The Weinstein Trial and the #MeToo Movement
This is the text of an interview with Chiara Bottici, conducted by Britta Reuther, for the German TV and radio channel ARD. The Interview which took place on 6 January 2020 and has been edited for publication.
Britta Reuther: How did the Weinstein case change society when it comes to tolerating sexual harassment?
Chiara Bottici: It did not change the thing itself, but it did change certain established ways to perceive it. In the American Society, until a few decades ago, sexual harassment did not even exist as a category, because it was not considered to be a crime. That men in power within the Hollywood industry would sexually harass aspiring actresses was taken as a fact. That aura of “normality” is still with us. But the #MeToo outburst that erupted after the Weinstein case has led us to question it. Let us remember, though, that the #MeToo hashtag had already been available for quite some time. It was initiated in 2006 by a black woman activist, Tarana Burke, who coined the expression when a 13 year old girl from Bronx told her she’d been sexually assaulted. It was later, when thinking about the conversation with the abused 13 years girls, that Tarana Burke thought her appropriate response to the girl should be: “Me too.” From the very beginning the hashtag was an invitation to look at oneself from the outside, so to speak, not as an “I,” but as a “me,” a “me” among all the other similar “me,” and thereby an invitation to seeing oneself not as a unconscious piece of a “normal fact,” but as another agent of something which is not normal and thus as another voice potentially questioning such an appearance of normality.
B.R. So what was so special, although in a negative way, about the Weinstein scandal? What made the movement erupt?
C.B There are number of factors. In my view, it is particularly important that the scandal took place inside of the world of spectacle. We’re talking about somebody who has over 80 allegations of sexual assaults, a spectacular record in itself, and allegations which go from cases of misconduct all the way to cases of rape. We don’t know exactly what the trial results will be, but we know that there are multiple evidences of a pattern, so much of a pattern that everybody knew about it: those were the “Weinstein girls.”
So what is particularly striking in the Weinstein case is the fact that it was a spectacle inside the world of spectacle, a spectacle that people knew about, and that was taken as unproblematic. This, I think, is what the #MeToo has dramatically changed: it turned the spectacle upon itself, and thereby de-naturalized it. The importance of this change cannot be overestimated. The power of the #MeToo is the disclosive power of a counter-spectacle. This is how counter-spectacles work. We live in a certain pattern of behavior. We do not question it, we just live through it, in the same way in which we take for granted that the sun will rise every morning. “Men in power do this,” “This is what aspiring actresses have to put up with,” “The sun rises every day.”
But then suddenly something happens, and the usual spectacle turns against itself, revealing its own spectacular nature, and thus appearing as not that “natural.” Suddenly, when Alyssa Milano in October 2017 invited women to tweet #MeToo, and half a million responded within 24 hours, a new spectacle erupted, the appearance of naturality was stripped, and a different mental map became available: “maybe it is not natural for men to do this,” “maybe this is not as normal as the sun rising every morning.”
B.R. Do you think the #MeToo has really changed everything? And, if so, has it possibly gone too far, as some people say?
C.B. This is a very important question, but let me go one step back before answering it. What is the #MeToo to begin with? Your question presupposes that we can speak of it as if it were a unitary program, with a single aim, so that we could measure its behavior according to whether it is proportionate to the established goal, and thus whether it has possibly gone too far with it. I do not think of the #MeToo as a unitary entity. What is #MeToo in the end? What are we talking about when we talk about #MeToo? It’s a hashtag, an expression that somebody coined and that has proved to be able to coalesce patterns of emotions, conglomerates of anger and eventually ignite the desire for different mental map, one that denaturalized certain behaviors.
In this sense, I see it as one of the manifestations of the ongoing feminist wave, a sort of worldwide karstic river, that appears in some places, and then seem to have disappeared, but it reappears elsewhere, maybe in the Argentinian #niunamenos movement, maybe in the Italian #tiricordiquellanotte hashtag — at times invisible but always operating underneath, in people’s conscious and pre-conscious thinking. Alyssa Milano invited to tweet #MeToo in October 2017, but this was ten months after January 21, the day of the women’s march, the most significant one-single day demonstration that ever happened in the US history. The response to her call would not have been so spectacular without the other literally “extra”-ordinary spectacle that was the women march.
