Backlash to the #MeToo movement


As was inevitable, there has been a backlash against the #MeToo movement and from some surprising quarters. The French actress Catherine Deneuve was one of the signatories to an open letter from 100 women that suggested that the movement had gone too far and was risking infantilizing women and denying them agency and becoming puritanical. The letter suggested that the movement seemed to be condemning even flirtatious behavior and defended the right of men to hit on women. She later apologized to victims of sexual assault and, while she herself stood by the letter, distanced herself from some of the other signatories whom she said had distorted the message of the letter in the process of expanding upon it.

Now author Margaret Atwood has sparked controversy after writing an op-ed titled Am I a Bad Feminist? in the Toronto Globe and Mail where she defended signing a letter condemning the University of British Columbia for not providing due process for one of its faculty Steven Galloway who had been accused of sexual abuse and, in the process, voiced her concerns about the direction that she saw the #MeToo movement as heading towards.

Atwood is a famous writer, most notably for her book The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a dystopian futuristic novel where the United States has been taken over by Christian religious fundamentalists, something that seems increasingly less futuristic these days. (I read the book and saw the original 1990 film starring Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and Natasha Richardson but did not watch the recent TV series.) The women in the newly named Republic of Gilead are subjugated and some serve as child bearers to barren powerful couples. So Atwood’s seeming defense of someone accused of sexual abuse came as something of her surprise. Atwood says that she was mainly critical of the lack of transparency and due process in the way Galloway was treated, and that she fears this is being repeated in #MeToo movement that is giving too much weight to extremist voices.

The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn’t get a fair hearing through institutions – including corporate structures – so they used a new tool: the internet. Stars fell from the skies. This has been very effective, and has been seen as a massive wake-up call. But what next? The legal system can be fixed, or our society could dispose of it. Institutions, corporations and workplaces can houseclean, or they can expect more stars to fall, and also a lot of asteroids.

If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

This issue is fraught with complexity and it is going to take a while for people to find their footing on how best to expose abusers and protect the right of people to be free from pressure applied by the powerful.

But I want to digress a little about the way that women are portrayed in Atwood’s books, including in her more recent Oryx and Crake trilogy that too was set in a dystopian future. While I enjoyed all four of those books, I felt that women in general were not portrayed well, generally playing subordinate roles, the victims of events and lacking agency. It is true that she was portraying male-dominated dystopias where women were necessarily subjugated. But being forced into submissive roles by society need not imply lack of agency. Given that Atwood is widely acclaimed as a feminist writer, I wondered what I was missing so I discussed this with a friend who is an English professor and she said I had some justification for my misgivings, that she too felt that Atwood’s portrayal of women could be a lot better.

Comments

  1. kestrel says

    OK wow, that first sentence “The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system.” is not true. It’s a symptom of a screwed up culture. Also, who has been bypassing the legal system? Even if one or two people are perceived as doing this, it’s hardly possible for everyone to do it. The reason the legal system will not move against the men accused is because men have more power in our society, culturally not just legally. Our “tradition” is to blame the victim.

    There’s a lot of wrong there, in my viewpoint. Why isn’t the first reaction “you’re right, people should not be sexually harassed or assaulted”? It sounds to me like she’s calling such a stance “extremist”.

  2. says

    Deneueve has somewhat walked back her original criticism; I can’t tell if it’s because of the pushback against her pushback, or because (as she claims) she agreed in principle but didn’t realize that she was signing on to a mis-directed screed.

    The echoes of pushback I’ve seen are really sad. Generally “waht about teh menz!?” because, you know, not being an asshole is a lot of work.

  3. says

    “While I enjoyed all four of those books, I felt that women in general were not portrayed well, generally playing subordinate roles, the victims of events and lacking agency. ”

    I was pretty disturbed by the characterization of Oryx. I’m sure that was by design, but her whole identity can almost entirely be reduced to being the victim of sexual abuse, and subsequently being grossly fetishized by Snowman/Jimmy, who was terrible. I never really got why Crake picked him to survive and guide the Crakers. Anyways, I thought Toby was a pretty well-rounded character in the third book.

