The #MeToo Movement is Trapped Within Gendered Language


And social media may be the solution we’ve been looking for.

Feminism, in its current mode, is doomed to fail. As a feminist, this is difficult to say, and yet the more I study feminism, the more I start to realise that this is the case. For example, renowned gender theorist and critic Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble, asked: ‘To what extent does the effort to locate a common identity as the foundation for a feminist politics preclude a radical inquiry into the political construction and regulation of identity itself?’ That political construction of the word ‘gender’ itself, in its earliest Latin root ‘genus’ means ‘sort’ or ‘kind’. It is a term imbued with a division.

In October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo started trending on Twitter after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged people to showcase ‘the magnitude of the problem’ of sexual violence. What began as a protest against sexual abuse and harassment has since evolved into feminist movements spanning 85 countries and 1.7 million voices on Twitter. However, as an example of 21st-century feminism, I think Butler’s question remains prevalent. While the #MeToo movement raises issues of gender relations and equality, it continues a feminist political attempt to create a shared category of women who can say ‘me too’.

This is the part where we go into some linguistics. That historical association between a woman and weaker passivity is visible in the choice of ‘me’ as a pronoun rather than ‘I’ in #MeToo. ‘Me’ is a dative of ‘I’ that refers to the object of a verb or preposition instead of the active subject. The woman is not “I, the victim” in their own right, but only in addition to other survivors of sexual abuse, a group of objects subjected to male violence. By saying ‘me too,’ the woman becomes the passive object to the active masculine persecutor. Using ‘too’ enforces this as it continues to place the woman as an addition to a preexisting thing or group. The ‘#’ extends this effect, acting to associate messages with common discussion topics on social media, an index to sort similar tweets into a single group. The #MeToo hashtag demonstrates how its semantic construction still engages with the binaries of traditional gender discourse.

Throughout all of this, there is the heavyweight of the violence that inspired these words, and the trails people have had to face before we can reach the point of saying #MeToo. It’s why it saddens me to think that all that courage, all that power, that is has taken to get this far may just be perpetuating the problem. It seems that we need to start changing our language to break the cycle of violence and abuse.

#MeToo’s restriction is that its discourse limits itself by beginning from a place of gendered language. While protesting against violence to the female body, it is reiterating its gender performance through language that portrays women as passive and weak; and, therefore, vulnerable to violence. For me, this is where the digital space of social media can come into its own. All too frequently, we’ve seen internet trolls use Twitter to anonymise their violence. However, I think it has the potential to refigure gender in a space that is open and dependent on relational connections.

We think about certain spaces by our association with gendered positions in society. For example, synonyms of ‘home’ include ‘domestic’, ‘internal’, and ‘local’, while synonyms of ‘public’ include ‘communal’, ‘universal’, and ‘free’. Historically stereotypical gender norms imbue these synonyms. Here, language continues to associate the woman with her previous confinement in domestic space and the man with the public sphere. The language of physical space is gendered.

However, social media has no such historical associations. Twitter’s digital space outside the geographical restrictions of historically gendered spaces offers a new space outside the previously limiting discourse. It temporarily bypasses the issue of the female body as a gendered and vulnerable site facing sexual violence. So utilising a digital space where the body is not physically present creates a safer, more open space for this discussion. Sadly this does not inevitably mean this digital discussion will translate into the physically ‘real’ world. Although, one survey by Omnicore showed that: ‘the digital sphere was still largely understood as a relatively safer and easier space to engage in feminist discussion than in participants offline contexts’.

Twitter does not solve the problem of gendered bodies or spaces, but it creates a space to open the discussion if we choose to use it. It’s certainly a place to start the conversation.

So where next for the #MeToo movement? If despite using a digital space with the potential to open away from historically divided gender norms, #MeToo continues to limit itself by using gendered discourse, it continues what Butler accused feminist politics of avoiding the ‘radical inquiry into the […] construction and regulation of identity itself’.

If gender politics is then a question of power, and power relations, then it becomes a question of relational responsibility and vulnerability. In asking ‘where next?’ for #MeToo, the challenge turns to translating the potential for that introspective examination of identity, of mutual responsibility, into the physical world, and into the everyday sexual violence that #MeToo reacted against. Ultimately, #MeToo shows that there needs to be a mutual recognition that we are vulnerable to each other as human beings, and a respect for and responsibility towards our relational identity that will allow us to progress from feminist gendered discourse altogether.

Here is what I propose. Firstly, to notice the language that we use and the space in which we use it. Just acknowledging that our day to day actions and discourses came out of these historically gendered binaries means we can begin to challenge them, not only for the sake of preventing violence against women but against all people. Secondly, if you agreed or disagree with what I’ve said in this article, come and talk to me about it, on the conditions that we both speak with open minds and you’ll listen to me as much as I listen to you. I’m serious, my contact details are in the front of this paper, and I’d love to hear it because having that open discourse is what that this article is all about.

The digital age is in full swing, so we might as well make the most of it, and take the opportunity to reinvent our language in the new space we have.

Ruth-Anne Walbank

My name is Ruth, and I'm the Editor of SCAN for 2019-20. I have been the Arts and Culture Editor in 2018-19, and the Deputy Arts and Culture Editor before that. I've written over 80 articles for SCAN across a variety of sections.
If you have any questions about the newspaper, feel free to message me!

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