The karstic river I propose here as a metaphor is thus more akin to magmatic river, a river of magma, and not just water, a river that may erupts here and there in small episodes, but that at times it can take the proportions of a volcano. The women’s march was certainly a volcano explosion. But we should not forget that its magmatic power remains underneath, even when not visible. We know that since October 2017, there have been #MeToo moments and slogans in different languages throughout the globe. Why is that the case? Because women are still the “second sex” all over the world, patriarchy is a global phenomenon. So the #MeToo movement is disclosive not only because it turned the spectacle of the Hollywood patriarchy against itself, but because it also contribute to disclosing the worldwide scale of the power unbalance between men and women.
The Weinstein case is only the point of an iceberg, which is Hollywood patriarchy, which is, in turn, only the most visible point of much bigger iceberg, which is global menocracy. I prefer to speak of a “global menocracy,” rather than “global patriarchy,” because I think that in certain societies, such as the American one, contemporary forms of patriarchy are often characterized by a decline of the traditional figure of the “patriarch,” with some even speaking of the “death of the father.” Now, it may be true that the authority of “patriarchs” is being questioned in certain societies, but the power imbalance between men and women remains strikingly in favor of men worldwide, so much so that it is not an exaggeration to say that we do live in a global menocracy. Just to give you an example, the world is divided in 195 sovereign states, and within the 144 states that provided data (so things could be even worse if we had for all of them), we know that, as worldwide average, women are only 11% of the total number of heads of states, 18% of the ministers and 24% of the parliamentarians. It is indeed not an exaggeration to say that men rule the world. The reason why a Hollywood producer could sexually harass so many women for such a long time is because of an entire society, and I would say of a world society, that is used to think of men as the first sex, and all of the other (whether they are women or gender non-conforming people) as the second sex.
B.R. My next question would be: Is #MeToo going to stay? Or is this just a moment in time?
C.B. I think the #MeToo is going to stay: it may go dormant at moment, it may erupt in places where we did not expect it, but it’s going to stay. That is the power of speech. It’s somehow irretrievable. Once it’s outside there to the degree that it is now, you cannot eliminate it. It is there and it is available. And now it’s available in so many different languages for women to grab it and use it for different purposes.
B.R. What does this mean for men? I mean, what has changed already and what will change for them?
C.B. In the first place, it means that they have no guarantee that the sexist patterns of behavior and sexual harassment they were used to will be as tolerated and accepted as they were before. This obviously includes men and all kinds of genders. The #MeToo slogan is inclusive, so I was not surprised to see that there emerged a #MenToo, as well. Yet, for most men, this has arrived as a wake up call. Some have certainly felt unease at that. Some complain that they now feel too intimidated when they approach women. They fear they may lose their job, as many men did lose their jobs. Some even argued that Weinstein paid enough for his behavior, because he lost both his job and his marriage already, and a life in prison would be too much as a punishment. Should we feel sorry for him?
My response to this is very simple. In our global village, where we constantly receive news about wars, genocides, and other atrocities, we have only a limited capacity for suffering. We cannot humanly suffer for all the unhappiness in the world. We cannot empathize with all and every suffering we daily learn about. So we have to choose our causes, and we do choose them everyday: which news we read, which cases we follow. Currently, if you look at the global situation in the world, we know from U.N. statistics that one out of three women has experienced either sexual or physical violence, or both. We know that there are currently a 126 million “missing girls” in the global population. This means that there are 126 million people who are missing from the world population just because they were the second sex: women victims of female infanticide, human trafficking, and violence.
Now, I maybe temporarily sorry for the men who lost their job and I am not particularly happy of learning about anybody ending up in prison for their entire life. But if I have to be sorry for somebody today, and endure that emotional labor, in the midst of all the other labors, emotional and not, I have to do daily, it will not be for the men who lost their jobs or their marriages as a consequence of the #MeToo. It will be for the 126 million girls currently missing from the global population, and for the remaining ones, including the gender non-conforming people who, no matter how lucky they maybe (in being alive in the first place), they still remain the second sex.
