On October 15, 2017 the actress Alyssa Milano ignited a spark with a Tweet.
With this tweet, Miliano was urging those in her publics who had ever been victims of sexual assault and/or harassment to identify as such by saying, ‘me too.’ She did not launch the hashtag as such, but it appeared very quickly – in the following minutes.
In 2006, activist Tarana Burke began a movement for women of color that shared sentiments with those behind Milano's tweet.
Tarana Burke. By Brittany "B.Monét" Fennell - She’s Revolutionary at 01:10, cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71293066
Alyssa Milano and her friend were not the only women who came up with the idea of ‘me too’ to help people express ugly circumstances and violation. Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist, had launched an offline “me too” movement back in 2007 to “give young women, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, a sense of empowerment from the understanding that they are not alone in their circumstances” (Burke, 2013). Milano's access to expansive networked publics gave a similar sentiment to Burke's the visibility and affordances of an online movement.
Burke's and MIlano's uses of the phrase "me too" have come to be considered as two benchmarks in one movement due to the connected nature of events they describe. Through the hashtag #metoo survivors' accounts of being harassed and violated are aggregated, or pulled together as related. The societal norms of sexual harassment and abuse were became entrenched in the past through many individual incidents that were normalized in families, cultures, and societies. By aggregating survivors' memories of these events, the Me Too movement has led to a cultural shift that centralizes survivor experiences, and shifts the blame to those who caused their pain.
The rapid spread of the Me Too movement is directly linked to the Harvey Weinstein case which started on October 5th, 2017, when The New York Times published an article entitled “Harvey Weinstein payed off sexual harassment accusers for years”, written by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (Kantor & Twohey, 2017). Dozens of women have come out denouncing sexual abuse and harassment from the movie mogul, and demanding that the situation in Hollywood change. #Metoo occurs after that case, opening the demands and claims out of Hollywood. Several other events also followed from #metoo, such as the second Women’s March in January 2018 and the opposition to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States over the summer of 2018, to mention only a few. All those events are therefore linked together and organised around common claims, which is why we can consider that all those events constitute a movement, and #metoo plays an essential role in the construction of this social movement. However, it does not play exactly the same role as social media did in the movements of performative activism, tackled in the previous chapter.
Social media, and in our case Twitter more particularly, is not used the same way and does not play the same role as the Zapatistas or the Arab Spring movement, which is what we will focus on now.
In order to get a full grasp of the “me too” movement on social media and how it is used, sociolinguistics comes handy. Sociolinguistics studies the relationship between language on the one hand (-linguistics – the study of language) and society on the other hand (socio-), more particularly social relations; in other words, it studies how human beings use language and to what purpose. It is therefore an interesting approach to study how social media are used, and how they shape social relations. In this feminist movement, women spoke up, through language, denouncing systemic abuse and demanding that changes be made in society and in social relations between men and women. The movement was built progressively; interestingly, social media was not used the same way throughout the movement, and sociolinguistics helps us understand why it is so.
1. The Harvey Weinstein Case
In order to understand the relevance of the #metoo movement within the larger feminist movement as well as the relevance of the use of social media, we need to go back to the Weinstein case and its characteristics.
