An interview with Aimée Morrison #MeToo

Thank you to our guest Aimée Morrison, Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo. Aimée Morrison, professor in the department of English at the University of Waterloo, shares her thoughts issues about violence against women and the hashtag #Metoo.

It's time to take our power back. It's time for our stories.

The Transcript

Melissa: Welcome to the Women’s March Canada Podcast, making equality of women in Canada the new norm. This is episode one titled “Me Too”. My name is Melissa Durrell and I am your host inspiring, uniting and leading the change and the charge for the advancement of women across Canada. Is this the pivotal moments we have been waiting for in women’s history? Is this MeToo hashtag the catalyst for real change? In all the circles I run in, this has been the dominant topic and we are joined today by Aimee Morrison. Hi Aimee. Professor of English at the University of Waterloo focused on new media studies and digital humanities but Aimee I know you as a disruptor, gaining national attention pointing out inequalities across many platforms for women...which I think rocks. Thanks for joining us today. What was your initial reaction to the Me Too hashtag?

Aimée: My initial reaction I guess was sadness. I encountered it on my personal facebook page where I saw one post and then it was another one, another one, and another one. Pretty much my entire Facebook newsfeed was women and some men using this hashtag with the cut and paste text saying if we all did it, everyone would know the extent of sexual violence. It is something that intellectually that I knew - that sexual violence is pervasive. And I knew of course that it happened in my own life and knew intellectually that it probably happened to most of the people I knew but to see these kind of confessional statements over and over was emotionally overwhelming actually.

Melissa: What was interesting for me is that it started with copying and pasting. It started with Alyssa Milano original “Who's the Boss” taking charge “Screw you Harvey Weinstein” but then it became a confessional which was heart-wrenching and felt so vulnerable on social media.

Aimée: Yeah. In Milano’s tweet, she has an image says “from a friend” so even she is not claiming that she wrote that text herself but she is sharing it. And then we all began to share it. As the day rolled into the evening on Sunday, you could see more people were appending their own stories of harassment or assault. Things started out looking all the same and there was power in that but then it became really individual and there was emotional power in that. And then even within all of the individual statements, you begin to see this recurring patterns, especially of women saying “I don’t know if this really counts...but I was in the library and a man showed me his penis and I was ten years old...does that count?” Yes, honey, that counts. How astonishing to discover things that happened to women that they just shrugged off.

Melissa: Shining a light on rape culture. I was talking to the girls that I work with and one of them was out at a bar on the weekend and it was raining. A friend of hers was two in front of her and he handed her an umbrella over top of another group and another guy yells out, “Oh what did you have to do to get that, did you have to give him a blowjob for that?” and she is just standing there in this huge crowd. She told us this story and I am thinking “that is wrong” - it’s part of our culture now for a joke. I don’t think that is funny. And we shouldn’t be thinking its funny. Do you think people will change the way they speak and talk because of the hashtag?

Aimée: Well it’s not the first hashtag and it won’t be the last. If a hashtag could actually change culture, culture would be changed. I think these things are additive and they happen little by little so this tag follows along from “#YesAllWomen”, “#BeenRapedNeverReported” which are similar hashtags that moved in waves where women, queer and non-binary people were expressing things that happened to them in ways that in culture, we mostly don’t have spaces to do informally. For example, you go to the police and they say “well I don’t think we have enough to press charges” or you go to your boss and they say “well it’s better if you just sit at opposite ends, he’s such a high performer” so the formal structures have never really allowed women to disclose. And the whisper networks, which I am sure you know about in every sort of professional group. You don’t mention it and in the bathroom, women are saying “stay away from that guy”.

It was quite famous about Jian Ghomeshi and we are hearing about Weinstein as well that everybody sort of knew but nobody could really say. And I think these informal internet media give us an opportunity to stand up in a more public way and say #Metoo and not have some man say “could you just maybe not say that right now.” And that platform is really quite large and it draws lots of people into it. As we discover that other women have had similar experiences and feel the same way, we start to feel less ashamed of the things that happened to us. We start to imagine them less as being things that we did wrong or character flaws on our part. Like “I was wearing the wrong thing, maybe I misunderstood, he’s actually a really nice guy what was I thinking?” And when all these other women start to have the same experience, you start to think “well maybe I’m not crazy, maybe he was the problem”. I think that is the most powerful thing right now - women are starting to understand their experiences not as personal, but structural.