B.R. What do you expect for the trial that starts today? What happens if he gets convicted? What happens if he doesn’t get convicted at all?
C.B. So this is a tricky question because the trial is very complex, but it is also very narrow. So I think we should not put all of our hopes into this. My expectations are not huge because in comparison with the magnitude of the sexual allegations (over 80 women), what the trial is able to focus on is very limited (only two cases). And this is because the New York jurisdiction has certain limits, so it cannot prosecute crimes committed in other states. But also because a lot of the alleged sexual misconducts include facts that were too far back in time to be part of the trial. So the trial is going to be very limited and we don’t know what will happen. The hope is that the prosecutor will be able to demonstrate that there is a pattern of behavior so that these the few cases of the trial will be perceived as the point of an iceberg. But, as I tried to argue, the Weinstein case is only the point of an iceberg, which is in turn only the point of an even more vast iceberg, which I called “global menocracy.” So what I’m hoping for, despite the fact that so much is uncertain in this trial, is that it continues to expand the discussion on why the #MeToo was important, and the various icebergs it can disclose.
B.R. They are talking about life in prison or up to 25 years? What do you think could be realistic?
C.B. This is a very hard question for me, as I am not a lawyer. Again, because there’s so many elements that we don’t know about the trial, we cannot predict. For instance, I don’t know how many women will actually be able to resist the attempt to discredit their voices, to endure that emotional labor. One of the things that this process made clear is that it’s not easy for women to speak up. It’s not just “you grab the hashtag, use it and people will believe you.” It is not just that you can go to court and bring your testimony and be reassured people will listen to you. The defense will do all that they can to make sure the judges will not listen to you. We know that in the trial, a big part of the defense’s strategy will be to question the credibility of the witnesses, and we know that the reason why most sexual abuses are not reported is because victims fear they will not be believed, and, even if believed, will come out of the process having paid too high of a price for speaking up.
As a sociological rule, the whistleblower always pays a high price. And a lot of women are not willing to pay that price. So it’s not clear how many, even among those who are scheduled be part of the trial, will actually be able to make it all the way to the end. How will they perform under the defense’s attempt to discredit them? Will they be able to continue to speak? Will there be enough support around them to do so? These are all open questions, but I think it is important for us to keep debating them and also emphasize how hard it is for women to report sexual abuse within our global menocratic order.
B.R. There is a lot of talk about prejudgment being already made, because of the force of the #MeToo movement. What is your take on that?
C.B. I would say that what they call “prejudgment” should actually be called “change in judgement.” This consists in the fact that the veil is now broken, so certain behaviors are no longer considered natural, not even in the Hollywood industry. When people say “there is prejudgment” I think that most of the time they are contesting the change of judgement operated by #MeToo, so we can accurately describe what is going on as “struggle over judgment.” Some people still think that it is ok for men to behave in certain ways, others no longer do.
B.R. But when it comes to the trial itself, his lawyers say that with all of this happening around it, we cannot expect a fair trial. Isn’t he already being prejudged because of everything happening around it?
C.B. The trial will have to begin with the evidence, and then the judgement will be pronounced by judges who are able to pick up from the struggles over “prejudgement” I mentioned before. Let us also remember that the trial can only say two things. Guilty, or not guilty. And we also have to remember to remember that not guilty does not mean that the person did not commit those acts. It simply means that there was not enough evidence. So this trial is important, but it is not the full story.
B.R. If he goes out not being convicted, what would that mean to the movement?
C.B. We are talking about a man with over 80 allegations of sexual misconduct. If he comes out as not guilty of any of them in this and all other trials one can imagine in other jurisdictions, then this means there’s probably a problem with the legal system. There may indeed be a structural problem with a legal system that is unable to put together crimes committed by the same person in, let’s say, New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris. This is really a structural problem of our globalizing world, because global elites are increasingly more mobile, as mobile as capital, which moves always faster and faster around the globe, but our legal systems seem to be still too territorial and too slow. A sea-change may be needed, in order to make icebergs visible.
B.R. Thank you so much. Thank you.
Britta Reuther is a Producer at ARD German TV/ NY bureau.
Chiara Bottici is an Associate Professor for Philosophy at The New School