The musician Ryan Adams was recently exposed for dangling success in front of women who he then sexually pursued and emotionally abused when they rejected his advances. A few weeks later, Emma Thompson pulled out of a film when Pixar supremo John Lasseter – who was accused of sexual harassment last year – joined the production: #MeToo still has legs.
This moment has brought visibility to rape culture, abuse and harassment on a grand scale. But the continued exposés – which haven’t stopped since Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator by the New York Times in 2017 – mask a disappointing truth: the MeToo movement is in the process of failing.
That was the prevalent view at a ThinkIn, “Has MeToo failed?”, held last Wednesday at our London office. We heard from several women who had been at the centre of stories of harassment and abuse, including Zelda Perkins, a former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, and Jess Phillips MP, who has been outspoken on issues of harassment at Westminster.
There were glimmers of hope: a young woman who felt more empowered to speak up at her investment company, and an actor who spoke of a more enlightened world for women on stage and screen. But in the 80-strong meeting, there was a sense that this was a movement that had thus far failed to make any legislative impact and had no idea where it was going.
Why the lack of direction? Minna Salami, one of the experts in the room, suggested this was a moment that suffered from being separate from feminism as a whole. In all the talks and texts by high-profile women of the movement – including the TED talk by the movement founder Tarana Burke – the word feminism isn’t mentioned once.
Instead it has become part of a “women’s empowerment” sector, which is more soft sisterhood than political solidarity. Why does this matter? Without the body of knowledge built up by feminism, MeToo cannot figure out the symptoms of why we’re having these problems or, indeed, work towards the solutions.
And there is clearly a backlash afoot. Women are being denied professional opportunities because some men are reluctant to “take the risk” of working with them. Over the last year, stories have leaked of tech investors denying female entrepreneurs meetings, and women being excluded from jobs and after-work drinks since the movement started.
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At the ThinkIn, one man in finance had direct experience of something similar at his work. In what we might call “the Pence effect” writ large (Mike Pence, the US vice-president, famously refuses to dine with other women for fear of – what, exactly?), he described how women were being excluded or avoided to dodge “any potential conflict”. There remains a private fear of wrongful accusations against men – it is wildly misplaced, but it’s there and it needs to be openly addressed.
It’s fair to say the language is unhelpful. Several audience members made the point that, if we want to make a truly structural change, it can’t be an us-against-them, male vs female issue. It has to be about taking down the pillars of power and privilege. Of course, much power resides with men, but just pointing out the terrible men who have done terrible things won’t lead to the systemic shift we need.
MeToo now has to move beyond hashtags and slogans. It should embrace all classes and cultures. And it has to keep pushing and it has to push towards something concrete.