Opinion

Clem Bastow
Me too, myself and I

It is a thought common to all who work within feminist media, art, music or academia: Am I a bad feminist?

It’s more often something uttered in moments of winking satire, the discourse equivalent of the “thinking” emoji. It’s the sentiment that asks, “Am I a bad feminist if I enjoyed that one Michael Bay movie?” But the suspicion that you are genuinely a bad feminist can gnaw quietly away at your insides. That gnawing, for many, reached ulcerating levels over the past week as the #MeToo campaign swept social media.

In the wake of the sexual harassment and rape allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a call to arms shared by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give men a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Milano wasn’t the first to suggest such a show of online solidarity – indeed, the Me Too Movement was founded by black activist Tarana Burke a decade earlier to unify survivors of sexual assault, particularly survivors of colour – but #MeToo spread like wildfire.

What began as a suggestion to merely tweet the hashtag in response, in order to gauge numbers, soon began an outpouring of specifics: tales of harassment and abuse, from the quotidian to the life-altering.

Through it all, I resisted the urge to share, even though I knew I had plenty of “material”. Days passed and I wondered if readers were keeping tabs on my reticence to say #MeToo.

In truth, it was less about resisting an urge than resenting the demand. Because the demand to perform trauma is a key tenet of contemporary feminism. I would know: I made the personal essay a central part of my feminist writing work for many years.

If there was ever a misunderstood notion in feminism, it’s that “the personal is political”. The rallying slogan of second-wave feminism was meant as a catalyst for change, but through third- and especially fourth-wave feminism it was adopted as gospel. And as feminism entered the mainstream media, personal essay became an industry, and personal trauma the currency.

“The first-person industrial complex” was a term coined in 2015 in a feature of the same name by Slate’s Laura Bennett. In the piece, Bennett revealed an industry of writers and editors “building relationships with readers via self-exposure”. Tales of abuse, rape, sex, dating, mental illness and eating disorders rated well with readers, and editors actively sought them out. Though Bennett didn’t explicitly describe the trend as central to online feminism, it was telling how many of the examples came from feminist sites: Jezebel, xoJane, Rookie.

A year later, Gawker revealed that a “trauma survey” was being used by women’s site Bustle to assess potential writers. The “Bustle Writers: Identity Survey” included an itemised list of life experiences – “I’ve been to rehab”, “I’ve had an abortion” – that the people who wrote for it were expected to tick off.

In response, a deputy editor wrote, “When there’s a conversation about a sensitive or complex issue – domestic violence, gender identity, substance abuse and recovery, etc – we want to make sure those topics are covered properly.”

In other words, lived experience was valued over journalistic integrity. A well-researched essay about a social issue, written by a journalist or academic, was of inherently lower value, politically, than one by a writer who could speak to the issue subjectively. That the writer is often not a professional, has a tenuous grasp of journalistic ethics and no editorial or unionised support network is immaterial: their trauma is qualification enough.

While #MeToo may be an organic social media campaign, it carries with it the same expectation to perform trauma as personal narrative, and the same expectation that not doing so is somehow a betrayal. This is a culture of confession as substitute for systemic analysis – what the writer and activist Yasmin Nair calls the liberal feminist “imperative to reveal oneself as the wounded subject”.

In an interview with online journal Hypocrite Reader, Nair said, “What it’s pretending to do is to say, ‘Look, this matters because so many of us who work on this matter are in fact also traumatised.’ … There’s a kind of demand for authenticity in all of this that I find particularly vexing. And I know for a fact that many people who have a critique of trauma and of violence and of the state may well have been sexually abused, but just don’t talk about it. And does that make them less authentic?”

I first read Nair’s thoughts on confession when I was making most of my income from personal essay. At the time, my reaction was not unlike that of a person sprung with an intervention: I doubled down. I pitched and wrote yet more essays about my personal life; I performed stand-up comedy about personal misery and health issues; I scanned a photo from a happy family holiday to use as an illustration for a blog post about abuses by former partners because the editors wanted something “real”.

