Why Some Women Can’t Get Behind #MeToo — But Wouldn’t Dare Admit It

Some Canadian women are wary of the movement, others fear a loss of nuance — or worse, an inability to voice their ambivalence. Inside the messy middle ground of #MeToo.

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metoo backlash story: woman on phone

Some say the #MeToo movement has created a chilling effect that doesn’t allow for debate. Photo, iStock.

Angie, a 46-year-old program manager for a non-profit, had been keeping her thoughts on the #MeToo movement to herself until a Toronto subway ride one night in December, when she finally told a friend.

“It was such a weight off my shoulders to say to someone honestly, ‘I’m not comfortable with this,’” Angie, who asked that her last name be withheld, told Chatelaine. The whole thing, she said, makes her uneasy.

A firestorm of sexual abuse, harassment and misconduct allegations, the #MeToo movement has been a clarion call for an end to abuse of power in the workplace and the start of serious repercussions. Each day brings fresh allegations against often powerful figures in a range of industries, including this month a prestigious theatre director in Toronto and two professors at Concordia University. But not everyone is equally moved by the call. And an increasingly volatile debate is growing, where some women feel there’s little room to question the movement without being labeled anti-feminist or anti-woman.

Though growing in volume, the earliest criticism in Canada came from two writers known for their contrarian opinions on modern feminism, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente and the National Post’s Christie Blatchford, who challenged #MeToo was conflating flirting with harassment, putting both in the same boat as abuse or rape, or even painting all men as Harvey Weinstein-level predators. “Turn down the volume on the outrage machine,” Wente wrote in October. “With #MeToo, we have lost the presumption of innocence,” Blatchford’s column argued last week.

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But last weekend, it became clear that this skepticism was not only contained to right-wing columnists after Margaret Atwood penned a column in which she dubbed herself a “Bad Feminist,” warned against vigilante justice and said that #MeToo threatened to launch “a war among women” fueled by extreme ideology. She then faced a barrage of criticism, to which the Handmaid’s Tale author responded via Twitter: “Taking a break from being Supreme Being Goddess, omniscient, omnipotent, and responsible for all ills. Sorry I have failed the world so far on gender equality.”

Even greater backlash to #MeToo came recently from across the Atlantic, when 100 prominent French women, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, published an open letter slamming the public naming and shaming of alleged sexual assaulters as a “witch-hunt.” They railed against a new “puritanical … wave of purification,” claimed women were being cast solely as helpless victims, and suggested #MeToo was an assault on sexuality and sexual freedom. (Deneuve has since apologized to sexual assault victims but maintained her position.)

At base, nearly all critics of #MeToo accept that sexual harassment and abuse are wrong, but say the tenor of the movement itself has become extreme, creating a chilling effect that doesn’t allow for debate.

A recent New York Times op-ed even suggested women who were publically unfailing in their #MeToo commitment carried private “misgivings.”

Angie, certainly, has misgivings.

“I am from the Caribbean,” she said. “I come from a culture where sexual innuendo is just par for the course. Our music and everything, it has that sexual innuendo. So to suddenly have this thing be the most criminal thing in the world, I don’t feel comfortable jumping on that bandwagon.”

The movement, she said, “feels very white.” She worries that affectionate behaviour common in Trinidad, where she was born, would be viewed by this movement as out and out harassment.

“I don’t know if I’d use the word witch-hunt,” she added, pausing to choose her words carefully, “but I find #MeToo to be overly sensitive. Without context. There’s a lack of authenticity, to me, in becoming hypersensitive and overly politically correct.”

So while her friends were posting their own #MeToo stories on Facebook en masse last year, she kept silent. “I think those of us who feel this way do not feel safe to say it. Because you look as though you are a traitor to your gender.”

Colleen Graves, a 63-year-old who works in marketing in Salmon Arm, B.C., believes sexual harassment and abuse is a problem worthy of a hashtag, but likewise, she worries #MeToo has “gone too far.”

Graves said she has no way to know if the allegations made near-daily in media headlines are true until they’re proven in a court, giving the movement a “boy who cried wolf” taint.