Indeed, if #metoo really turned to social media, the Weinstein case developed primarily through traditional media – i.e. in those forms of mass media that existed before the advent of the digital age (also called the new media age, as a matter of fact), for example, print media, radio broadcasting, and the television among other things. However, it is still important to keep in mind that, even if the denunciations against Harvey Weinstein were mainly done through traditional media (72 out of the 90 denunciations that were made public), all of them can be found on the internet, facilitating their diffusion. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that those women should first choose traditional media to make their denunciations and claims public. On the contrary, very few were made through social media. One element that is essential to take into account is that the two newspapers that extensively covered the case, with in-depth investigations and analyses, were The New York Times (“Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades”, by Megan Twohey and Judi Kantor) and the The New Yorker (“From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell their Stories,” by Ronan Farrow (Farrow, 2017)), two renown and reliable newspapers. As a matter of fact, these two newspapers were awarded the Pulitzer prize for public service in 2018 for the reporting done by the aforementioned three journalists. The stories these women were reporting were disruptive – Harvey Weinstein was a very prominent man in the business and even outside of it – and as such, they needed to establish their legitimacy in order to be believed. One way they had of doing so was actually by having their stories backed up by established, reliable newspapers. Not all newspapers through which the victims testified are as renown as The New Yorker or The New York Times – some denunciations were published in Variety or Deadline, for example – but the important element here is that it feels like the victims are never alone. Either the stories are reported by journalists, who lend their legitimacy to the victims, or if the victims write in their own name in opinion sections, they still have the legitimacy and weight of the newspapers backing them up. The same goes for the TV or radio shows.
The theory of denunciation put forward by Luc Boltanski et al. (Boltanski et al., 1984) supports that idea. In a nutshell, they argue that the higher the profile of the alleged aggressor and the bigger the difference between their status in society and that of the accuser is, the less “normal” the denunciation seems to be, “normal” in the sense of plausible, even possible. To put it bluntly, the more an alleged aggressor has to lose – status, some important position, wealth, etc. – the more suspicious people are because they might believe that the denunciation is not completely disinterested. In our case, even if some of the women who came out first against Harvey Weinstein were somewhat high-profile people too, Ashley Judd for example, some others were “mere” employees or former employees of one of Weinstein’s companies, and in any case, none of the accusers were actually as high-profile as Weinstein was. Having the support of newspapers such as The New York Times or The New Yorker is therefore extremely important to restore some balance between accuser and alleged aggressor.
This need to legitimise their stories is also apparent in the language they use, more particularly in how they speak about what they went through. Here is an example of a testimony delivered by one of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims, Louisette Geiss.
(from 5’29 to 10’47)
In linguistics, we often start from our own impressions, how we react to a text, and then we try and find some formal elements to back this up. We can think in terms of positive impressions, as in I felt/think that, or negative impressions, I didn’t expect that/I would have thought it would be more like that.
One of the first things that is striking in the denunciations against Harvey Weinstein is the very “stick to the fact” style. Indeed, these denunciations are very descriptive, detailed, and sometimes very graphic in what they describe. They are presented as if everything that was done and said during the assault is being reported. Moreover, the denunciations are symptomatic of what we call a paratactic style, also called the additive style: elements are presented, one simple sentence after the other, and there are few elaborate sentences:
After about 30 minutes, he asked to excuse himself and go to the bathroom. He returned in nothing but a robe, with the front open, and he was butt naked. He told me to keep talking about my film and that he was going to hop into his hot tub that was adjacent to the room, just steps away. When I finished my pitch, I was obviously nervous, and he just kept asking to watch him masturbate. I told him I was leaving. I quickly got out of the tub, he grabbed my forearm as I was trying to grab my purse, and he led me to his bathroom, pleading that I just watch him masturbate.
This gives, once again, the impression that they are just providing the plain truth and facts as they happened. On the contrary, it seems that emotions are not so present, as one could have expected of a woman recounting and reliving the assault she suffered. These denunciations are therefore more fact-oriented than emotion-oriented. This also participates in legitimising and having their denunciations accepted and believed.
At that stage – or at the very least in the first ten days of the contestation – the movement was precisely not a movement: it was only centred on one particular man, Harvey Weinstein, and when claims were made, they were also quite specific, around the issues of the relationship between men and women in Hollywood. It was therefore limited to the world of Hollywood, which is also fitting with Boltanski’s theory of denunciation that was previously mentioned: it is only logical that such a disruptive movement in society should start with women who are renown and have some status compared to “ordinary” people. The movement and its claims needed to be legitimised by well-established people before being broadened to society at large with #metoo.
What we now consider to be the next stage of the movement, #metoo, is quite different from the Weinstein case, on different accounts.