Media Portrayal of #MeToo (March)
In March 2019, the Rights Writers explore the role the media has played in covering their issues and what effects it has had — positive and negative.
On January 20, 2019, Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too Movement, stood at the front of Duke Chapel, addressing an audience of student, faculty, and community members as the keynote speaker of Duke’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration. Burke originally coined the phrase “me too” in 2006. At its inception Me Too was about healing survivors of sexual violence, with a deliberate focus on “Black women and girls, and other young women of color from low wealth communities”.
The phrase went viral years later, when American actress Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a response to this tweet.” Milano’s 2017 tweet came just days after The New York Times broke the story about Harvey Weinstein and the slew of women accusing him of sexual harassment or assault. #MeToo immediately went viral. A study by the Pew Research Center found that #MeToo was used more than 19 million times on Twitter. Allegation after allegation came out against high-profile men including Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, and Louis C.K. Overnight, Tarana Burke found herself at the helm of a global movement. At the end of 2017, Time Magazine named Burke and others Time’s Person of the Year, collectively referred to as “The Silence Breakers.” Burke shares the magazine cover with some of entertainment’s biggest stars, including Milano, Taylor Swift and Ashley Judd.
Last month, the Sanford School of Public Policy hosted an event on Duke’s campus called Organizing Beyond Elections. Many students expressed concern that Hollywood’s extreme visibility in the Me Too movement has shifted the focus away from the broader population of survivors. Many of the women in the entertainment industry who came forward with Me Too stories did so from places of relative privilege; these women are largely white, wealthy women. Centering these stories often comes at the expense of more marginalized voices, such as those of working class survivors and survivors of color.
Media whitewashing of Me Too has consequences beyond that of representation. Media portrayal of sexual violence play a heavy hand in the creation of our conceptions of sexual violence. If our collective imagination believes that sexual violence is an issue that primarily affects white women, or wealthy women, or women of a specific status, our efforts to solve the problem will focus on this limited group of women as well. This problem is replicated across various movements against sexual violence, even at the microcosm of Duke. According to the 2018-2019 Student Experiences Study at Duke University, 48% of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. Those numbers tick sharply upwards for women of color, especially black and Latina women, and LGBTQ+ women. Despite the disproportionate violence experienced by these marginalized populations, much of the university’s initiatives and prevention campaigns over the past several year have focused on organizations, such as IFC fraternities, that are majority white, heteronormative spaces.
The problem, of course, is not with Me Too itself. The Me Too movement has clearly made strides forward, not only in connecting survivors, but in highlighting the magnitude of the problem of sexual violence, especially as it exists in the entertainment industry. However, while speaking at Duke, Burke criticized the media’s incomplete portrayal of what the movement is. “What the media has spoonfed you about what they call a movement is wrong,” Burke said. “This is not a anti-man movement. It’s not a naming and shaming movement. It’s not a Hollywood movement. It’s not even a woman’s movement. It’s a survivor’s movement.”
Professors, internet pundits, and students alike often make reference to the fact that we are now living in a “post Me Too era.” Although everyone can agree that we are certainly living in a time after the Me Too movement, debate rages about what, exactly, that might mean. But for those of us working to eradicate sexual violence at every level, we must actively work to build a movement that is inclusive and representative. We must allow survivors, particularly marginalized survivors, to inform the ways we pursue change. Equity in this movement can not be an afterthought. According to Burke, the path forward is clear. “Me too is not a campaign…it is a movement, because our work is about collectively expanding possibilities for survivors.”