Roxane Gay: Why The #MeToo Movement Still Has A Lot Left To Do

This past year, as #MeToo has gained cultural prominence, we have seen how necessary change can be so very slow, so very infuriating. When Harvey Weinstein and then several other men were finally held to account for decades of misdeeds, it felt like the beginning of something. For once, it seemed, women might be not only heard but believed. Justice felt like a real, tangible thing rather than a vague, illusory ideal.
This reckoning has been a long time coming. Victims of sexual violence, harassment and other forms of misconduct have been lying in wait. We have held onto our hope, clinging to it really, yearning to believe it might be possible for this world to change how women are seen or not seen, and how women are treated.
I am often asked about hope. I am asked if I am still hopeful despite what I know of the world. I am asked if hope is possible in these troubled times. I am asked how to hold onto hope. I always respond, as best I can, but those responses feel hollow because I am not the kind of person who thinks in terms of hope. Certainly, I want to hope because I need to believe there is something better beyond the present. But I am more realist than optimist. Hope is too ephemeral, too inconsistent, too fleeting.
This is a brutal time. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faces accusations of sexual assault and misconduct and every day there is new information about men who have abused their position or acted inappropriately or committed crimes against women. Every day women cut themselves open to share their experiences with sexual violence and often times, women reopen their wounds over and over again, hoping it will matter, hoping the truth of their suffering will be enough to change something.
But womanhood should not be primarily defined by suffering. As of late, people have offered up all kinds of moving words about the strength of women in a world dominated by the whims of men. And the truth is, I often hate those words. I hate that they are needed. I hate that this culture must be constantly reminded of the magnitude of what women withstand. I hate that even knowing the magnitude of what women withstand, this culture seems to think that we can take even more. Or, worse, they simply do not care.
Women should not have to think of ourselves in terms of resilience, or our ability to endure. We should be able to thrive, unfettered by the chronic malignancy that is misogyny. I am also often asked to define feminism and I enjoy saying I am no longer answering that question. It is 2018, and either you know what feminism is or you don’t. Either you know women deserve to be treated with equality and equity, to be seen as human, or you don’t. If I absolutely had to offer up a definition, though, I would say feminism is working to ensure that women are free to focus our energies on more than mere survival. I look back at this past year and I wonder when that might happen and what more it could possibly take.

We talk about resistance when what we need is a revolution.

As a writer who engages with race, gender, sexuality, and culture, it often feels like I am writing the same thing in slightly different ways, over and over, not because I lack imagination or a breadth of intellectual interests, but because so little truly changes for women (or people of color or the LGBTQ community). What we call progress is marginal change, at best, and that marginal change only comes because women fight tirelessly, to bring about that change. And however incremental change is for women in the United States, the pace of change is far more glacial for women in many other parts of the world.
We march. We share our personal stories. We cannibalize ourselves. We vote, though let us never forget that only 47% of white women voted in their own best interests in the 2016 presidential election. We run for office. We take stands great and small in our personal lives. We try to advocate for ourselves and each other. We fight. We hope. And still, the socio-political structures that shape our lives remain immovable. We talk about resistance when what we need is a revolution.

I feel like I am supposed to offer an uplifting message about how far we’ve come, but we haven’t come far at all.

It has been a year of #MeToo. I feel like I am supposed to offer an uplifting message about how far we’ve come, but we haven’t come far at all. Yes, we have had a vigorous and necessary national conversation about sexual violence and harassment over the last year. Yes, we are starting to see men face consequences for the harm they have done. Bill Cosby is sitting in a prison cell and will probably do so for the rest of his life. Harvey Weinstein will eventually face trial and, hopefully, incarceration. More powerful men will lose their jobs and face the opprobrium of the court of public opinion when the truth of who they are is revealed. But how will we create lasting change? How will we ensure that the justice system better addresses sexual violence? How will we encourage the justice system to include restorative justice in sentencing guidelines?
What will change for women? What, especially, will change for the most vulnerable women among us — the undocumented, women of color, working class women, single mothers? What will change for women who cannot afford to come forward when they are harassed or assaulted? As I consider this past year, what strikes me is how #MeToo has mostly benefited culturally prominent, mostly white women. Those women deserve justice as much as anyone else, but they are the few among a great many women who deserve justice and acknowledgment. What will change for men who feel entitled to women in whatever ways they see fit? A few men have fallen from grace. A few men are worried they will be next because they know how they have crossed lines. A majority of men do not realize that they too are part of the problem either because they have committed sexual transgressions or they have looked the other way or they have not believed women.
It has been a year of #MeToo, but it has also been more than a decade because before the hashtag, activist Tarana Burke began the MeToo movement after meeting a young girl who had been abused. During that encounter, Burke wanted to tell the young woman “me too,” but she couldn’t. Eventually, she created a non-profit, Just Be, dedicated to helping victims of sexual harassment and assault. She created a space where people could say, “Me too,” so victims of sexual violence would always know they weren’t alone. Today, we know we aren’t alone. We know sexual harassment and violence are practically epidemic. We know change is needed. As we move forward, we need to figure out how to hold this space #MeToo has made for empathy and solidarity while working to create a culture where someday, this space will no longer be needed. That, if anything, is what I hope for.

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