Opinion
17 Aug 2018

#MeToo -- there are still reasons to be afraid

Those who want #MeToo to be over, who want women to move on, might be more comfortable pointing women in the direction of a broken system rather than taking responsibility for the culture that harmed them. Yet they, like abusers, must be challenged.

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh Producer, Al Jazeera English, Europe
#MeToo -- there are still reasons to be afraid - NewsMavens
GGAADD, Women's March Oslo, Flickr Commons

“There will always be a man, a group of men or an entire system that will stab you in the back,” wrote Thomas Messias in a recent article for Slate.fr, in which he criticized the backlash against #MeToo taking place in the French media. Backlash, as described by the American feminist Susan Faludi in 1991, is the retributive response to feminist advancements. Wherever there is a gain in women’s rights, there’s a counter reaction to put women back in their place.

Messias pointed to a recent feature in L’Obs about what it means to be a man “after #MeToo.” The cover of the left-leaning French weekly magazine featured a shirtless, forlorn man alone at a kitchen table with a dog and wilted roses. The feature also goes on to criticize the silence from men throughout #MeToo, not because there haven’t been enough men supporting women, but because, the author complains, almost all of the articles have been written by women. Imagine: hearing from more women than men about violence against women.

(For a bit of perspective: only 23% of articles in the European Union are written by women. In France in 2015, only 14.2% of front page photos and articles were attributed to women. Men dominate the media in the United Kingdom and in the United States women authored only 37% of the articles, including opinion pieces, about reproductive rights.)

As Messias points out, articles like these brush off the everyday sexism that women face and essentially pay homage to the unquestioned system of masculinity that is at the heart of the problem.

The L’Obs piece also raises the question of whether #MeToo is over. A very simple way to answer this would be to ask women: are you still being sexually harassed? When the answer to that question is no, then it will be rational to discuss a world after #MeToo.

So far, #MeToo hasn’t put an end to the sexual assault we experience regularly. Just weeks ago, a woman was slapped in broad daylight in Paris simply for standing up to a man who made uninvited, vulgar sexual remarks towards her.

The #MeToo backlash comes not only in the form of a slap, but also in the complaints we hear from men that it’s become “impossible” to “even talk to” women and through the numerous articles about the #MeToo “comeback” from abusers like celebrity chef Mario Batali (as if an apology coupled with a recipe for cinnamon rolls excuses sexual assault). Backlash also takes place in articles like the one in L’Obs that ask what it means to be a man in a so-called post #MeToo world without reflecting on male privilege and men’s institutionalized power over women.

Here’s an idea: when justice systems aren’t sexist, when countries stop failing to ratify international anti-rape conventions, when governments stop blaming women for being victims of sex trafficking and when women no longer have to fear taking an ashtray to the head simply for standing up for themselves, then we can start talking about a post #MeToo world.

This isn’t to suggest that we don’t need a conversation about masculinity -- we absolutely need it, for men’s wellbeing as well as for women’s. But that conversation must address how patriarchy harms both men and women. We need to question why our societies tell men to assert their manhood through power over and sometimes violence against women. We need to stop telling women to submit and not fight back.

It might be tempting to dismiss backlash as simply part of the struggle, to shrug and say that there are always going to be people who will stand in the way of change.

But backlash, left unchallenged, makes sexism all the more insidious. It’s not enough to only call out the abusers.

We have to talk about the many ways that women are told: okay, you’ve spoken for long enough, now sit down and let’s hear from these poor men about whether or not their libidos and careers are doing okay.

Backlash isn’t a one-off bad experience. When I was 16, I was arguing with a male classmate at a party who was trying to lecture me about why my feminist perspective was wrong. He didn’t like what I was saying, so he began to lean into my face and raised his voice. I told him very coldly to get out of my face, but instead, he shouted louder, hovering over me as I was literally backed into a corner. So I slapped him.

I was immediately and violently slammed into the wall by this person who was significantly taller, larger and stronger than myself. I’m lucky that it didn’t escalate, but I realized at that moment that standing up for myself was dangerous (and that there were people, friends even, who would blame me for it).

Several years later, while I was waiting to cross the street in New York City, a man stared at my body and made a number of repulsive comments. When I told him to get lost, he lunged at me, screaming and shouting.

These days, I rarely stand up for myself in such situations. In recent weeks, I have been silent in response to catcalls, I laughed at a sexist joke told by a stranger in my own neighborhood because I was afraid of him, I ignored the inappropriate comments about my eyes from airport security and went along with advances from men in my building that belong in an episode of Mad Men.

I would love to tell you that incidents like these don’t take a toll on my dignity, that my tenacity is thoroughly and completely rooted in self-confidence, not anger or fear. But I’d be lying.

I know there are many women who will nod along, thinking, that’s why I keep fighting or that’s why I’ve given up. I think it’s safe to assume we women do both from time to time.

Here’s the thing about #MeToo: we’ve barely scratched the surface. We’ve barely begun to hear from women who have been silenced for centuries, for millennia. Men’s voices belong in this conversation, but that space should be given to men like Thomas Messias who confront sexism, not from abusers who want to play the victim. They’ve been loud enough and it’s time for them to listen.

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Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna ZiomeckaGazeta Wyborcza, Europe
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