The new canon of #MeToo

Several new books seek to define the values of #MeToo. Will they change popular consciousness, or turn suffering into forgettable entertainment?

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Protesters gather at a park in Los Angeles for a Women’s March against sexual violence on Jan. 20, 2018. A larger cultural discussion has emerged because of #MeToo.

The #MeToo movement – a loose coalition of voices and protests advocating for women’s rights – exploded in 2017. This summer, a spate of books began to enshrine and solidify #MeToo’s values, roots, and rhetoric on paper. While there’s a long history of feminist literature and scholarship, this new group of books is distinct for its wide nonacademic audience.

Two of the most prominent titles are “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and “Know My Name” by Chanel Miller. Both made The New York Times bestseller list for multiple weeks.

In “She Said,” Kantor and Twohey recount their investigation into sexual harassment and assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Their reporting for The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize and was credited with helping catalyze the #MeToo movement. Their book also chronicles the events leading up to Stanford Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s appearance before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, during which she accused then-judicial nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape when they were teenagers. “She Said” is a meticulous accounting of confidential meetings, justifiably apprehensive sources, and sticky legal traps – a sophisticated bird’s-eye view of a sensitive operation that compiled a public record of the assaults of dozens of women. 

While Kantor and Twohey document facts, “Know My Name” provides a meditative account of what it’s like to live through the trauma of a sexual assault, as well as a strongly-reasoned deconstruction of rape culture. Miller was attacked by college student Brock Turner in 2015. Her case made headlines across the nation, but most early stories focused on the academic and athletic achievements of Turner, then a swimmer for Stanford University. At the close of his trial in 2016, she penned a trenchant victim impact statement, which went viral. Her memoir is a window into the difficult work she undertook to regain her self-worth and stability. It’s also a searing indictment of the societal and institutional structures that stymie and retraumatize rape victims in their search for justice.

Other prominent titles are Putlizer-winning journalist Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” which details his own reporting on Weinstein, as well as his criticisms of NBC’s response to reporter Matt Lauer’s alleged sexual misconduct; and “All the President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator” by Barry Levine and Monique El-Faizy, which details new and old accusations of predatory behavior on the part of the president. 

But Miller’s book stands out from this cohort for its passion and its raw articulation of survivorship. “She Said” and other stories focused on investigations can echo the tone of television procedurals, where the narrative centers on the acquisition of information and the process of justice even in emotionally wrenching situations. 

Nevertheless, similar language and arguments appear in all books, and taken together, these books form an interconnected web of rhetoric that underpins the popular contemporary understanding of rape culture. Most importantly, Kantor, Twohey, and Miller argue that the most effective way to counter sexual harassment is for women to speak out together, as a unified front. One of Twohey and Kantor’s sources “wanted to be one of many women standing up to Weinstein.” Similarly, Miller recognized that she was weakened by isolation: “One of the greatest dangers of victimhood is the singling out.”

And Miller, Kantor, and Twohey all position themselves as precedent-setters. Miller writes, “We fight because we pray we’ll be the last ones to feel this kind of pain.” Twohey and Kantor describe their initial reporting, along with their sources’ decision to speak out, as “a solvent for secrecy, pushing women all over the world to speak up about similar experiences.”

That public record is important. “Women have always been fighting ... to achieve justice, but there’s no linear, progressive story,” says Linda M. Grasso, professor of English at York College, and of liberal studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Academic feminist theory has covered the ground that the public continues to debate again and again, but those conversations don’t make it to the outside world, she adds. That’s why, today, #MeToo is as likely to politically polarize as it is to rally support for women. It’s why the resistance that law professor Anita Hill met when she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of harassment in 1991 was echoed in 2019, when Blasey Ford took the stand.

The voices of #MeToo are cognizant of this reality. “There isn’t ever going to be an end,” Laura Madden, one of Weinstein’s accusers, tells Twohey and Kantor. “The point is that people have to continue always speaking up and not being afraid.”

And yet Grasso believes the popularity of “She Said,” “Know My Name,” and similar books has as much to do with the mindset of readers as it does with any shift in institutional power. “This spate of books being heard is coincident with political movements that are allowing them to be heard,” she says. “The one really important thing about all of this is to make sure that these books and these ideas become part of the cultural imagination.”

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