Melissa: You said there have been hashtags before. But have any reached this kind of engagement? 4.7 million people engaged with #Metoo posts in less than 24hs, over twelve million posts, comments, reactions and this is growing. It’s been trending for the last week. CNN reported that 45 percent of Facebook users are friends with someone who posted Me Too.

Aimée: Just to put my social media researcher hat on for the minute. The virality of this particular post was amplified by the fact that it begins with a very high profile news item - Harvey Weinstein. We have Rose McGowan who got a lot of attention last week and then was banned from Twitter. When someone gets banned from Twitter, its always a big deal and everyone piles on to find out what happened. Alyssa Milano has a ton of followers. A whole bunch of Hollywood celebrities who follow her then tweeted the same thing. So what you have is people at the top of the social media food chain starting a hashtag, followed by a lot of women. It came from followers of Lady Gaga, Alyssa Milano, and so on….The #MeToo hashtag itself is very accessible. Something like the hashtag “#BeenRapedNeverReported” is a bit more extreme. To make that kind of disclosure is much riskier than #MeToo - that says they’ve been subjected to some sort of harassment or aggressive gender-based behaviour. The hashtag was more open to participation where you didn’t have to disclose something really awful or anything at all if you didn’t want to. It spread so fast because such big people were tweeting it right at the beginning.

Melissa: Guardian reporter, Nadia Khomami, said today: “The story moved beyond any one man; it became a conversation about men’s behaviour towards women and the imbalance of power at the top.” I thought that was so interesting. Is this the next wave of feminism that we have been waiting for? What do you think?

Aimée: I think that the point of the imbalance of power is really crucial here. Critiquing, for example, Mayim Bialik’s tweet saying “I dress modestly, I don’t flirt” is sort of assuming that sexual harassment and assault is about sexual attraction and it’s mostly not. It’s mostly about power - about someone who has power asserting dominance over someone who doesn’t. Or someone who feels powerless in the wider realm of their own life being able to feel powerful by scaring a woman. Mostly where you see harassment is in industries where most of the men are the ones in charge of giving out jobs, determining salaries, or offering projects and where most of the women are very junior in the profession. This is why so many of the women using the Me Too hashtag are talking about men exposing themselves when these women were children. There is always this asymmetry of power. It’s never someone with less power being aggressive towards someone with more. Our whole system is still set up as a patriarchy wherein most industries, it’s mostly men in charge and most of the junior people are women. It’s going to make sexual violence and sexual harassment much more likely and much less likely to be reported.

Melissa: How do we take it to the next level? #MeToo is totally mainstream right now but it still many of us women having this conversation. As you said until these older men are actually realizing there is something wrong here, how do we go to that next level?

Aimée: Well I think it sort of starts personal. There are a lot of men who are expressing surprise - they’re like “well I had no idea”. Well why would you? You’re not thinking about where you’re parking your car now because when you come out of the building, it’s going to be dark; you don’t think about your accessibility to the bus route; you don’t think about taking a taxi when it’s late; you don’t think about being at a meeting by yourself. The more that women can feel empowered even to say to the men in their lives this is the way I think, the way I have to think, the way I have to protect myself moving through the world.

I remember being out with my husband and getting cat-called by somebody. [Just nods and keeps walking].  If you just acknowledge them then they just go away. He asked me why I was doing that. I said, “believe me when I say, it’s easier.” Don’t turn around and yell at him because then I am scared. Him moving through the world with me or me saying what has happened to me and he believes me.

A lot of women don’t have the benefit of men believing them when they say “That guy was creepy, I feel like he was talking to my boobs the whole time.” Men have a tendency to say “Well I didn’t see that. He doesn’t talk to my boobs” Well that is because you’re a dude. Exposure to these hashtags has men going “huh maybe that does happen a lot”. Until men can start to look at the world the way that women experience it, I don’t think they are going to take it seriously. Hashtags like this help some men be convinced by this overwhelming, numerical spread of things like pretty much every woman has seen a penis she didn’t want to see, had a boss who’s a little handsy or had a hey baby out of a car. We’ve all had that. For such a long time, a lot of men didn’t want to believe that is true but when you have hundreds of thousands of women saying Me Too,  I think maybe they start to see it.

