#MeToo: Six characters and a movement
The #MeToo movement is a crisis of gender—an inevitable outcome of building patriarchal capital. It was bound to be destructive
What was Isaac Newton’s contribution to the crossover success of the #MeToo movement? Not motion, gravitation or relativity—certainly not “every egregious man must fall”. It was a symbol he popularized by accident.
Keith Houston, in his 2014 book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, narrates how the story of the hashtag starts in the 14th century with the Latin term Libra Pondo, meaning “pound in weight”. This was abbreviated to lb and drawn with a bar across the top of both letters, to indicate that the I and b were connected. “As people wrote this faster and faster, it evolved into the hash symbol,” Houston explains. In the late 17th century, Newton was using the “lb” contraction generously, and Houston offers photographic evidence of an elegant scrawl by Newton to illustrate when it started resembling what we now call the hashtag.
This versatile symbol—used to indicate everything from weight, numbers, a sharp musical note, and spaces between words by copy editors—found renewed purpose on the internet a decade ago. When open-source advocate Chris Messina first proposed vertical groupings of messages and trends on Twitter by means of the hashtag in 2007 (he wanted a sign that could be input from a low-tech mobile phone) it was dismissed as something for nerds. Today this tagging system is the soul food of Twitter and other social media platforms. In the last half-a-decade, apart from facilitating several successful corporate campaigns—#ShareACoke, #LikeAGirl, #TouchThePickle—the hashtag has become a globally recognized symbol of social crusades. But even at a time hashtag campaigns are ubiquitous, the reach, recall and socio-political ramifications of #MeToo have been unprecedented, at least in urban India. It is #OccupyWallStreet and #IceBucketChallenge rolled into one. While we can’t say for sure if it would have been as successful had it been called, say, #WomenSpeakOut or #CallingOutPatriarchy, we do know #MeToo’s driving force has been its crisp coinage that evokes a sense of community and collective empathy.
To rewind from the #MeToo juggernaut of 2018: The MeToo movement was founded by American civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006. In 2017, the hashtag went viral—and reached the rest of the world—after actor Alyssa Milano posted a tweet encouraging others to say “Me Too”. It’s worth noting that #MeToo became viral after a celebrity chipped in—and accepting that this is the nature of most contemporary campaigns. Subsequently, its high points have been marked by the role of champions of all kinds.
#MeToo scaled up in India after 25 September 2018, when Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta accused Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on the sets of a movie 10 years ago. A few days later, comedian Mahima Kukreja shared her #MeToo story on Twitter, alleging fellow comedian Utsav Chakraborty had sent her unsolicited photos of his penis. Things gathered momentum when the very next day, Sandhya Menon, a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru, shared accounts of incidents of sexual harassment by editors at newspapers she had worked in—former DNA and The Times of India (TOI) editor-in-chief Gautam Adhikari and K.R. Sreenivas, resident editor (Hyderabad) of TOI. While Adhikari quit the think tank Centre for American Progress, Sreenivas too resigned after Menon and six other women sent a petition to Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd, the owner of The Times of India. Kukreja and Menon’s accounts encouraged more women to share their stories across entertainment, journalism, art, law, education and advertising.
An inflection point, one that propelled #MeToo out of social media to Page 1 and primetime, was when Lounge columnist Priya Ramani (disclosure: she is my former editor), posted that tweet. On 8 October, after another day of women sharing their #MeToo stories on Twitter, she posted a story she’d written for Vogue.in a year earlier, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal had broken. “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator—maybe they’ll share.” It ended with: “We’ll get you all one day.”
A few days later, The Wire published journalist Ghazala Wahab’s on-record account of sexual harassment by Akbar, a celebrated former journalist and editor. Five days after Wahab’s account, and nine days after Ramani’s tweet, Akbar resigned from his post as minister of state for external affairs. In a statement he said “…a sea of innuendo, speculation and abusive diatribe has been built around something that never happened”. Akbar’s criminal defamation case against Ramani was another inflection point.
With the matter sub judice, when Ramani couldn’t file her column for the 20 October issue of Lounge, we responded by running #IamWithPriya in place of her weekly column. I believe that more than the four words, it was the punctuation that was the statement. Newton’s scrawl now stood for the weight of a collective.
