During the past year, I have grown increasingly uneasy with a fairly common bit of semantic slippage: in headlines, in think pieces, and on social media, many people use the phrases “#MeToo movement” and “#MeToo moment” interchangeably, without acknowledging the gulf between them. Is #MeToo—this jagged, brutal, contentious, and profound collective reckoning with the extent to which men have been allowed to abuse their power—an epochal shift toward a better and more equal society? Or is it fleeting—a piece of time that we can record and later revisit, but that we could never, in this country, under a twenty-times-accused-of-sexual-misconduct President, make last?
In recent weeks, as we neared the first anniversary of this moment or movement breaking into the mainstream, signs of a new narrative—or perhaps a very old one imbued with a new reactionary fervor—began to emerge, offering one possible answer to that question. Louis C.K., who has admitted to cornering multiple women who worked in the comedy industry and masturbating in front of them, started performing again, to the delight of supporters who seemed to believe that C.K. has been victimized by the Zeitgeist. Harper’s and The New York Review of Books published lengthy first-person essays by disgraced menwho painted themselves as martyrs. The Republican Party pushed Brett Kavanaugh into a seat on the Supreme Court, despite multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct made against him and his string of lies under oath about matters related to that alleged sexual misconduct. (Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.) At a rally in Mississippi, Donald Trump mocked the public testimony of Kavanaugh’s first public accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who claims that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her while they were in high school. Trump’s supporters, who had earlier chanted “We want Kavanaugh,” roared and laughed and cheered. “A man’s life is shattered,” Trump said, suddenly faking solemnity. He added, “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”
The underlying principle here is that the men who have been accused are the heroes, and that those who accuse them, and listen to the accusations, are the villains. This revanchism is not a sign of #MeToo’s overcorrection, or even of its success—it is merely evidence of its existence. This sort of backlash, as Susan Faludi wrote nearly thirty years ago, is “set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a preemptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line.”
When Ford spoke publicly, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in late September, she was unfailingly polite and deferential while being interrogated at length about a traumatic experience. She spoke like a woman who had understood since childhood that survival requires anticipating and accepting the displeasure of men. Kavanaugh, in contrast, who spoke after her, yelled and wept, behaving like a man whose entitlement had never before been challenged, and who believed that male power outweighs women’s personhood as naturally as a boulder outweighs a pearl. The hearing was a vivid illustration of the precise problem that #MeToo has helped to expose, and of the fact that many men consider the exposure of the problem to be the problem itself. At one point, Kavanaugh traded lines with an equally furious Senator Lindsey Graham about how the delay in his confirmation had put him “through hell.”
The anger crackling through Kavanaugh and Graham—and the thrum of vindictive satisfaction that I could feel passing through the base they were playing to—shut me down for the evening. I grasped, for the first time, the extent to which the past year has made some men crave the poisonous high of feeling wrongfully endangered. I also grasped the scale of the consequences that women and other sexual-assault victims will face as a result. Like the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, these men are borrowing the rhetoric of the structurally oppressed and delivering it with a rage that is denied to all but the most powerful. “I’m a single white male from South Carolina,” Graham said, at a meeting the morning after the hearing, “and I’m told that I should just shut up, but I will not shut up.”
The past year has been full of sweeping pronouncements. “Time’s up for these men.” “The silence is breaking.” The inflexible triumphalism of this language, like the cheerful pink emoji attached to the #MeToo hashtag, has always left me cold. It is often assumed that women like me, feminists who have argued for a redistribution of power, have been steadily rejoicing—that we’ve blown trumpets after every ouster—when in fact many of us have been exhausted and heartbroken and continually reminded of situations in which our ability to consent had been compromised or nullified in any one of a thousand ways. I don’t know a single woman who has permitted herself to be as openly furious about being sexually assaulted as Kavanaugh allowed himself to be, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, when speaking about being accused of sexual assault. Like Ford, we have had to be painfully careful about how we speak.
Women’s speech is sometimes wielded, in this #MeToo era, as if it were Excalibur—as if the shining, terrible truth about the lives of women will, by itself, vanquish the men who have exploited and controlled them; as if speech were a weapon that protects those who wield it from hurt. Supporters of #MeToo have, on occasion, adhered to this idea in a sort of delusive optimism. Opponents have brandished it, too, in bad faith, acting as though women’s speech has far more social and political and legal power than it has actually been granted. Until the nineteen-eighties, many jurisdictions required an alleged rape victim’s testimony to be corroborated before a conviction could be issued—even though, for nonsexual crimes, guilt could be established on the basis of a victim’s testimony alone. We saw a replay of this in the Kavanaugh hearing. Although the burden of proof should not have been as high as it would have been for a criminal trial—and though Ford’s testimony was widely regarded, even by many of Kavanaugh’s most powerful supporters, as credible—that testimony was described, again and again, as not enough.
It will be said that Kavanaugh was confirmed despite the #MeToo movement. It would be at least as accurate to say that he was confirmed because of it. Women’s speech—and the fact that we are now listening to it—has enraged men in a way that makes them determined to reëstablish the longstanding hierarchy of power in America. By imagining that they are threatened, men like Kavanaugh have found the motivation to demonstrate, at great cost to the rest of us, that they are still the ones who have the ability to threaten others.
And yet this awful truth will not stop women from speaking, and I do not think that it will turn a movement into a moment. It has become clear that there is not nearly enough left to lose.