Marisa Wright: They wrote the book on #MeToo

Tuesday, November 12, 2019 - 6:17pm

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What do we do with art made by bad men? This is the question many people asked in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. We collectively turned our attention not to the court cases filed by U.S. attorneys and victims of these bad men’s violent and often illegal behavior, nor to the systems that enabled their predatory behavior to go unpunished for decades, but to the movies, TV shows, books, albums, journalism and poetry they made. What are we to do? Discard our fave’s stand-up special or hit record

We chose to simultaneously turn away from the survivors looking us in the eye, the gutsy and courageous women who came forward to recount how these bad men sexually violated them, from workplace harassment to rape. Instead, we asked what all this meant for us. Is it OK to listen to that song or watch that movie? Am I still allowed to read that book or stream that podcast? Is it unethical to call an Uber or shop at Barnes & Noble

In a way, this is understandable. How could we not? Our entire world is constructed out of an androcratic order, by the work of men who sit untouched on thrones of power. If we had to discard their work, what would we have left? 

In some realms, practically nothing.

Almost two years after the initial reporting that led to the #MeToo movement — the original phrase coined by activist Tarana Burke — we’re getting a peek at a world in which predatory men are not emboldened, and those courageous enough to challenge their power are not silenced. 

“She Said,” was published on Sept. 10, 2019. The book was written by New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who detail their reporting on movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and Prof. Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony. Two weeks later, “Know My Name” was published, revealing the identity of Chanel Miller, who was by raped Brock Turner. Turner was infamously sentenced to only six months in jail after being convicted of three counts of sexual assault. Until the book’s publication, Miller had only been publicly identified as Emily Doe, and was known for the powerful victim statement she made at Turner’s sentencing hearing. On Oct. 15, “Catch and Kill,” written by Ronan Farrow and detailing his reporting on Weinstein and how NBC executives tried to kill the story, was also published. 

Each of these books is distinct, offering different perspectives of the same gruesome, complex system in which powerful men are protected and empowered to violate women. “She Said,” written in the third person, offers an extensive probe into exactly how men like Harvey Weinstein were protected by secretive settlements paid for by their employers, severe nondisclosure agreements and aggressive lawyers. These lawyers include Lisa Bloom, who proclaims herself a feminist advocate. Contrastingly, Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill” reads like a spy novel, illustrating just how cloak-and-dagger his reporting process was, from being followed by former Mossad agents to being warned to get a gun. “Know My Name,” though, is a tender, stunning book written by a gifted writer about the interiority of being a survivor, as well as undergoing Turner’s rape trial and living publicly as Emily Doe. 

Yet, together, the trio join as one refrain, melodious in its force and efficacy. For decades, women, as survivors of gender-based violence from intimate partner violence to sexual assault, have written about how men have violently and illegally violated them. And in many cases, women continue to be silenced. This is precisely why these books are so important. 

It is important to note that these books are a part of a long tradition of women writing about sexual traumas from more recent books like “Not That Bad,” edited by Roxane Gay, “Indelible in the Hippocampus,” edited by Shelly Oria and “Nobody’s Victim,” by Carrie Goldberg, to older works such as the 1994 National Book Award for Nonfiction finalist Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas” by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer. Abramson and Mayer’s work is particularly relevant today for detailing the mishandling of Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings by the Senate — and, in particular, then-Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joe Biden.

“She Said” and “Catch and Kill” are journalistic in nature. All three of these books pick up the work of past generations of women — second- and third-wave feminists who attended consciousness-raising groups and women’s liberation rallies and in turn pushed forward progress for generations of women after them. These books exist as monuments to their progress and painful reminders of the work still to be done. 

All of these books are — or at least should be — required reading. While I am prone to eye rolling and groaning when a man whines about #MeToo going too far or laments the suddenly-terminated careers of bad men as if they have been mortally wounded, I am receptive to what New York Magazine journalist Rebecca Traister explains as men who will inevitably be penalized for behavior that was once socially tolerated but is no longer accepted in 2019. With #MeToo, we are changing the rules in the middle of the game. There are some men raised to understand certain behaviors as common and accepted (though it should be noted Weinstein was probably never raised to believe rape was OK) who find that those same behaviors are no longer acceptable and might actually be punishable. 

For these men, and for the boys growing up in the next generation, the would-be Brock Turners and Harvey Weinsteins of the world, these books are an essential roadmap to a world in which they are not owed sex and access to women’s bodies by virtue of their rights as men.

Marisa Wright can be reached at marisadw@umich.edu.