Is #MeToo Too Big?

Tarana Burke, the movement’s founder, wants it to return to its original—and specific—purpose: to serve as a counter to sexual violence.

Protest signs are raised at a #MeToo demonstration outside Trump International hotel in New York City, NY, U.S., December 9, 2017. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

On October 15, 2017, shortly after The New York Times and the New Yorker published their initial investigations into the allegations of monstrous behavior by Harvey Weinstein, the actor Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted,” she wrote, “write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The suggestion, which currently has more than 67,000 replies and sparked many, many more, instantly expanded the movement that was founded by the activist and community organizer Tarana Burke more than a decade ago.

And the expansion, in turn, subjected #MeToo to the familiar physics of American political entropy. The movement Burke had created—a movement that had been, from the beginning, about the survivors of sexual violence, particularly girls and women of color from low-wealth communities—soon stretched, in its new purview, far beyond sexual harassment and assault. Under its broadened banner came conversations, wide and narrow at once, about complicities, and celebrities, and pay disparities, and power structures, and whisper networks, and affirmative consent, and the myriad ways American culture has dreamed up to tell the marginalized that their rightful place remains, despite it all, in the margins.

It is a common phenomenon, this impulse to crowd many things under a single tent that goes from big to bigger. Those who gathered, in January of 2017, to participate in Women’s Marches across the country did so to protest a wide mix of grievances, from the new president’s misogyny to the threats the just-installed administration represented to immigrants, to civil rights, to LGBTQ rights, to reproductive rights, to human rights, to science, to kindness, to the fate of facts. The March for Our Lives, a year later, not only protested gun violence in schools, but also asked wide-ranging questions about who gets heard within a political system that remains deeply biased toward power and wealth and maleness and whiteness. This weekend’s Families Belong Together rallies made good on their core proposition—participants marched and chanted for the reunification of migrant families separated at the U.S. border—but were also about Roe v. Wade, and also about immigration more broadly, and also about, coming as they did just before the Fourth of July, what it really means to be patriotic.

#MeToo, that vast and disembodied and ongoing protest march, has been subject to similar dynamics: the big tent, flinging its flaps ever wider; the entropic impulse as both a matter of promise and a matter of peril. Does being about everything, though, mean that the movement runs the risk of being about nothing? Has #MeToo, reconfigured as a broad attempt to rectify a broad host of wrongs, lost the plot? Has it dilated to its detriment?

Tarana Burke says, emphatically, yes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Burke pointed back to Milano’s October tweet—which was not, Burke noted, about pay equity, or representation in the workplace, or power dynamics in a misogynistic culture … but about sexual violence, full stop. “Part of the challenge that we have right now,” Burke said, “is everybody trying to couch everything under #MeToo.”

That attempt—and the instinct that leads to it—is understandable, of course. And it’s natural that the anger of people who have been made to argue for their own humanity, a rage that has been simmering for so long, would eventually boil over. But equality as a broad aim and #MeToo as a precise goal, Burke emphasized, are two different things. And #MeToo, she suggested—as a media phenomenon and as an activist movement—would do well to reclaim the specificity that defined it at the outset.

“We’ve been busy talking about the individuals,” Burke said, “and we’ve been busy talking about the predators and the backlash, and all these other issues.” In that mix, sexual violence itself has been treated as a crucial thing, but also as merely one thing of the many that live under #MeToo’s vast umbrella. That is a category error, Burke suggested. “What happened on October 15 was a tweet that went out that said, ‘If you have been sexually assaulted or harassed, say, “Me too,”’ she said. “And I’m telling you that I’ve talked to these people—hundreds of people, and if you count online and offline, it’s probably thousands—and they are in pain. And they’re trying to find some kind of recourse for what they’re dealing with around sexual violence.”

Which isn’t to say all those other issues that #MeToo has concerned itself with aren’t worthy and crucial—and, indeed, intimately connected to the culture of misogynistic entitlement that can aid and abet sexual violence. “I do get it, don’t get me wrong,” Burke said, of the tendency to conflate. “I understand the reason why people want to do it. If they can get it out there, and people will pay attention if you throw a hashtag on it: Fine. I get that.” But “since we are at a festival about creativity,” she said, “this is about us not being imaginative enough.” People are simply taking the infrastructure that already exists—#MeToo, the movement and the hashtag—and appending additional ideas to it. They are, in that, asking too much of #MeToo, Burke suggested. They are weighing it down with the inevitable freight of hope and expectation.

And all that is, in turn, making it harder for the original goal—the prevention of sexual violence, a massive challenge in its own right—to be realized. “What I’m saying is that, as a person who’s doing the work, and knows other people who are doing this work, it’s hurtful to us,” Burke said. “It is hurting the work we’re trying to do. Because you can’t cover so much, and so many things. And sexual violence is wide enough.”

Talk about pay inequality, by all means, Burke says. Of course. Talk about a flawed culture. Talk about biases, of race and gender and class. Talk about all the other things that contribute to a situation that has given, over the years, so many people so many reasons to say, “Me too.” And then: Do something about them. But also: Be specific about them, Burke argues. Resist conflation. Resist expansion. Resist entropy. There is, in #MeToo, a particular problem to be solved among all the even broader ones. “Nine months ago,” Burke said, “millions of people around the world, who are survivors of sexual violence—very specifically, sexual violence—raised their hands to say, ‘Me, too.’ And their hands are still raised.”