“We have a theory called empowerment through empathy,
which is the basis for how we do the work.”
Tarana Burke, creator of Just Be Inc., and creator of the MeToo movement;
from her PBS News Hour interview transcription
The archive of stories about sexual assault and harassment endured (mainly) by women and girls is growing. Each day brings new accounts into public circulation—stories drawn from experiences that in many cases had been held back for decades. From Hollywood and the entertainment industry, the spotlight has shifted to the political arena. Ron Moore’s Senate candidacy in Alabama is in jeopardy. Al Franken faces an ethics investigation.
As a scholar who studies women’s social networks—including those operating long before today’s multi-media pathways became available—I see this growing phenomenon as a reminder that social media’s liberatory features can actually lead to positive change. Communications pathways like the #MeToo writing space have fostered a long-overdue conversation that, in turn, is re-making our cultural landscape.
It hasn’t always been possible for victims of abuse to find sympathetic listeners for their stories. Just ask the readers and writers of popular YA novels depicting “blame-the-victim” syndrome and the associated tendency to remain silent about experiencing assault. And Tarana Burke has forcefully spoken out about the particularly daunting challenges facing black girls and women of color who seek to call out repeat perpetrators.
American culture’s suppression of stories of sexual assault and related gender-based oppression has a long history. And literature by women writers tells us that the power hierarchies supporting such violence can exist within families as well as workplace structures. One story I often include on syllabi compellingly depicts how isolation enables continued abuse.
The central figure in this plot is a wife whose husband’s repeated assaults—physical, verbal, and emotional—are suppressed from public view. A key factor ensuring this continued oppression is the wife’s inability to communicate about her situation to anyone beyond their remote rural home—as symbolized in such details as his having refused to install a telephone.
Susan Glaspell actually told this story in three different formats: as a journalist covering a real-life 1900-1901 murder trial in Iowa, when an all-male jury found John Hossack’s wife guilty of his murder; as a playwright revisiting that court case in her 1916 Provincetown Players one-act drama, Trifles; and as a short-story writer whose re-framing and re-naming of the text into A Jury of Her Peers bears special attention in light of the recent #MeToo stories.
Like the much smaller network of women “reading” clues in the kitchen of Glaspell’s story setting, writers and readers of the #MeToo counter-narratives can tap into empathy as a means to shifting social power relations. Identifying with the wife by observing multiple signs of her suffering that are less visible to the official male investigators, two women characters “read” clues in the abused wife’s kitchen that convince them both to judge the murder justified and to hide incriminating evidence from the men who, unlike the jury in the real-life case, find it impossible to fully imagine either the man-on-woman violence that spawned the husband’s killing or the degree of desperation that would have led the wife to homicide.
Of Glaspell’s three narrative accounts of an abused women cut off from social support, the short story initially reached the most widespread audience by virtue of moving from its original publication in the March 5, 1917, issue of the Every Week magazine to being selected for the The Best Short Stories of 1917 collection edited by Edward J. O’Brien.
Admittedly, though, until the feminist recovery movement in literary studies intervened and brought Glaspell’s work onto many a university syllabus, audiences for her multiple retellings were far, far smaller than what the #MeToo hashtag has amassed. And, I like to hope, both the sheer number of personal accounts that have circulated through today’s media outlets and the possibility that we live in a different moment, may auger for genuine change beyond what was possible in Glaspell’s time.
Since the 2016 election, there’s been a near-daily drumbeat of negative news about media platforms like Facebook and Twitter having played a dangerous role in our politics. Bots sending out fake news from foreign forces seeking to manipulate our views and undermine our electoral process. Accompanying analyses have noted that we often enclose ourselves in self-reinforcing communication circuits—limited bubbles of knowledge, where particular media spaces are more notable for what they shut out from our view than for creating a public “commons” where we would have to encounter diverse perspectives. Meanwhile, vicious cyber-bullying has sometimes led targeted individuals to leave social media altogether.
But in recent weeks, we’ve been reminded of textual circulation’s liberatory potential. In what’s now being dubbed the “post-Weinstein” moment, an explosion of voices has joined to create a powerful chorus of survivors. We should take note of how this accumulation of personal accounts, through its sheer quantity and its extensive reach, gave the stories and the story-telling process cultural force.
Former victims no longer felt so alone. By now, this archive, which is trackable via a hashtag, has also become an example of the kind of capital-A Archive of cultural resources I talk about in my recent book on Learning Legacies (available free, here), counter-narratives that seek to un-do longstanding power relations through alternative story-telling.
Like the historical examples in my book, these stories of survival in the face of unequal power have asserted new ways to promote social change. In doing so, they also remind us that, however much we need to be critical and careful readers of the massive array of texts emerging daily on our multiple social media platforms, we should continue to recognize their potential for building communities of action, capable of un-doing even the most longstanding patterns of injustice in our culture.