A half decade since the hashtag went viral, we can see the awareness it has created, but we’re also struggling with what to do with the knowledge
Sexual assault survivor Mimi Haley spent much of the last five years reliving her trauma and enduring death threats and “other vile harassment.”
But the former production assistant doesn’t regret for a moment joining the women who went public with accusations against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. She testified at his New York criminal trial in early 2020 and witnessed the disgraced producer’s subsequent conviction.
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“I’ve had to heal from the re-trauma of holding him accountable,” said Haley, whose given name is Miriam Haleyi, via an email sent through her attorney. “But the ripple effect it’s had makes it worth it. I hear so many people refer to that trial and the impacts it’s had when talking about these issues.”
Weinstein, now 70, has appealed the New York conviction for committing a criminal sexual act and third-degree rape that saw him sentenced to 23 years in prison. Jury selection in a second criminal trial on sexual assault charges, this time in Los Angeles, began last Monday.
The fallen mogul’s return to the courtroom and the public eye this month is a remarkable bit of timing, taking place almost exactly five years after investigative journalism revealed his predatory behavior, starting a conversation that spurred actress Alyssa Milano to post a now famous tweet, catapulting #MeToo into the spotlight.
Whatever the outcome in the courts, the social movement that exploded into public consciousness as the Weinstein scandal broke open the floodgates clearly brought significant changes — and not just in Hollywood.
“There have been people fighting to interrupt sex violence for decades — decades trying to address a conversation behind closed doors, in the shadows,” said Dani Ayers, CEO of me too. International, the organization founded in 2019 after the global #MeToo movement brought to light the work of activist Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase and founded the “me too” movement in 2006.
“We know if you’re having these conversations behind closed doors, nothing will change,” Ayers said, adding that Milano’s “Me Too” tweet and the viral cascade that followed “brought the conversation to the masses.”
It also created a certain level of accountability, because before large changes in culture can take place, communities need to recognize there’s a problem, she said.
The global #MeToo movement created a much greater awareness of the prevalence and consequences of sexual harassment and misconduct, behavior that was largely hidden and affects people of all genders and identities, explained Hong Luo, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
Moreover, #MeToo sparked important public conversations about “the causes that enable this misconduct, what enables them to persist for so long… the broader things of how gender inequality and entrenched norms and just how women are supposed to behave in work and life,” Luo said.
She added: “You see this everywhere — in op-eds, in comments, blogs. Everything becomes very salient because of the personal account.”
#MeToo impacts Hollywood
In Hollywood, men were “put on notice” that shockingly standard offensive behavior, overlooked in the industry for decades, would be called out, said Professor Tara McPherson of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
“There was definitely a broad recognition that women were pissed off and people weren’t staying silent just to get a job,” she said.
The effects weren’t just at an individual level, where people may have checked their own behavior a bit more. The movement also sparked a series of policy changes, including firing offenders and stronger harassment protections at companies concerned about legal consequences, McPherson said.
Former “House of Cards” actor Kevin Spacey was fired by Netflix in late 2017 after he was accused of sexual assault and harassment. Comedian Louis C.K. has effectively disappeared from television since admitting he masturbated in front of women in the wake of multiple accusations. Disney’s Searchlight Pictures suspended filming of the movie “Being Mortal” in April after Bill Murray allegedly straddled and kissed a younger production staffer through face masks.
And the once-untouchable head of CBS Leslie Moonves was dismissed by the network after allegations of sexual misconduct that were decades old. Like a handful of other corporate chiefs, such as former Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara — who was fired after the discovery of an affair with an actress, which made him all but persona non grata in the industry.
Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA introduced new standards to protect its members from sexual harassment, among them opposing auditions or interviews in private hotel rooms or homes. The Hollywood union also created guidelines for intimacy coordinators, who help with filming intimate film and television scenes, to help curb sexual harassment on set.
The #MeToo movement also birthed the Hollywood-centered Time’s Up, an anti-workplace harassment advocacy group, which helped keep #MeToo in the spotlight. That organization, however, was reduced to a skeleton state following revelations that then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo consulted with Time’s Up leaders after he was accused of sexual harassment by a former aide.
#MeToo has also had a positive impact on the paltry representation of women writers in Hollywood, according to research by Harvard’s Luo and Laurina Zhang of Boston University. Their findings, published earlier this year, found that Hollywood producers who had worked with Weinstein — and thus were more likely affected by the #MeToo movement — hired about 35% more female writers after the scandal.
The significant increase was mainly driven by production teams that had a female producer on them.
“There’s really a scarcity of female talent behind the scenes,” said Zhang, an assistant professor of Strategy and Innovation at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who noted that only 14% of writers of the 100 top grossing films in 2017-2018 were women. “So it’s great that this movement has led to more participation by female writers.”
The movement has had other effects that are also considered positive. In another, as yet unpublished research project, Luo and Zhang found that female talent on production teams that had been associated with Weinstein were more likely after #MeToo to feature male protagonists over female ones in films.
That’s good news for female talent previously pigeonholed into working on lower budget rom-coms, for example, who can now break into sci-fi and other higher budget genres, Zhang said.
However, it doesn’t help to fill the void regarding the lack of female stories on the market.
Luo and Zhang also observed changes in how stories featuring female protagonists are portrayed. Since the rise of #MeToo, producers who had collaborated with Weinstein depict female protagonists as less traditionally feminine, according to the same research. For example, female characters were more likely to be portrayed as competitive and assertive in contrast to traditional gender stereotypes, Luo said.
“Cultural products are very important in terms of reflecting and shaping how young people think or in reflecting societal norms,” she said. “That’s the direction of what we think is progressive.”
