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Blog | The backlash against #MeToo in online humour

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The backlash against #MeToo in online humour

By Maja Brandt Andreasen

This month marks the 2-year anniversary of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times article which exposed Harvey Weinstein as an alleged serial sexual abuser. It also marks the anniversary of Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo tweet: by encouraging her followers to write ‘Me Too’ on their timeline, Milano kickstarted a massive outpouring of stories about sexual harassment and abuse. The hashtag #MeToo also (eventually) brought attention to a broader Me Too movement started by Tarana Burke a decade earlier. The cultural impact of #MeToo cannot be denied and industries outside of the Hollywood film industry have now experienced a “#MeToo moment”, destabilising structural sexism and initiating conversations about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.

#MeToo drew attention to what Liz Kelly has referred to as the “continuum of sexual violence”: the continuum allows us to see that sexual abuse exists in many shapes and forms and that victims of abuse react in many different ways. Yet, while #MeToo gained remarkable spread and popularity on mainstream online media, other corners of the Internet met #MeToo with scepticism and backlash. I have spent the past two years researching Internet memes about #MeToo, Weinstein and two other famous men accused of sexual assault and harassment, Kevin Spacey and comedian Louis C.K. I have collected Internet memes from three social media sites, 9gag, Imgur and Reddit in order to investigate how sexual violence, as well as victims and perpetrators of said violence, are portrayed within an online context where humorous content is encouraged and expected.

My research highlights three key characteristics of the #MeToo backlash: ‘himpathy’ towards perpetrators, victim blaming, and reconceptualising sexual violence as sex.

Kate Manne’s notion of ‘himpathy’ refers to the sympathy that powerful – and particularly white and otherwise privileged men – enjoy in cases of sexual violence. Himpathy asks us to focus on the alleged perpetrator of sexual violence, and what his behaviour (and the media coverage of it) means for him. Himpathy for perpetrators of sexual violence in turn results in a reluctance to believe women – which Melody House’s analysis also points to in the previous blog post about the Blasey Ford - Kavanough hearings. Himpathy also runs through Internet memes about #MeToo. This is expressed in subtle ways where memes address men, assume male identity amongst other users of the websites and linguistically frame men as belonging, while women are considered to exist outside of these online spaces. For example, this is evident in the way these memes use “I” with images of men, and “they” with images of women. It is also used explicitly when memes express sympathy for the perpetrators, declaring belief in their innocence and asserting their cultural importance . We are asked to care more about their careers – and their art – than about the allegations. This was evident, for example, in memes focusing on Kevin Spacey’s firing from House of Cards. Furthermore, himpathetic discourse highlights male injury and reframes men as the real victims of #MeToo.

Memes featuring Harvey Weinstein on left and Rose McGowan on right

Screenshots from 9gag.com

Himpathy for the perpetrators of sexual violence in turn tends to result in blaming the victim/survivors of said violence. Victim blaming discourses take many forms but common amongst them are how they remove the responsibility from the perpetrators and rather blame (and often shame) the victims instead. The above meme noting “I guess there is no such thing as a women’s intuition” positions Weinstein’s sexually unattractive appearance as a warning sign which should have alerted all women to his predatory nature. The meme notes how women should have known better than to “put themselves” in a room alone with Weinstein. The responsibility of sexual assault thus lies with women who are expected to police their behaviour (and often their appearance) and limit their movement in public.

Finally, the memes tend to reconceptualise sexual violence as “just sex”. This often happens linguistically through the use of words such as “having sex” and “fucking” which ignores force and violence. The meme with Rose McGowan above (who accused Weinstein of rape) centralises (heterosexual) male desire and invites other users to evaluate which “version” of her they would find most sexually attractive. Sexual assault is here not only reconceptualised as sex but also framed as sexy. Weinstein’s actions are implicitly excused since the young McGowan self-positions as sexy which in turn would make it impossible for a “normal” heterosexual man to resist her. Finally, a reconceptualization of sexual violence as “just sex” not only make invisible the assault and the experiences of victims but also removes the blame from the perpetrators and as such discursively legitimises sexual violence.

While #MeToo was immensely significant in raising awareness of sexual violence and the continuum of abuse that women experience globally, the backlash against #MeToo also highlighted the ways in which victim blaming and himpathy are still prevalent and are being reproduced. Writing this blog post, I visited the websites again to see how the content on #MeToo might have changed over the past two years. Unsurprisingly, the dominant discourses have not changed. Women are still discredited, men are assumed innocent, and sexual violence is reconceptualised as sex. Much of this online content is however dismissed and not taken seriously – especially when the content is considered “just a joke”. What I want to argue, however, is that we need to take this type of content seriously. Sexism is so much a part of popular culture that it often goes unnoticed. But the cost of this is the normalisation and legitimisation of sexual violence.

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