When actor Alyssa Milano first used the MeToo hashtag following the allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein it was tweeted more than 12 million times. Within weeks, the hashtag became a movement.
The commentator, Van Badham, called it a “Twitter-facilitated experience of ‘collective deshaming’” as women all over the world turned a private torment into a public crime. The sense of relief and solidarity as women spoke up through their social media accounts was palpable.
The fact that we are still speaking about it nearly two years on, however, is also down to the role that the media has played over that time. Responding to #MeToo, the media has not only added to the authority of the movement, but it has also amplified it.
A report by the Women’s Media Center in the US showed that the amount of coverage around sexual assault and abuse had significantly increased since the Milano tweet (up 30%). What’s more, the study found that stories beyond sexual harassment had also been given more prominence as a result of the #MeToo movement. “After October 2017, media began to more commonly write about issues that particularly pertain to women – such as reproductive health and the wage gap,” it said.
Nearly two years on from Alyssa Milano’s first tweet, the BBC has a webpage dedicated to #MeToo, with new posts appearing on an almost daily basis. It is the same with The Guardian and no doubt others. The world has changed and the media has a central role.
Media coverage has an impact on how society perceives an issue like sexual harassment. It has the power to shift cultural standards with the stories it prints and how both the perpetrators and the victims are presented.
A good illustration of this is in the language used. A victim is now a ‘survivor’. The word ‘harassment’ is less likely to be used than ‘assault’. It is clear that the way the media reports sexual violence or misconduct has changed, but so has our reaction to the language used. We are less likely to tolerate thoughtless statements, calling out the casual bias that can pervade everyday conversation.
If you haven’t seen Niamh O’Grady’s rant about a casting agency’s ad for a woman ‘in her late 30s, still attractive’, I recommend that you do. It shows how easily society slips into appalling characterisation, which in this case suggests that if you’re 40 and a woman, you clearly have no appeal whatsoever.
As we look ahead to another International Women’s Day on Friday, the responsibility the media has to men (still half of the population) is also beginning to be aired. Language that emancipates women cannot subdue a new generation of boys and young men. One critic pulled up Oprah Winfrey for a speech that referred to the lots of wonderful women, but only some phenomenal men as hardly encouraging for her young son.
The Times columnist Hugo Rifkind wrote an interesting article on the recent furore over Ryan Adams. On the one hand, ‘Hurricane’ Adams’ behaviour (bar the one allegation of online grooming) could be put down to ‘rock and roll’, but that didn’t make it fair or excuse the assumption that Adams could do whatever he wanted. That’s what #MeToo is fighting against. A prolific media commentator, Rifkind gets it, and concludes, men “need to step back and realise this simply isn’t our tune” and it can’t be tweaked.
From a woman’s perspective, #MeToo has been the catalyst for the media to give voice to issues that were previously taboo. The media is not perfect, but it makes a difference as we recalibrate, and adjust, and our culture corrects itself for true gender equality.