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Cultural awakening or trending hashtag? Denouncing rape culture on social media.

About #MeToo: is it just a trending hashtag or a wake-up call for cultural change?


As the people of Twitter wisely put it, if 2016 was the year of praying one of your faves wouldn’t die, 2017 is the year of praying one of your faves won’t be outed as a sexual predator. In the past month, countless victims have stepped forward and openly accused powerful Hollywood men of sexual abuse. Like tiles of a domino, the dismantling of this power architecture has inspired many others to come forward on social media and find support in sharing experiences. As more and more find the courage to raise their voice, I am left wondering: is this the beginning of a cultural awakening?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that in the past month accusations of sexual misconduct have had Hollywood powerhouses shaking in their boots. All the stories are relatively similar, like scripts of a trite movie genre. Drunk with power (or as Louis CK would have put it, admiration), these men took advantage of victims that a complicit system ensured would remain silent. In random order, these men include:

  • Harvey Weinstein, with a well-oiled machine of complicit assistants and a statement comparing himself to Jay-Z, because a cheating husband and a serial abuser are totally the same thing;
  • Kevin Spacey, special nominee for the ‘worst time to come out’ award;
  • Ed Westwick (y’all gotta stop defending Chuck Bass just because he’s (semi-)attractive);
  • The extremely admired Louis CK and his narcissistic admission of guilt.

Trending hashtag
The outpouring of assault and harassment allegations initiated in Hollywood has been followed by a global conversation on the experience of abuse under the hashtag #MeToo. The hashtag was launched with the aim to bring visibility to the reality of sexual harassment and abuse, and let the world understand the magnitude of the issue. After its launch on October 15, the hashtag soon went viral on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, with millions of users sharing their stories and receiving support from the many other survivors.

It doesn’t end here. Moving from online platforms to real communities, the US’ largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reported that survivors of sexual violence had been reaching out to them in record numbers. In the month of October alone, RAINN’s victim service program registered an increase of 21 percent in the numbers of those reaching out for help, as well as a spike in the number of donations received.

This wave of courage rippling through global communities feels like a collective, long-due ‘we’ve had enough’. And we should be thanking social media for that. Beyond the ads, the worries about what they could possibly be doing with our data, the collective obsession over the quantification of our popularity in likes and retweets – social media is about immediacy, the possibility to talk to anyone, about anything. It is the locus where one can have a voice, establish conversations, and have others chime in.

This architecture of speed and global connections made it possible for the countless victims of abuse and harassment to realize that they were not alone, that others could understand their experiences and relate. It made it safe to speak up from behind a screen and find a voice. Personally, knowing so many other women navigate public spaces fearing for their safety was upsetting – but it is a drive to speak up and stop tolerating injustice.

Cultural awakening
I can do this, if I am not alone.

I can do this, if my action have consequences.

Ultimately, this is the beauty of watching those old, decaying Hollywood monsters meet their fate. Seeing once all-powerful men being shunned from the public, their work marginalized, their careers destroyed. It feels like justice, at once. Like speaking up can have repercussions, and reporting won’t be in vain.

Can we really speek of a cultural shift? Only time will tell. Real cultural impact can only be measured when norms are changed. After punishing the usual suspects (see Courtney Love warning us about Weinstein in 2005), what we need is to establish a system where powerful men are held accountable for their actions, where the less powerful are not objectified and belittled. Where women (and other victims, too) won’t have to stand up again and say “Me too.”

The whimsical, flimsy nature of the billion of conversations taking place on social media at any given moment makes it hard to trust the power of those platforms, and hope that they will carry the voices pioneering such a cultural turn. What will happen when the next trending hashtag comes along? What are we going to do with those uncomfortable, powerful conversations then?

Cover: Nicole Adams

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