Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser, Head of the Department of Media and Communications, says the widespread acceptance of the #MeToo movement was built on decades of progress on gender equality, but warns the fight back to protect men’s power and status is underway.
When Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was the focus of a New York Times report into sexual harassment within the film industry in autumn 2017, the fallout from the story was immediate and dramatic. The scandal forced Weinstein into hiding as he disputed the claims, while similar allegations implicated several other high-profile Hollywood figures and began to spread to other industries as well.
The allegations, which became part of the #MeToo movement, had a common theme; powerful men using their status to sexually harass and assault women, or promise to help them advance their careers in return for sexual favours.
Working from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles until mid-2018, Professor Banet-Weiser was close to the Hollywood culture at the heart of #MeToo, a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. She sees the campaign’s widespread acceptance and impact as the result of decades of hard-won rights won by feminism, an ideology that aims to achieve political, economic, and social equality for women.
Professor Banet-Weiser says: “The fact that #MeToo became a global movement is testimony to how widespread the problem of sexual harassment is, but also how feminism is now accepted by most women and many men as well.”
In an earlier article, Professor Banet-Weiser discusses how earlier forms of feminism have also evolved to address the perceived challenges of the time. After second-wave feminism came to mainstream prominence in the 1960s, it achieved several important gains in the realms of reproductive rights, equal pay, and the family.
In the mid-1990s post-feminism arrived, defining itself against these earlier forms of feminism and reflecting the view that societies had now apparently overcome many of the challenges around gender inequality. Women should aim to be empowered and self-sufficient, making the most of the economic and social opportunities available to them. Professor Banet-Weiser notes in her article that the popular media landscape expressed the zeitgeist through its portrayal strong women from Ally McBeal to the Spice Girls.
Despite the many faces of feminism, the male-dominated power structures stubbornly endure. Professor Banet-Weiser says: “I welcomed #MeToo as long overdue, but it once again showed us how powerful men are still able to behave in way that most people think is unacceptable. And look at the number of women employed in the tech sectors and STEM subjects, or compare the ratio of male to female CEOs. Feminism may evolve or take new forms, but the data shows gender equality is still a long way off.”
“While #MeToo is happening, post-feminist ideas are being replicated in the media discourse, even though feminism is now embraced by popular culture, instead of repudiated. So instead of the Spice Girls it is Beyoncé, or Emma Watson, acting as figureheads for the movement, while men enjoy many of the same privileges they always did,” Professor Banet-Weiser adds.
But an early sign that the #MeToo movement could help tip the balance on gender equality is the way men in privileged positions have responded angrily to the latest threat to their status. Professor Banet-Weiser wrote at the time the Weinstein allegations surfaced of the instant ‘misogynistic backlash’ by men, creating an antagonistic tone to the gender debate that has not been witnessed for generations.
Since then, Professor Banet-Weiser points to the way that men in powerful positions have increasingly claimed the mantle of victimhood. In September 2018, Brett Cavanagh, a Supreme Court nominee, cried during his Senator hearing when allegations he sexual assaulted women were heard.
“His supporters said this woman is ruining his life. Well, he was eventually confirmed to the Supreme Court after a successful law career, so I think his life is quite good.”
The #MeToo movement has also framed the conversation in the one area where measurable improvements on gender equality are possible; democratic politics. Professor Banet-Weiser is more optimistic on this front following the election of at least 102 women to the House of Representatives following the midterm elections November 2018, meaning that females will comprise 24% of the US Congress’ lower chamber from 2019.
“The gender balance improvements increases the prospect of action on equal pay, maternity and better protection for women in workplace. That would make a big difference to so many women’s lives, and would be a serious legacy for this generation of women to leave behind.”