“I think that we all just need to keep an open mind and use common sense — and certainly not all men are predators,” Graves told Chatelaine.

Among men she knows, the #MeToo movement has become a joke, along the lines of: “I better not say that to you because you might take it the wrong way.”

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But for Jessalynn Keller, a 35-year-old assistant professor in media studies at the University of Calgary and the co-author of an upcoming book on feminist digital activism, the backlash has missed the “really interesting, often nuanced, sophisticated discussions going on [online] between women, and sometimes women who don’t agree with each other,” she said. She noted, for example, that #MeToo was criticized early on for not giving proper credit to creator Tarana Burke, a black activist. In setting up #MeToo as another case of “the feminists are fighting!,” critics are resorting to “old, recycled ideas about feminism” as both too extreme and proof of women’s inability to get along, she said.

As for the fear that ordinary men could soon be losing their jobs based on a rumour, 29-year-old Yamikani Msosa, an educator at Ryerson University’s Consent Comes at First office, considers that unlikely. “I do work around sexual harassment in the workplace, and in my 10 years, rarely have I seen people actually get fired for committing sexual harassment,” she said. This is the kind of context that’s often missed in Twitter’s more publicized, fiery exchanges, says Msosa. The kind that have come to define, for some, the entire movement.

So where former Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay sees “woke banshees,” National Post columnist Jen Gerson, 33, sees a movement largely made up of “very reasonable” women “coming from a grounded place” with “a real desire to take this very real anger and turn it into positive forward momentum.”

Still, she fears “there are elements within the #MeToo movement that are trying to strip the entire conversations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse of all kind of nuance,” she told Chatelaine. Some critics and advocates are both guilty of taking positions as extreme as those they’re critiquing.

One woman on Twitter, Gerson noted, said she’d risk an innocent man’s reputation in pursuit of a greater purge. “That doesn’t represent me. I don’t think that represents most women who have suffered serious cases of abuse and harassment,” said Gerson.

A debate among extremes is exactly how Calgary resident and human resources advisor Adrien Miller, 32, views #MeToo. “There’s no grey in it,” she said. “Either you’re black or you’re white on the argument.” Miller summed up her feelings on #MeToo with one word: “ambivalent.” It’s wonderful that women are talking about sexual harassment, she said, “I just don’t think people need to be yelling it and shoving it down your throat.”

“Putting #MeToo on my social media accounts doesn’t do anything to create change,” Miller told Chatelaine. The question, she said, is “what can you do in your personal life that changes the outcome for future generations?”

“Trending hashtags become background noise so quickly,” Miller added.

That threat, in essence, spurred the #aftermetoo effort, launched late last year by women in the Canadian film industry who realized “we need to get to the next step or [the movement] will die on the vine,” said co-founder Aisling Chin-Yee, 35. The Montreal-based producer, writer and director fears the cycle of backlash/counter-backlash towards #MeToo could drain attention away from the need to change workplace cultures — work that is actually beginning.

Her group is producing recommendations for reforms, and last week she was named one of 50 women tapped to “close the gender leadership gap and co-create a blueprint for systemic change” in the entertainment industry.

Those efforts are on top of Time’s Up, a new star-studded Hollywood non-profit pushing for gender parity and offering a legal fund to working-class women who lack the means to take legal action over sexual harassment.

In workplaces that have been subject to media exposés, such as Ford Motor Company plants in Chicago, reviews of company policies are now taking place. The Trudeau government has proposed new federal labour legislation to toughen sexual assault policies, and the Ministry of Canadian Heritage is reviewing funding policies to ensure recipients promote “harassment-free” work environments.

The conversation has also moved off-line to panel discussions in various cities, some featuring Ryerson University’s Yamikani Msosa, but even so, #MeToo will eventually bottom out, she said, like past hashtag movements (remember #webelievesurivors?).

“I hate that that’s a reality,” but it also holds a promise, Msosa said: Wherever #MeToo leads, and whenever it fades, there will be another story, another flashpoint, another conversation — incendiary or otherwise — on sexual violence.