One of the arguments against this three-month #MeToo wave has been that Dalit and Bahujan voices haven’t been adequately represented in what has largely been an urban, elite movement. It was Raya Sarkar, then a 24-year-old law student at the University of California, who kick-started the Indian arm of #MeToo last year when she published a list of alleged sexual predators in academia. Her LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) effort was radical. Sarkar, who identifies as Bahujan, said in an interview to Mint in October that she doesn’t mind how the movement is framed as long as it acknowledges her labour. She stressed its place in a continuum. “I would like to credit Bhanvari Devi for igniting the #MeToo movement years ago,” she said on email, referring to the the case surrounding a Rajasthani social worker’s gang-rape by five upper caste men in 1992 for trying to stop a child marriage. “Because of her we have the legal recourses to sexual harassment we have today. Due process failed her and she awaits justice even today.”
As #MeToo slowly loses its primetime spot in public consciousness, an important thing to remember is that it is an umbrella term. Countless editorials have tried to lay this out through the year and, yet, every so often, I hear grouses from men about “distinguishing the nature of the offence” and “the ease of anonymity”. And the throwaway statement that they now feel “afraid” to talk to women. Do feel afraid. #MeToo is an invisible spectre, present even when it is not. In fact, when Ramani posted that tweet, she did not use #MeToo but instead she ended it with #ulti (vomit). Some might say it’s the same.
#MeToo is an umbrella that goes from a seemingly innocuous, “You’re very dressed up today” to pinning a colleague against a hotel room wall against her will. The laissez-faire nature of the movement has given it both volume and opened it up for scepticism. Anonymous allegations cut both ways. For the survivors, it allows a forum to share stories without fear of renewed trauma or social and professional repercussions. For the accused and their defendants, it makes it easier to dismiss the allegations. Last week, India’s most-valued contemporary artist Subodh Gupta categorically denied a series of anonymous allegations against him posted by the Instagram account Scene and Herd. In response to an anonymous allegation against him, photographer Pablo Bartholomew said in a statement, “With no other context, timeline and explanation beyond the account of the anonymous person’s story, it makes it quite worrisome that anyone can name and be anonymous, with lack of answerability or fact. With no facts presented, I am at loss to address or respond to the stated accusation…”
In an email to me, Bartholomew has complained about “the unfair example of juxtaposing the anonymous allegations against me (not sexual in nature) with those who have been accused of severe sexual harassment”. Bartholomew is on fair ground, except that #MeToo is about breaking the ground. Anonymity is a valid recourse for feminist or marginal movements worldwide (what is political graffiti, after all?). The American feminist collective for women artists, Guerrilla Girls, wear gorilla masks to retain their anonymity and “to keep the focus on the issue and away from our personalities”. Last week, at a lecture performance at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s largest art event, their video work titled The Guerrilla Girls’ Guide to Behaving Badly told women to “be a creative complainer” and “be a professional complainer”. It also advised them to “be anonymous”.
There has been collateral damage to women too. Director Shazia Iqbal’s film Bebaak was dropped by the Mumbai Film Festival because Anurag Kashyap was one of its producers. “As a survivor of child abuse, several sexual assaults and harassment at workplace, I find it really odd, discomforting, unfair and traumatizing to be at the receiving end of the most powerful feminist moment of our times,” she wrote. “Sorry [festival] board members, you missed standing by the #MeToo movement by a mile.”
It’s useful to look at the MeToo movement in terms of economist Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction”. He describes it as a process that “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one”. #MeToo is a crisis of gender—an inevitable outcome of years of building patriarchal capital. It was bound to be gloriously destructive.
Some long-term changes have been put in motion. But only applauding the formal developments discredits the movement. There is bad news, sure. Many of the men called out are slowly being rehabilitated without disclosures on how internal investigations were carried out and what was revealed. Netflix, for instance, said it would stick with the team behind the show Sacred Games for a second season after an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against individuals involved with the show. Riyas Komu, a co-founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, who has a series of anonymous allegations against him, was seen near the art event earlier this month. He was fondly remembered and “missed” in the formal opening address, prompting a spontaneous mini-movement at the festival. But these are not failures of the #MeToo movement. These are failures of systems of addressal and correction—the institutional, the corporate, the legal and so on that are expected to rise to action now. The true success of #MeToo is that women’s stories have moved from the personal to the powerful to the political. Its greatest achievement isn’t the men who lost their jobs or even their public shaming or the men and women who have been revealed as closet misogynists, but the fundamental shift in what isn’t acceptable. Its true success is that women have the language to speak out. While not many women might raise their hands in a room if asked “Have you been sexually assaulted?” they can now raise their hands when asked “Do you have a #MeToo story to share?” The MeToo hashtag has given women a vocabulary that acts as an arsenal.
The hashtag is a versatile weapon. In chess, it represents a move that results in a checkmate.
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