Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Backlash to #MeToo Is Second-Wave Feminism

Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG.
Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

News that a legacy magazine was preparing to publish the name of the woman who originated the Shitty Media Men List traveled quickly across social media on Tuesday. The magazine was soon revealed to be Harper’s; the piece, a forthcoming cover story by writer Katie Roiphe. Response to the news was swift. The publishing house Ecco pulled an advertisement, writers pulled pieces, while others noted that outing the originator of the Shitty Media Men List would only endanger her.

Harper’s declined to comment on specifics, the magazine confirmed that it was publishing a story by Roiphe in the March edition. Roiphe initially declined to comment on the details of the story but on Wednesday told the New York Times that she didn’t know who created the list. “I would never put in the creator of the list if they didn’t want to be named,” Roiphe said. That version of events was challenged by Moira Donegan, the creator of the list who revealed herself in a poignant essay published late Wednesday night. Donegan writes that while Roiphe contacted her, it was only to ask her to comment on the “feminist moment,” and not the Shitty Media Men List. Later, Donegan was contacted by a fact checker for Harper’s confirming Donegan’s role, as stated in Roiphe’s draft.

Though specifics of the story’s content remain unclear, it’s possible that Harper’s will publish an already familiar critique of this particular moment. Perhaps I’m wrong, and Roiphe will offer a nuanced critique of the reckoning, free from the now stock phrases and lazy rhetoric of the contrarian essay (“hysteria” “sex panic” “victimhood” and “witch hunts”). Yet, given Roiphe’s long career as a self-styled feminist provocateur, her consistent rhetorical performance as the rare rational female voice in a sea of feminist hysteria, it seems unlikely. “I address the kind of Twitter hysteria that we are seeing here,” Roiphe told the Times.

Rophie’s record on this issue is abundantly clear and follows the narrative that women and other marginalized genders are uninjured by the fiction of harassment: “The majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations,” Roiphe wrote in the New York Times in 2011. “Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.”

If Roiphe’s arguments, laid out in service to long-forgotten sexual harassment allegations leveled against the equally long-forgotten Herman Cain, sound familiar, it’s because they are. The New York Times published almost identical arguments last week in the form of a critique of the #MeToo movement, written by Daphne Merkin. Similar sentiments were expressed by 100 French women, including actress Catherine Deneuve and writer Catherine Millet, in an open letter in Le Monde, who said: “we do not recognise ourselves in this feminism” that holds male predators accountable for a spectrum of abuse.

The backlash to #MeToo is indeed here and it’s liberal second-wave feminism.

As the #MeToo conversations have escalated, prompting critical reconsideration of what constitutes a violation in the workplace and beyond, liberal second-wave feminists have been a prominent voice in bringing the reckoning to a premature conclusion, suffocating this deeply-needed cultural moment. Armed with a self-identified feminist conviction, they are often quick to deem the criminality of brutal physical attacks as the barometer for abuse—dismissing the precariousness of women rendered by institutional discrimination as self-imposed victimhood. Their use of feminist principals to justify their hesitancy in this space has become the new “I’m a feminist but...”—an empty gesture at best, a need to claim allegiance to old power structures while also asserting feminist credentials.

But one of the most powerful facets of #MeToo has been the beginning of a full-fledged dismantling of those exact power structures—be they work, institutions, legacy companies, prominent and highly-esteemed figures, and the biggest manifestation of power of all: every single time one of us looked away to protect one of the aforementioned reputations.

What this moment exposes very cleanly about liberal second-wave feminists—and their shortcomings on the reckoning— is that they are still preoccupied with maintaining an established social order that—for both better and worse—has been profoundly ruptured by this moment. Donegan’s account was radical; anonymity insured by solidarity, and risk reduced. But the response, especially those that labored over form, imperfect method, and chastized recklessness of the list, smacked of this kind of limited liberal feminism, indebted as it is to the preservation of institutions and empowerment through them.

It’s perhaps telling that, in the face of challenging these powerful empires, the second-wave set have preached personal empowerment above all else—now a cornerstone of the #MeToo skeptic piece, as one writer famously argued, by the patriarchy’s rules for a “piece of the pie as currently and poisonously baked.”

There is room for a nuanced discussion of #MeToo—its failures, successes, and potential futures; discussions that are free from accusations of “witch hunts” and “feminist hysteria.” But that complexity is not to be found in the embrace of liberal second-wave liberalism. Such ideologies only offer comfort to an individual, well-to-do white women who were born with the ability to navigate power structures they inhabit, while leaving those very structures perfectly in place. It’s a reflection of who exactly holds the keys to the proverbial kingdom, and a transparent (if accidental) revelation of the arguments they will employ to maintain it. And it’s there—in that very classist assumption—that the backlash always was, waiting to be revived when it was needed.

Since #MeToo began, the backlash, writers warned, was imminent. The warnings of a backlash were prescient, of course, but perhaps they were too spectacular. In a recent interview, Rebecca Traister conjectures that the backlash might be a “false claim” or “an overreaction” in the form of a man who “lost his job for an offense that, perhaps, doesn’t merit job loss could put a halt to this.” “Anything,” Traister argued, “could precipitate” the backlash. Traister might still be right, as she usually is, but it seems that warnings of this kind of striking and easy-to-identify backlash overlook the backlash that was already here, hiding in plain sight.

Along this ideological divide, in which prominent female thinkers have rationalized, normalized, and coded abusive, predatory behavior as flirting, as courtship, as the simple reality of being female or any other marginalized gender, our differences on progress have never been more prominent. Given the liberal second-wave embrace and, at times, protection of predators and abusive systems above all else—the literal well-being and safety of others—it’s no surprise that they do not recognize themselves in the terrain that #MeToo is traversing. Their insistence, however subtle, that a mandated correction of systemic male predation is somehow not a feminism they recognize is the mantra they will repeatedly commit to: this isn’t feminist.

Rather, we do not recognize ourselves in your feminism.