Here and there, someone would offer thanks for my candour, but through it all, nothing really changed. Opening healed wounds did not bring about the “cosmic justice” my therapist warned me did not exist, and each searing personal essay did nothing to affect the numbers: gender liberation had not occurred, men still murdered their partners, the world kept turning.

The real surprise of #MeToo was, in fact, no surprise at all: that nearly every woman on Earth had experienced sexual harassment or assault. There is, surely, nobody left to persuade that these dreadful acts occur daily, hourly.

The visual artist Victoria Siemer created a work last week in response to #MeToo. In the image, a heavy mist shrouds a hillside forest, the words “ME TOO” hover above the tree line in hazy neon, gradually disappearing into the fog. In this artwork I felt the sting of years’ worth of feminist confession disappearing into the ether.

Did #WhenIWas stem the sexual harassment of young girls? Did #YesAllWomen stop misogynistic violence? Did the outpouring of tweets detailing sexual assault in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments teach the president about nuanced gender politics?

As Jia Tolentino writes in this week’s New Yorker, “symbolic advancement often obscures real losses … Individual takedowns and #MeToo stories will likely affect the workings of circles that pay lip service to the cause of gender equality, but they do not yet threaten the structural impunity of powerful men as a group.”

#MeToo, like the first-person industrial complex, forces emotional labour on survivors of trauma in an attempt to shift the target’s thinking and bring about change. This might hurt, the thinking goes, but it will be worth it in the long run.

In suggesting that the overwhelming nature of #MeToo might bring about concrete change, more than one colleague described it as the feminist equivalent of a “shock and awe” campaign. While I appreciate that certain turns of phrase eventually enter the vernacular, stripped of their original meaning, the use of this particular term seemed significant.

Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade’s 1996 doctrine, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, stresses that “total mastery achieved at extraordinary speed and across tactical, strategic, and political levels will destroy the will to resist”. Has our movement reached such a crisis point that we’re willing to weaponise trauma in order to bludgeon our way out of patriarchal rule?

This, then, is contemporary feminism’s challenge: accepting that the reams of personal essay and hashtagged anecdotes have not stemmed the flow of violence against women, nor brought about gender equality or liberation, and that the expectation that trauma should be performed as part of the discourse places a heavy burden on survivors.

There may well have been catharsis in #MeToo for those who have never spoken out, but for those who’ve shared their stories time and time again, it wore thin. There is no “correct” way to be a survivor, but there is a better feminism than our current mainstream model.

Contemporary feminism often calls for content or trigger warnings to accompany potentially upsetting content, from Shakespeare plays to cultural theory essays, but there is no such consideration paid to the imperative to reveal trauma as a tool of the movement.

There was once a time, it feels almost quaint to recall, when feminists decried the legal system as broken because cross-examination retraumatised victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse and rape. These days, that retraumatisation is an inside job. It may mean I’ve finally turned into that apocryphal bad feminist of my waking nightmares, but I refuse to mine my trauma any longer.

In her 1970 essay, the title of which coined the phrase “The Personal Is Political”, Carol Hanisch wrote, “What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are ‘apolitical’, not because there might be something wrong with our thinking.”

We now consider much of second-wave thinking outdated, if not hair-raising in its essentialism. It is not hard to imagine a future feminism that will look back with the same angst at the fourth-wave reliance on trauma and the damage it does to its own. Putting the labour of trauma onto its politics excludes those not “strong enough” to mine their own experience, people made vulnerable by class or race, trans people, those whose experiences are not yet able to be tweeted or shared and may never be.

This feminism is rigged with self-defeating flaws, structured towards the emotional burnout of its participants. Its intersections with social networking and digital media have only served to heighten its caustic effects on those within the movement. Slowly, it destroys itself rather than the system it critiques: consciousness-raising groups descend into infighting, chasms open between comrades, and the men who most need to understand all this are allowed to ignore what is happening while another wave crashes into the sand.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Me too, myself and I". Subscribe here.

Clem Bastow
is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.