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.