How We Talk About #MeToo Matters
written by Furqan Mohamed | shot by Kiele Twarowski
The latest iteration of women' voices and experiences not mattering has manifested itself in the nomination and subsequent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. After testimony from university professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, the Senate Judiciary Committee went forward with a vote that sealed his fate- and ultimately hers. If Republicans and Democrats weren't divided before, they are now.
The proceedings saw Ford and Kavanaugh bring their cases before the judiciary committee, the same committee that decided the fate of Judge Clarence Thomas after Anita Hill's testimony. The lawmakers were tasked to assess Kavanaugh's suitability for the court- judging his sincerity, open-mindedness, and temperament for the highest court of the land.
It is difficult to miss the comparisons drawn between both the testimonies of Hill and Ford and the situations that surround them. In 1991, the world heard Hill's testimony, broadcasting her as the first woman to claim #MeToo. 21 years later, Anita Hill encourages the people of the US to not look at the Kavanaugh hearings as a referendum of sorts, or as an exemplar of how much success the #MeToo movement has made. “A lot is different now,” Hill says “A number of powerful men have been held accountable. I don’t think any single episode is going to define a whole movement.” In an interview with the Associated Press, she said “Remember, #MeToo is about raising awareness. Just because the Senate’s awareness hasn’t been raised, doesn’t mean that the rest of us haven’t evolved and learned.'”
Millions of people tuned in to watch both hearings, that of Professor Hill and Dr. Ford. The nation started into their t.v. screens as the two participants in civil discourse reluctantly recounted their experiences and hesitantly accepted the image of role of heroism bestowed upon them by victims of sexual harassment and abuse everywhere. It is important to mention that both Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh deny the allegations made against them, and are now sitting judges on the Supreme Court. It appears as though Americans have moved on, and with the 24-hour news cycle keeping up with the Trump administration, it can be difficult for people to stick to this story. However, the allegations and discourse surrounding these men and their alleged victims have not gone quietly. It is safe to ask, with the timepassed and experiences shared, have we as a society gotten better at talking about sexual harassment? In any promulgated conversations, the complicated junctions of race, class, and other intersections are often overlooked- so, with all the time passing, have we really stopped overlooking them? Specifically, has society formed the right social vocabulary to properly discuss publicized accusations made against men in positions of authority with the nuance that it deserves? Truthfully, the answer to that question might sadly just be no.
The main challenge the nation faces is an expectation that every experience of victims are one dimensional, simply compactable, easy-to-read-in-the-New-York-Times version that does not threaten comfortability. When asking what advice she'd extend to Dr. Ford, Hill herself said it best: "...I try not to give blanket advice because these situations are just so personal. I don’t know her, I don’t know her state of mind, the entirety of her story." Expecting every victim to share the same reality is incredibly damaging. It reinforces the idea that a crime like sexual harassment or abuse happens in a vacuum. The alternative extreme of this places microscopes t on victims in order to find points that undermine their stories. Many folks in the media, including veteran reporter, Nina Totenberg, felt the need to pick apart the contrast between Hill and Ford- particularly surrounding their race. Totenberg, ever so venerable, noted that Ford was “nothing like Anita Hill,” and “a much more typical victim” making her a “powerful witness for herself.” Joan Biskupic on CNN said that Ford's testimony seemed more credible because she projected a degree of vulnerability. The critiquing of women's disclosing of sexual harassment/abuse from the standpoint of their "performance" is incredibly toxic and disproportionality challenge the disclosure of women who do not traditionally appear "vulnerable"- basically Black women and WOC, and women who don’t fit gender norms. The idea that women must "nail the right tone" in order to convince a power dynamic that does not reflect their needs is forcing women to interact with an abusive system that does not value them until they look, act, and sound a certain way- and even then, with the case of Dr. Ford accusing Brett Kavanaugh, the system might just disregard them anyway.
Another thing that gets in the way in of properly handling the accusations of sexual assault is the need and creation for spectacle in the media. The creation of a spectacle is another example of how we still don't know how to react to accusations of sexual assault that acts in the best interest of the victims. The acquiescence to fanfare and theatre surrounding victims really makes the victim's claim more about everyone that surrounds them, and less about the victim or their claim. When accusations are made, people take to twitter preaching say things like "now is the time to have the conversation!" But who is the conversation for? Women are asked to perform their trauma in order for civilization to feel good about itself for hosting a superficial conversation- a conversation purely to virtue signaling.
To return to our original question regarding whether or not we have gotten better as a society in terms of having a conversation when a powerful man is accused of sexual assault/abuse, the answer is still no. From painting all experiences of victims with a broad brush to being ignorant of the racially charged bias surrounding victims to asking women to perform their victimhood, we have not made strides between the 27 years of Anita Hill's testimony to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's. We still demean and bombard women who come forward in the public square. What needs to end now is the search for the "perfect victim" or the perpetuation of that as a standards in order for women to come forward. If we can do that - the bare minimum - then perhaps we can say, that for once, the nation did right by victims.