#MeToo: The social media impact statement

Even as the fight continues it is worth recognising this watershed moment, in which a hashtag really meant something

In the last couple of years, the brave new world of social media seems to have disintegrated into a mess of Trumpery, wonky politics, and self aggrandisement: less a forum of voices enabling growth and communication, more a chamber of mirrors reflecting our dearly held prejudices - and our perfect house / life / abdominal muscles - to a self-selecting and admiring audience.

But amidst all this has shone the #MeToo movement. It is not perfect, and more on this later. But it played a pivotal role in the extraordinary events of last week, in which after twenty years, more than 150 women came forward to voice the sexual horror meted out by a US National Gymnastics medic, and in which he was finally sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

To reiterate exactly how remarkable this moment is, it's worth revisiting some details.

In 2016 former gymnast Rachel Denhollander came forward to tell her story to the press and the police. Still the majority of his victims stayed silent, shorn of hope that they would be believed and wary of response that might meet them (Denhollander was vigorously trolled). 

It was only after the October 2017 expose of Harvey Weinstein triggered the global #MeToo outpouring, that the floodgates began to open. First, the 2012 Olympic medalist McKayla Maroney posted on Twitter about her abuse by Nassar under the #MeToo hashtag. "It started when I was 13," she wrote, continuing of one night when he had drugged her. "...I thought I was going to die." 

Then gymnast Jessica Smith created Facebook group "Me Too MSU". Ever more victims came forward, over Facebook, over Twitter and Instagram. By the time of Nassar's sentencing 156 women came to a televised court to give brave and corruscating impact statements.

Again and again the girls and women spoke of the solidarity they derived from one another. Said Olympic medalist Aly Raisman: "I didn't think I would be here today. I was scared and nervous [but hearing the stories] from the other brave survivors, I realised I too needed to be here." She continued: "Larry, you do now realise the women you so heartlessly abused are now a force, and you are nothing."

As they spoke, so their courage was shared with and reflected to a global audience. And while it was the actions of individuals such as Denhollander that brought Nassar to justice, it was the #MeToo campaign that shone an international spotlight on the hearing, amplifying their force and affording the women the chance finally to shame their aggressor. 

"All the words you and your sister survivors have said are being heard," Judge Aquilina told Raisman. "You were never the problem, but you are part of the solution."

And the solidarity grows. Just a few days on from the trial, Kesha sang 'Praying' in support of #MeToo at the Grammys, to an audience wearing #MeToo white roses (doubtless a poignant moment for an artist who has spent the last few years fighting a lawsuit claiming her producer Lukasz 'Dr Luke' Gottwalk sexaully assaulted her.)

And yet. The sheer scale of the #MeToo may prove its downfall. A backlash is emerging over the way the movement can appear blinkered, and elide different levels of harassment and assault - for example, in the case of Aziz Ansari. It risks veering to mob justice. This was perhaps highlighted in the case of the 'Shitty Media Men' spreadsheet - a list of men about whom women were warning their peers, but which damned those named publicly and without trial. 

For now, however, let us celebrate the power of a united force of women - and men - who are coming together to fight for change. Already #MeToo has also inspired Hollywood women to put cold hard cash into a Time's Up fund to bring legal representation to abused women. Next, it is time to look to where the movement may go, how it can vault the hashtag and mete institutional change. 

Even as the fight continues it is worth recognising this watershed moment, in which a hashtag really meant something.


Original article published in GQ, in May, 2019

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