  4. deepak shetty says

    As a legal principle we accept that a 100 guilty might go free so that a single innocent not be punished (yeah right – but ignore the real life issues for now). Its not clear that is the principle we *should* use for day to day life and almost everyone leans to a greatest good of the greatest number type of approach.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    women and other sexual-abuse complainants

    Odd formulation. Why not just “sexual abuse complainants”? See also basically everything Ally Fogg has written here over the last couple of years re: the deliberate erasure of men and boys as victims of sexual abuse.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @deepak shetty:

    Its not clear that [the principle that 100 guilty might go free so that a single innocent not be punished] is the principle we *should* use for day to day life

    I’d go further – we definitely shouldn’t use it in day to day life. The reason it’s a good principle to use in the justice system is that the accused is not being judged by one or two people here and there as they go through life – they’re being judged by society as a whole. And more importantly if they’re judged at fault, they’re not subject merely to the opprobrium of those around them – they’re subject to the entire apparatus of the state falling on them from a great height, potentially depriving them of their liberty altogether, or even (in the most backward and barbaric cultures) their very limbs or even life.

    But in day to day life, I’d reject “innocent until proven guilty” and go with “better safe than sorry”.

  7. springa73 says

    I’m not familiar with Atwood’s writings, but I will say that this quote –

    In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

    – really struck me because it’s painfully true and the main reason why I don’t trust people who never have doubts about their beliefs, even when I agree with them.

  8. says

    roj — Ally Fogg has serious perception problems and refuses to acknowledge that when men and boys are abused, it’s almost always by a man. He also advocates for the idea of “reciprocal abuse”, and does not accept that women have the right to self-defense against a violent partner.

    He’s an MRA in sheep’s clothing.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    … how best to expose abusers and protect the right of people to be free from pressure applied by the powerful.

    Deneuve in particular seems to have missed this point: we have here a backlash not against sex per se, but against abuse of power (for sexual purposes).

    Or I may have missed some things: all the coverage I’ve seem pf #MeToo has come from the US, and the issue probably comes out differently in Europe and elsewhere.

  10. deepak shetty says

    I’d go further – we definitely shouldn’t use it in day to day life.

    Im not necessarily denying that. Take the workplace for e.g. – if a subordinate complains about a manager -bullying, harassment whatever , it would simply not be acceptable to say well innocent till proven guilty , let it carry on for a month while we investigate!. There really is no option other than the Manager is suspended pending investigation. Many will see the suspension as proof of guilt (incorrectly) – and even if a further investigation finds the manager innocent (but insufficient evidence is not proof of innocence either!) damage will already be done to the person. There is no good solution for such things – the best we hope for is fair and quick investigations.

  11. KG says

    springa73@7

    I’d say that quote exemplifies the ideology of “moderation” – which, in practice, generally means tacit support of the powerful.

    As far as Atwood is concerned, I read the whole Orxy and Crake trilogy, all the time hoping and expecting it would get better, but it didn’t. A sad come-down from much of her earlier work in my view: dystopian SF done badly, with wooden characters and excessive preachyness. I’ll have to reread The Handmaid’s Tale, and check my impression that it’s brilliant. I’m currently in the middle of the TV adaptation, which is very well done, but at least so far, has a woman (Aunt Lydia) as the principle villain.

    I could have guessed who would be the first “What about the menz?” contributor to this thread!

  12. John Morales says

    Dunno about menz, but the approbation of vaguery is weak:

    “In times of extremes, extremists win.”

    Unwarranted premise.

    “The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.”

    No, it’s to have normative beliefs. A standard.

    So, yeah, suspect premises and unwarranted lemmas.

    I don’t trust people who never have doubts about their beliefs […]

    You would never trust anyone who doesn’t think torture is meet punishment.

    (Or anyone who repudiated coprophagia, for that matter)

  13. springa73 says

    KG @#12
    I’d say that quote exemplifies the ideology of “moderation” – which, in practice, generally means tacit support of the powerful.

    As a general rule, I would say that giving tacit support to the powerful is a lot less damaging and more constructive than extremism, which in practice usually means the desire to destroy or suppress everything and everyone that one does not like.

  14. KG says

    springa73@14,
    As a general rule, I would say you’re wrong – because the powerful are, as a general rule, mainly concerned with maintaining their power at the expense, if necessary, of everyone else. Currently, the powerful are busy increasing inequality without bounds, while waging or fueling wars that chiefly kill the powerless, and failing to take effective action to prevent environmental catastrophe.

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