Solidarity Opinions

Reclaiming a movement: Tarana Burke’s ‘Me Too’

‘Me Too’. The movement aimed at exposing sexual violence. A movement that has been described as a ‘watershed’ moment for sexual assault survivors and their perpetrators, covered by Time in their ‘Time’s Up’ issue that has had a lasting global impact. A movement that went viral in 2017 when Alyssa Milano tweeted her followers to use the hashtag if they had ever been a victim of sexual assault. A movement that was actually founded by African-American activist Tarana Burke a whole decade before, in 2006.

The fact that, up until I attended a talk called ‘From Slavery to Me Too: Women’s Voices’ in 2018 and despite completing my BA dissertation on Black women in James Bond, I didn’t know that a Black woman founded the ‘Me Too’ movement a decade ago stumped me. I felt ashamed, and was also deeply concerned by the fact that nowhere in Milano’s tweet was there any accreditation to Burke. Taking to the internet and reading article after article, watching TED talks and going down Black feminist rabbit holes, what I found had greater racial implications than a mere lack of ‘credit’ could suggest.

Tarana Burke initially started the movement in 2006 after her own experience of sexual violence, incensed by the commonality of everyday sexual violence against women in the African-American community. In her words, Burke “launched the ‘Me Too’ movement because I wanted to find ways to bring healing into the lives of black women and girls” (TED talk, 2019), 60% of whom will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18. Burke reiterates that this movement was about those communities under the highest risk, who amongst Black women include

– The indigenous women who are 3 and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group

– people with disabilities who are 7 times more likely to be sexually abused

– the 84% of transwomen who will be sexually assaulted this year.

Sexual violence faced by Black women reveals a disappointing and damaging truth about the society we live in. There are staggering amounts of racial stereotypes and destructive representations of Black women that create an environment where violence against them is naturalised and overlooked, something that civil rights activist and Black feminist critic Kimberle Crenshaw Williams has extensively talked about in her work with the legal system. Having been on the legal team for Anita Hill’s 1991 case against Clarence Thomas, Crenshaw has pointedly written on Burke’s work and inadvertently on ‘Me Too’ when writing of the “unique vulnerability” of Black women that continues to be ignored, and the struggle many Black women face in being

trapped between an antiracist movement that foregrounded black men, and a feminism that could not fully address how race shaped society’s perception of black victims”.

The #MeToo movement that exploded on Twitter however, featuring as part of everyday conversation on sexual assault within the media, doesn’t seem to encompass any of this. The ‘Me Too’ movement was founded by a Black woman boldly stating ‘I’ve experienced sexual violence too’; a response to decades of Black sexual assault survivors being structurally ignored and silenced, despite Black women being targeted at disproportionately higher rates. Yet the names most popularly associated with Me Too in recent media have been those of Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Taylor Swift, Megyn Kelly, and of course Alyssa Milano. White women have come to dictate the discourse surrounding the movement, with the very founder Tarana Burke being relocated to the inner pages of the ‘Silence Breakers’ issue – for apparently the front page was taken up by too much star power to leave room for the founding (Black) mother. The article that accompanied this cover, ironically highlighted the entirety of the problem that it inceptively perpetuated, stating that

“When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”

Is this claim stating that highlighting white actresses’ stories and their stories alone is going to change the reality for the sexually abused cook? Or the maid? Or the single mother? All of these women who, by implicating their social rank, are therefore most likely politically, economically and socially disadvantaged women of colour? Unless the white movie stars are platforming women of colour voices, experiences and injustices, I struggle to see how they are making it easier for women from lower socio-economic backgrounds to receive protection or justice.

The movement itself arguably failed to consider even Black movie stars, for Lupita Nyong’o’s self-written testimony published in the New York Times (yet failed to be vehemently picked up by other news outlets?) was almost all but ignored, with Salma Hayek stating that Weinstein publicly rebutted their allegations because “[Women of Colour] are the easiest to get discredited”. Even more damagingly, when Aurora Perrineau’s rape allegations against Girls writer Murray Miller surfaced (in the form of her leaked police report), self-proclaimed feminist Lena Dunham publicly lied in a counter- statement aimed to discount Perrineau’s testimony. Dunham later came clean in a public apology. Using her industry name and privilege, the Me Too movement saw a white female actress lie to discredit the rape testimony of a lesser-known actress of colour; a situation so far removed from Tarana Burke’s original intentions for ‘Me Too’ that the ‘movement’ is almost unrecognisable, calling into question whether the two can or should remain synonymous at all.

