $2 million in damages to Heard and $10 million to Depp, commentators were declaring “the death” and “the end” of #MeToo.
Nearly five years after its viral spread on social media prompted an international reckoning with the prevalence of sexual abuse and discrimination, particularly in the workplace, #MeToo still looms large in the cultural imagination. But to what extent has it actually succeeded in remedying the inequalities that compelled its formation, and should the Depp-Heard verdict be taken as an indication of the movement’s waning power? Here’s what people are saying.
The rise and fall of #MeToo
As Moira Donegan writes in The Guardian, the backlash to #MeToo is nearly as old as the movement itself: Even in its early days, criticism abounded that it was “excessive and intemperate” or had “gone too far.”
Yet for all the resistance it met, #MeToo hasn’t actually done much to curtail sexual harassment and abuse, in the view of Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami who focuses on the First Amendment and technology.
“When we look at the people who have had serious accusations made against them — one of the ones is a Supreme Court justice — most of the accused men in Hollywood have gotten their jobs back, or people are doing their comeback tours like nothing really happened,” she told Politico.
More broadly, domestic violence continues to go underreported, with just 41 percent of cases reported to the police in 2020, down from 47 percent in 2017, according to the Department of Justice. A 2019 survey from the Harvard Business Review found that while blatant sexual harassment in the workplace appeared to decline after the advent of #MeToo, hostility toward female employees appeared to increase, suggestive of a backlash. When workers do come forward with sexual harassment claims, they face courts that “have not moved very far from where they started three decades ago,” Danielle Bernstein wrote in The Atlantic last year.
The way the Depp-Heard trial was processed on social media could indicate that the court of public opinion is also becoming less friendly to accusers. If in the immediate aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein reporting we saw a wave of corporations and celebrities voicing their support for #MeToo, here we saw what Farrah Khan, a gender justice advocate and the director of Consent Comes First at Toronto Metropolitan University, called the “meme-ification of domestic violence”: “We’re seeing people see entertainment in it — content creators saying, ‘You know what, this is how I actually can build my brand.’”
In April, the makeup company Milani Cosmetics posted a viral TikTok, which became its most watched video, effectively accusing Heard of lying about using one of its concealer products to cover up her bruises. Also among those who attempted to harvest attention by making light of the trial online was the Scottish hockey team The Dundee Stars, the former NSYNC singer Lance Bass and the popular language-learning company Duolingo.
The Times’s Amanda Hess argues that the online commentary about the trial was remarkably one-sided in Depp’s favor, quickly progressing from a he-said-she-said case to an internet-wide smear campaign against Heard. “It’s tempting to ignore all of this,” she writes, but even after the trial, “the elaborate grassroots campaign to smear a woman will remain, now with a plugged-in support base and a field-tested harassment playbook.”
Ultimately, “I think it’s become clear that survivors are making rational decisions when they decide not to come forward,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a civil rights attorney and the author of “Sexual Justice.” “They are engaged in a cost/benefit analysis, and often that calculus shows them they’re better off not reporting.”
Where #MeToo won
Not everyone is so bearish about #MeToo’s prospects. “The movement is very much alive,” the activist Tarana Burke, who started the movement in 2006, said after the Depp-Heard verdict came down. Regardless of the outcome of any one trial, the hashtag still “means something to millions and millions of folks,” she added.
The impact of consciousness-raising is difficult to measure but arguably should not be dismissed: In a 2021 poll from The Associated Press, 54 percent of Americans said that attention to sexual misconduct had made them more likely to speak out if they were a victim, and 58 percent said were more willing to speak out if they were to witness it.
And more than that, #MeToo has changed how governments and corporations handle claims of sexual harassment. Here are just a few examples.
A crackdown on nondisclosure agreements: Several states, including New York and California, have restricted employer use of nondisclosure agreements. Most recently, in April, Washington State passed an outright ban on them in workplace settlements related to illegal acts, forcing companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft and Costco to relinquish a tooloften used to keep workers from speaking publicly about sexual harassment.
Expansions of sexual harassment protections: As Anna North noted in Vox in 2019, sexual harassment protections for the most part do not extend to independent contractors or millions of domestic and farm workers. But in 2019 and 2022, New York passed laws to help close those loopholes, as did Texas in 2021.
An end to mandatory arbitration: In March, President Biden signed a law forbidding clauses in employment contracts requiring workers to settle sexual harassment and abuse cases in private rather than in court. About 60 million Americans were estimated to be constrained by such clauses, often unknowingly. The law is retroactive, nullifying mandatory arbitration agreements that have already been signed.
Was #MeToo’s potential limited from the start?
Of all the criticisms mounted against the #MeToo movement since its inception, two of the most common were that it too often dispensed with the presumption of innocence, a tendency epitomized by the slogan “Believe women,” which some of the movement’s detractors later rendered as “Believe all women,” and that it too readily elided sexual transgressions of disparate severity, collapsing the moral distance between “low-level boorishness” and rape.
The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino attributes the prevalence of the second criticism partly to the flattening effect of social media, from which the #MeToo movement derived much of its momentum. “A hashtag is specifically designed to remove a statement from context and to position it as part of an enormous singular thought,” she wrote in her 2019 book “Trick Mirror.” “Because there is no room or requirement in a tweet to add a disclaimer about individual experience, and because hashtags subtly equate disconnected statements in a way that can’t be controlled by those speaking, it has been even easier for #MeToo critics to claim that women must themselves think that going on a bad date is the same as being violently raped.”
As for the first criticism, the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan has argued that “Believe women” is in most cases not a call to abandon the presumption of innocence, a principle in the court of law, but rather a corrective to the social norm in the court of public opinion of dismissing women who accuse men of sexual misconduct as liars.
Still, Srinivasan wrote in her 2021 book “The Right to Sex” that “Believe women” is a blunt tool that advances some women’s interests over and at the expense of others. An African-American man serving time for sexual assault in the United States is 3.5 times as likely to be innocent as his white counterpart, a report from the University of Michigan Law School found. The colorblind injunction to “believe women,” then, can harm not only Black men, but also Black women, whose justified fear of entrenching sexual stereotypes of Black people stifles their freedom to speak about their own experiences of sexual violence.
That leads Srinivasan to what she believes is another flaw of the #MeToo movement (and liberal feminist movements in general): its overreliance on punishment, particularly at the hands of the state, as a means of producing social change for all women, not just the most well-off ones like many a Hollywood actress, whose oppression is uncomplicated by race or immigration status or class.
“Few if any feminists believe that harassment should be tolerated, that employers shouldn’t be sued, or that laws against sexual harassment haven’t done much to help working women, poor women included,” she wrote. “But a feminist politics which sees the punishment of bad men as its primary purpose will never be a feminism that liberates all women, for it obscures what makes most women unfree.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Why Nobody Wins in the Depp-Heard Verdict” [The New York Times]
“The First Amendment Is Stronger Than Johnny Depp” [The Atlantic]
“Stop Trying to Extract Larger Lessons From the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp Trial” [The New Republic]
“The Me Too backlash is here” [Vox]
“The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash” [The New Yorker]