This piece was first published at Feminist Writers Festival by Matilda Dixon Smith.
Recently, while speaking with a senior manager of a crisis support centre, I felt the uncomfortable twang of a generation clash.
We were discussing the changing language of consent and the manager, an older, self-described “Germaine Greer era” feminist, recalled hearing stories from clients about “bad sex” (discomfiting sexual experiences that may not qualify as sexual assault) and thinking: “Welcome to the club, darling.”
The woman’s dismissal and cynicism about other (especially younger) women’s experiences was unlike anything I had encountered from other feminists I had spoken to. It felt distinct and twitchy in my stomach – so different to what I was used to encountering from younger feminists when discussing sexual harassment, women’s rights and especially the growing #MeToo movement.
Her response took me aback and then made me think deeply about her position and perspective on the questions I was asking – and the more I thought about it, the more I was fascinated by our attitude gap. We were people with similar values, fighting for similar goals – but how differently we felt about this one issue. Not that different perspectives on #MeToo has gone undocumented thus far – it’s just about the internet’s favourite topic.
#MeToo began with African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006, and last year was revived by activists and celebrities in the aftermath of breaking allegations against Harvey Weinstein and a slew of other Hollywood bigwigs, who were found to have abused their power to exert sexual violence tyranny over their subordinates.
Now the hashtag, which spread like wildfire among women, non-binary people and men who have survived harassment and assault at the hands of powerful (mostly male) superiors, has come to signify a stance against institutionalised violence and harassment that men exert against people unchecked on an almost daily basis. The scale, which the #MeToo hashtag revealed was enormous, shocked many who had long been oblivious to the allegations of survivors.
But #MeToo and its offshoots – #ChurchToo, #TheSilenceBreakers, #TimesUp – has not been welcomed by everyone, not even by all feminists. After all, no movement is a monolith. And more than many women’s liberation movements that came before, #MeToo has exposed some of the enormous gaps in generational understanding and support among feminists that the movement’s rapid evolution, intersectionality and mainstream acceptance have wrought.
“#MeToo is just the tipping point of something we have known for decades: that gendered violence is pervasive and harmful, and victims are obliged to stay silent and endure through the pain,” says Roj Amedi, a feminist and human rights campaigner from Melbourne.
Amedi has mixed feelings about how the movement has been appropriated in the contemporary, post-Harvey Weinstein. “It’s a great example of how often black women’s work is erased and appropriated,” she says, explaining that Burke is rarely recognised as its instigator beyond mere lip service.
“She is still creating communities and mechanisms of support for victims. We need to acknowledge her integral work by looking beyond the hashtag.”
Amedi also acknowledges that “although in its current manifestation [#MeToo] serves as a solidarity mechanism, it is victims who carry the main burden of the work”. However, she does see the movement positively because of what it means to everyday people: “I think about people who have not had the benefit of highly critical feminist communities around them, and don’t have an opportunity to safely tell their story, be heard and believed.”
On the other hand, feminist journalist Ruby Hamad, 43, “has always been more ‘wary’ than negative” about #MeToo. “At first I was wary of the push to get women to talk about their abuse publicly when many survivors prefer not to. I was concerned about the assumption that anyone who didn’t share a #MeToo story was identifying themselves as someone who had never been assaulted, and we know that is not the case, of course.
“Then I had a very negative reaction to the applause that greeted many men who admitted to being ‘part of the problem’. I honestly never thought I would see the day when men were thanked for divulging instances when they harassed or assaulted a woman. That was a real trip. Now my main concern is that it is too celebrity-focused. I don’t understand this obsession contemporary feminism has with celebrities!”
Amedi explains what she thinks the movement is getting right. “These campaigns, unlike others in previous decades, are highly decentralised and able to adapt and transform as people change and grow,” she says. “Which is a sign of the times as well as a great benefit to people who may have accessibility concerns. Any group can define the terms in which they use #MeToo and build the parameters that they are comfortable with.”
Here, Hamad diverges, explaining, “I think it’s difficult to describe it as a movement given it is so new and lacks a theoretical framework. I do think it’s great that powerful men are now probably sweating wondering when their turn will come. I imagine some are nervously working away behind the scenes, trying to make amends to women they have wronged.”
Hamad notes, and I agree enthusiastically, “At some point we need to move away from our predilection for crucifying individuals and towards addressing the underlying structures that permit these individuals to behave the way they do and get away with it.”
Amedi points out the #MeToo movement’s tendency towards exclusion of minorities within the feminist faction: “I think we are naturally inclined to only listen to the perceived perfect victim, which often leaves a large group of women out of the movement, including women of colour, disabled women, incarcerated women, trans women, poor women, sex workers.”
When it comes to age and #MeToo, both Amedi and Hamad have interesting ideas about how the generational divide manifests in this rapidly evolving movement.
Hamad doesn’t feel particularly connected with any generation of feminists. “I have often noticed that in the past I tend to sit not entirely in agreement with older, second-wave feminists, but not entirely in agreement with younger feminists either,” she explains.
However, she’s “definitely” noticed a difference in the way older and younger feminists have responded to #MeToo – citing the recent Aziz Ansari Babe.net “fiasco of a story” as an example where the generational divide was greatly exposed.
“I think older feminists – of course this is a gross generalisation because I have seen feminists around my age respond completely opposite to this and vice versa – are more inclined to think about the long-term effects and goals of #MeToo as it is being presented in feminist media and balance this against the temporary satisfaction of outing another abuser. Because you know, believing survivors does not mean we allow journalists to shirk their responsibilities.
“Journalists, and I include opinion writers in this, cannot write published articles in the same manner as a social media post. We do have to be mindful of that.”
Amedi feels a much stronger connection to feminists her own age, and within her social and communal circles: “I have communities around me that are highly critical, engaged with intersectionality and invested in community building. So I’m lucky to have people that although hold similar attitudes, are also invested in progressing the movement.”
On generational divides, Amedi is quite clear: “I think older feminists have taken for granted that a large swathe of what they consider everyday, garden-variety behaviour is actually sexual assault.
“Women, non-binary people and femmes have endured so much that they have taken for granted how much violent the world has been to them… And I think older feminists who fought for sexual liberation are confused by the development of consent discourse and the priority it has taken in this current wave of sexual liberation.”
As I read back on what the two women have said, I find myself agreeing with both of them – even in parts where they might disagree. And perhaps one of the most useful exposés of the #MeToo movement, beyond the obvious, is in illuminating that feminism is not a monolith.
The movement, which has grown, shrunk, changed and evolved over decades, fractures along all kinds of social, economic, racial and cultural lines. Age and generation happens to be an important divide, which the trauma and turbulence of #MeToo has dredged up.
But it does us all good to remember that older feminists, while holding on to some ideas in need of refinement, built us strong foundations for liberation; and that younger feminists, while still needing to listen and learn, are radical and evolving in our own important ways.
Regardless of age, the fact that #MeToo, led by those survivors and activists who have carried the change on their backs, has inspired the kind of conversations we’re having now, feels pretty flat-out radical. As a survivor myself, I never dreamed of bearing witness to the kind of discourse around harassment and assault that we’ve seen over the past few months.
But no movement is perfect, and there’s plenty to be gained from confronting the difference of opinion that exists along the generational divides of #MeToo – and from us trying to evolve together.
The Feminist Writers Festival is taking place from May 25-27 in Melbourne & Geelong, as well as being live streamed. Find out more here.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a writer, editor and cultural critic from Melbourne. Her work appears regularly in The Guardian, Fairfax, Crikey, SBS, Vice, ABC Online, Kill Your Darlings, The New Daily and other outlets.