Whereas Burke and other Black feminist activists’ intentions are to dismantle the structures of white privilege that benefit from the subjugation of women of colour, the co-opted ‘Me Too’ movement and the press surrounding it has done nothing but re-package those structures under the catch-all title of ‘exposing’ sexual misconduct. But against who?

Since the start of the transatlantic slave trade, Black women have been systematically abused and assaulted by men of all races – with these perpetrators going largely and historically unpunished. The law has long been racially prejudiced against Black women, and this can be seen as soon as one starts looking into their rape cases (a sad truth that one must go looking, for consumerist news media have decided they are not headline-worthy). One case recently unearthed by Black historians, activists and writers is that of Recy Taylor. In 1944 Alabama, 24 year-old Recy Taylor was walking home from Church when she was abducted and gang-raped at gunpoint by six white men. Following the horrific incident, she took her case to court, where it was tried by an all-white, all-male jury, who dismissed the charges after all but five minutes of deliberation. The physical evidence and multiple witnesses were not enough to permeate through the multiply sexist, racist walls of the jury box; a sad truth that continues to shape the climate of silencing around Black women’s experiences today.

Russel Simmons, with 18 accusations of rape, sexual assault and sexual misconduct from mostly Black women, has not been held accountable by either the legal system or the media. And only now, after 25 years of sexual abuse and paedophilia charges against him, after the release of documentary series Surviving R. Kelly was there an, albeit too brief, moment of media outcry against the R. Kelly, that at present seems to have died down just as quickly as it started. As of March 2021, Kelly is in jail still awaiting trial.

With these cases in mind, as well as the thousands of non-celebrity crimes of sexual abuse against Black women, it is clear that the #MeToo movement has been propagated by white feminism, and by the neoliberal emphasis on individual voices rather than collective communities, and so continues to fail Black women. Journalist, poet and activist Asha Bandele summed up anxieties that have been building by Black civil rights activists, saying

Afropunk: “I have my concerns about the ownership of that movement publicly being in the hands of white women. I don’t know that white women have ever led a movement that secured people outside of their own.”

Bandele is referencing some of the feminist movements of the early 70s and 80s in the US, which saw a predominantly white brand of feminism supposedly calling for the liberation of all ‘women’, but not advocating for the rights of Black women at a pivotal time in US history when Black women were at the intersection of two movements (the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist movement) but saw the intersecting gender and racial oppressions unique to them largely ignored by both. Unless more pressure is placed on media outlets and white activists to do justice to the most marginalised groups, the groups whose voices have been historically stifled, then a ‘movement’ such as Me Too, rather than highlighting real structural problems and pushing for change, will stagnate into a ‘moment’, passing and not progressing, and inevitably leading to the repetition of the same cycle of violent silencing for generations to come.

Solidarity Opinions

Feminism & Hating Men.

“Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex”

Valerie Solanas in SCUM Manifesto (1967:37)

I believe nearly all feminists, no matter what kind, have been called man-haters at some point. The depiction of feminism and feminists as anti-man is familiar, old, and of course completely inaccurate. I can remember how, as a girl, I was terrified of the label ‘feminism’ because of this depiction of feminists. No matter how much I believed that I was just as good as the boys (if not better), I could never say that I was a feminist. Because if I said I was a feminist I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I would be seen as irrational and emotional, which is laughable as women are assumed to be just that regardless of their political labels.

You can find this idea of feminism as ‘anti-man’ throughout history, but recently feminist popular culture has ‘reclaimed’ the stereotype in a satirical way. Mugs with ‘Male Tears’ slogans, T-shirts with ‘Boy Bye’, or #KillAllMen hashtags. The list goes on. I spent months researching this feminist claim to hating men this summer, and I have to admit that I do not blame anyone for expressing themselves this way. Not only is it a funny outlet sometimes, but it also points out how ridiculous it is to paint feminism as man-hating when it advocates for equality, not revenge. In fact, I think it often perfectly highlights the injustice that is misogyny.