There’s also evidence suggesting there may be less collaboration now between women and men in some circles.
The University of Melbourne’s Merina Gertsberg, for example, found that junior female academic economists in the U.S. started fewer new research collaborations after #MeToo. That was driven largely by fewer collaborations with new male co-authors at the same institution, according to recent, unpublished research.
The drop in collaborations happened mainly in universities “where the perceived risk of sexual harassment accusations for men is high” — where both sexual harassment policies are more ambiguous, exposing men to more claims, and the number of public sexual harassment incidents is high, according to the research.
“This is consistent with men ceasing collaborating with women to manage an increased risk of sexual harassment accusations,” Gertsberg wrote in her article.
Harvard’s Luo noted, however, that it’s natural for people to take time to adjust to and figure out how to operate in a new culture created by a social movement.
“Hopefully,” she said, “with enough time and more candid conversations, the individual can figure out how to adapt to the new environment and make effort to actually contribute despite [their] potential concerns.”
Breaking the silence
After multiple celebrities accused Weinstein and others of sexual misconduct, average people whose names weren’t known also began to feel empowered to seek justice, said celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who represents Haley as well as a few Weinstein accusers in the L.A. trial.
Many of these survivors started contacting attorneys like Allred about their options, with some choosing to pursue court cases while others opted for confidential settlements. Allred, also a television and radio commentator, has handled a number of high-profile cases and long championed feminist causes and civil rights.
“Absolutely, we’re doing more confidential settlements,” Allred said. “If people want to do public humiliation or public shame, they have a right to do that. They’re not going to do it in a confidential settlement.”
Such settlements don’t prohibit someone from reporting an alleged crime to the police or from testifying in a criminal case against the accused, she explained.
Haley said the women who had spoken out against Weinstein before her — he had “seemed untouchable before” — helped her feel that she “had an opportunity to actually be heard.” She also realized that it was important for her to share her experience in support of other women.
Meanwhile, #MeToo also appears to have had an effect on the reporting of sex crimes to authorities.
After examining data from more than 30 countries, including the U.S., two other researchers found that reporting of sex crimes to police rose by 10% in the first six months after the hashtag went viral, according to unpublished research by Ro’ee Levy of Tel Aviv University and Martin Mattsson of National University of Singapore. They found that #MeToo also increased sexual assault arrests in the U.S.
The data suggests that “victims perceive sexual misconduct to be a more serious problem following the movement,” the authors wrote.
More than 20 U.S. states have enacted new laws that in different ways address sexual assault or workplace harassment — partly because Hollywood is high profile, but also because #MeToo spread from Hollywood to other entertainment spaces like sports, along with government institutions and even churches, USC’s McPherson said.
“Its impact exceeds Hollywood. It’s the systemic changes that are most important,” she said. “And are they bigger than the changes we saw in the 70s after second-wave feminism? I don’t know, but they are changes that in some places have been codified into law.”
In 2019, a California law supported by actresses Mira Sorvino and Rosanna Arquette went into effect that protects victims of sexual harassment and their employers from defamation claims brought by alleged harassers. Another state law that went into effect that year broadened harassment training requirements for employers.
After former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed her high-profile sexual harassment suit against Roger Ailes in 2016 following her firing — a case which led to the Fox News chief’s resignation and a reported $20 million confidential settlement with the network — she dedicated herself to ending “silencing mechanisms” affecting survivors in the workplace.
In March, she attended President Joe Biden’s signing into law bipartisan legislation that gives victims of workplace sexual harassment or assault the right to seek recourse in court, instead of through forced arbitration. Forced arbitration, which was often a condition of employment and became increasingly controversial in recent years, prevents allegations of wrongdoing from becoming public.
It’s “the most significant #MeToo legislation,” Carlson told TheWrap, “and it’s the biggest labor law change in the last 100 years.”
Carlson is now working to pass another bipartisan bill — The Speak Out Act — which would eradicate non-disclosure agreements for workplace harassment and assault, which also serve to muzzle employees, she said. The bill has passed the Senate and is pending in the House of Representatives.
“These two laws are more important than any interview I’ve ever done as a 30-year career journalist,” Carlson said, adding they will “help millions” of people in the workplace.
Carlson, who co-founded Lift Our Voices in 2019 to help tackle these issues, said her nonprofit is also working to expand legal protections to help those who are most disenfranchised, including people of color and LGBTQ individuals, who suffer discrimination and are being silenced at work.
The future of #MeToo
Perhaps the greatest impact of #MeToo is the attitudes of students and young people who came of age during the Trump era and the #MeToo movement, which have given “new wind” to feminism, USC’s McPherson says.
“I think we have a generation of high school and college students now who have been really energized by the  Women’s March, by the killing of access to abortion, by #MeToo, and those women will enter the workplace with a really different set of attitudes,” she said.
#MeToo came to public light in the face of a Hollywood reckoning five years ago, but it’s been a challenge educating people that the issue is not just about “wealthy white women in Hollywood” experiencing sexual harassment and pay inequity, Ayers said.
McPherson added that it’s important to remember that Burke and other women of color initiated the movement long before the hashtag went viral.
“Women of color and trans women of color are most at risk for sexual violence,“ she said. “We always need to focus our policy and attention on those who are most at risk, so in elevating #MeToo to a broad movement, it’s important not to lose sight of its origin.”
While significant gains have been made over the last five years, sexual violence and harassment still go on and must continue to be called out, said Haley. She also suggested that changing an entrenched and “terrible culture of victim blaming and shaming” isn’t just the duty of a brave few.
“What are we all doing to make it less terrifying to speak out and report?” she said in her email. “We all need to take responsibility for creating that safe space within our communities.”
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