- Introduction to Focus:#MeToo
I will never forget where I was when the Senate voted to confirm a twisted, white, rapist to the highest court in our nation. On October 6, 2018, my "#MeToo as Literary Form" panel at the &Now Festival of Innovative Writing assembled to address the very brand of predation epitomized on the national stage.
#MeToo started by using the power of language, narrative, and performance to force a large-scale public reckoning with patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Its forms—the recounting, the call-out, the report, the social media post, testimony, the denial, the she said/he said, the gaslighting, the non-apology, the fake apology, the rant, the comeback—take on the cultural coercions of sexism. Taken together, these forms coalesce in a fatigued mythology that participates in oral traditions as well as critical analysis. The story itself is ancient: men activate female suffering. Separately, each form is contingent on self-enforcing cultural supremacies (i.e. the credibility of men), and women who attempt to rewrite the narrative become themselves its subjects, scrutinized and patronized. If a woman's account of gender-based violence focuses on her individual sadness and injury, and not on the injustice or the systemic nature of the problem, she is more likely to be heard. By fixating on the isolated traumatic event, we turn our backs on the "crisis ordinariness" of the present. This vision of authorship, which privileges the subjective and the tragic—female pain—underpins a baseline gendered skepticism. No one needs to say that women are forgetful, opportunistic, slutty, drunk, crazy, attention-seeking, or prone to fantasies. We already know it.
Running under and through these voicings is a silent swallowing of far more stories of sexual predation. Who among us has just one? For most of my life I've carried with me the feeling that I had too many similar stories—boring in both the Freudian and pedestrian sense—which meant I have written them, or at least cast myself in their predetermined roles. Patriarchy reduces us to the same plots; over and over, it dashes us against those rocks. One of its most breath-taking costs is the way it inhibits our imaginations. That way, if we accept a social invitation from a male mentor, no matter what happens, we have seen this movie before. Whatever cocktail of defiance and self-doubt, of shame and exceptionalism the scene provokes, it's always been our chemistry, nearly naturalized if not for the alchemy of the movement.
As #MeToo has consolidated, so has its language. When we insist on "consent," we make clear who has agency. When we write "believe women" and "time's up," we sound the shallows of formulaic slogans as much as we insist on paradigm-shifting empowerment. A whiff of the counterproductive "girl power" hangs in the air despite gender identity coming into increasingly complex conversations with biology and cultural construction. It is impossible for me to write this, for instance, without immediately feeling dissatisfied with my capacity to lean on the calcified shorthand of the movement. Impossible to index all the problems of working with an inflected tool, a language riddled with discrimination. All of this matters because our rhetoric is easily detourned into the patriarchal language of rape culture that it was coined to fight, turned back on us with vindictive satisfaction and anger. Witness Lindsey Graham, petulant at a meeting the day after the Kavanaugh hearing: "I'm a single white male from South Carolina, and I'm told that I should just shut up, but I will not shut up." Witness Kanye West: "Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too / Imma pray for him 'cause he got Me Too'd." Witness, in the silent wake of Joe Biden's cluelessness, former DNC Chair Ed Rendell going full-Kavanaugh: "We have to draw a line on this #MeToo…The vast majority of the American people are sick of this stuff. They know what's real and what isn't real. This isn't real."
If you weren't there, let me tell you how real it got. I handpicked the "#MeToo As Literary Form" panel and...