The idea that hating men would in any way be similar to hating women is ridiculous, and those who use the feminist man-hating joke as a serious statement have either missed the point we are making entirely or are consciously using it against us. For example, the fancy word for man-hating: ‘misandry’, was first found online in the ‘manosphere’, i.e. the Men’s Rights Movement and similar groups’ online spaces. It was used to create a counterpart to misogyny and legitimise the concerns of the Men’s Rights Movement and subsequently, plant ideas of structural misandry often aiming to undermine the claims of feminist movements.

I believe that it is well known that misogyny is far greater and far more deadly than man-hating. For instance, this is particularly obvious with examples such as the countering of #KillAllMen with #RapeAllWomen. The counter-hashtag clearly shows that the anti-feminists know that something like rape is so widespread and so harmful that the threat of rape can silence feminists. It indicates that one element of misogyny is believed to be able to stop feminists. It indicates that they are aware that misogyny kills whilst man-hating does not. 

However, this is the point where I come to explain the problems with us using man-hating by considering the idea of intersectionality i.e. how different forms of oppression can intersect and create a particular experience of oppression. For example, Black lesbians have a different experience of misogyny than that of white women because of the intersectional experience of oppression through stratifications such as sexism, heterosexism, and racism. Even though feminism has a history of working against generalisations and appreciating the diversity of experience, when we say that we hate men, even as a joke, who are we including in ‘men’? Are we including men who experience racism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, or classism? If we are, we ought to ask ourselves if ignoring structures of oppression that aren’t gender will help achieve equality at all. If we aren’t, perhaps we recognise that just like how we experience complex oppression, men do too. So the question is whether if we showing recognition of complex oppression affecting men? If we are, I think we ought to consider if we want to add to the violence they experience daily by buying into man-hating.

One tangible example of how satirical man-hating can be problematised through intersectional analysis is this TikTok clip. In the clip, a woman is showing how she has decorated her living room. Before entering the room the viewer can see a crunched over white man in a cage. Following this visual, the clip changes to a white English speaking man saying: “Finally the time is upon us. Men in cages. I thought it wouldn’t be in my lifetime. 2021! I tell ya”, whilst wiping away tears of joy. Now, I am sure the intention behind this clip is provocative humour, but the development of the joke, as well as the narrative by the man, highlights the privilege required to make man-hating jokes. Imagine for a moment that the man in the cage was Black. If this were the case, surely we would react with instant distaste due to the history of enslavement of Black bodies. If this were the case, placing a Black man in a cage would reproduce violence and contribute to narratives of Black bodies as less than human. If this were the case, we wouldn’t be wiping away tears of joy.

Overall, the question of privilege and man-hating is a complex one as identity and experience work together in infinite and intricate ways. Sometimes man-hating is satirical and a means of resisting a gendered society who favours men and masculinity. In no way do I intend to police how people navigate resistance within the capitalist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, ableist, xenophobic, nationalist, ageist, and imperialist society we find ourselves in. However, as with the case with the man in the cage, by considering intersectional implications of our resistance we can limit our contributions to the violence we are often blind to. By considering the man in the cage, I want to emphasise that intersectionality ought to be at the forefront of feminism, and we must include men in feminist analysis.

Here, I am not saying that those of us who say that we hate men intend to contribute to hatred, and I am not saying that you aren’t entitled to be angry with men (I know I am frequently). However, I want us to pay attention to the harm we may be causing. Because no matter how many times I explain myself, saying “I hate men” risks contributing to the same hatred which depicts Black men as animals or working-class men as uncivilised. Understanding how oppression works intersectionally, I don’t want to do work which harms those who understand the pains of oppression. Simultaneously, recognising my privileges as a white European middle-class woman, I do not want to tell feminists how to be good feminists.

Reflecting on the history of the representation of feminism as man-hating, I think that history is best understood as part of the present as it has shaped our reality and made it what it is now. We must understand and recognise that we are not separate from the past, but are rather in conversation with it. Therefore, considering the future, I want to believe that as feminists, we take steps towards equality with intersectionality our ethics at the forefront of our minds. Ignoring the harms of misogyny has created, and ignoring how our man-hating satire is used against us and allies will only hinder us from growing. By learning from our history, our present, and our values, we can create a future where we stand above the methods of harm. A future where we refuse to operate within the same parameters as misogynists. A future which is considerate and thoughtful and not in need of anti-man satire. 

Let’s move beyond satirical man-hating and towards unapologetic but thoughtful feminism as we can only win the fight for equality by doing better than those we are fighting.