Melissa: When I was younger, they put these glasses on you so you would know what it feels like to have four beers. We almost need to find these goggles for men. #MeToo goggles - so they can see the world through our eyes.

Aimée: Wouldn’t that be a great Google glasses project - like an augmented reality project where you put the glasses on and it would do threat assessments like you’re a girl. It would be so distracting - like how many brain cycles have we wasted in our lives thinking about being safe.

Melissa: Some men have started interacting online using hashtags like “#Ihearyou”, “#HowIWillChange”, “#Ivedonthat”  It’s interesting that men who want to be apart of the conversation have chosen their own hashtags. Is this enough to engage them in the conversation or is it the beginning?

Aimée: I think it is the beginning. A lot of men have been using the #Metoo hashtag. Toxic masculinity really squashes men’s feelings first. Bell Hooks has written about this - the first step in patriarchy is not destroying women’s souls, it’s destroying men’s souls. So that men become dehumanized to the extent that they don’t see women as real people. And so when are using the hashtag to say #MeToo, it shows that this happens to a wide range of people. The “#IHearYou” hashtag is great. You gotta keep it short. It’s not about saying “#IHearYou” then writing a speech about how woke you are. Performative Feminism is not what I need right now. What I need is when you’re in a group a dudes and some dude goes “Wow look at that ass.” and you say that’s not cool. So in social justice, there is a saying - go get your people. So if you’re a dude and you’re wondering what you can do for the women. You don’t do anything for the women. You go take care of your people and your people are other men. You need to be a better man among men. This is probably the best way men can make the situation better for women.

Tweet: You need to be a better man among men. #MeToo via @WomensMarchCDA

Melissa: Let’s also talk about the criticism. There was a hashtag “#NotAllMen.” I pulled some quotes such as “Dear women, please find some other ways to seek attention. Blaming men doesn’t portray you as strong.” One of many we saw online. I guess that is probably as much as we should say about that. But let’s talk about some of the women who have criticized as well. Good old Blossom came out saying how she dresses modestly and doesn’t flirt with men. What do you make of her comments?

Aimée: Well she says that she has moved through this industry largely free of gender-based violence. She attributes that to not being conventionally beautiful in the Hollywood sense and her own deportment and comportment in the world. When she says that the solution to gender-based violence is to not be very pretty and to dress more modestly and to be dignified. What she is saying is if you are pretty, it’s your fault. If you are dressed “not modestly”, it’s your fault. And if you act without dignity, it’s your fault. She’s essentially saying that by not being sexually attractive or acting flirtatiously, I am not subject to sexual violence again as though it is based on sexual attraction - which it isn’t. It’s based on power.

Mayim Bialik has some powerful advantages such as strong parents and a good agent who do not leave her alone with dangerous men, who train her in a particular kind of assertiveness that not all women had access to as children, not all women are as secure in themselves or as powerful or come from middle-class backgrounds where they feel a little more freedom in how they act. Sarah Polley said how she didn’t care that much about being an actress, which is why she could turn him down. While a lot of other women said, “I did care about being an actress, I needed this in my life”. It comes down to power.

When Mayim says she’s not assaulted because she dresses modestly and is not that pretty, it is saying that if you’re not that pretty you can’t be assaulted. Often fat women hear “well you can’t have been assaulted because you are too ugly for anybody to assault” as if that is what it’s about. It doesn’t help survivors who look like her to feel like that they are believed when they speak.

Melissa: Do you think that if these big high profile stories didn’t exist, would we be here discussing violence against women?  

Aimée: We’re talking a lot about #MeToo as if it just happened. Actually it is a hashtag and a movement that has been going for about ten years. It was started by a woman of colour, Tarana Burke, who was trying to get something informal off the ground for women in an underserved metropolitan area - places where there weren’t crisis centres, people didn’t have a lot of money for therapy. It was kind of an on the ground self-love movement for people who had suffered sexual violence. We didn’t hear too much about that. We are gonna hear more about it when it’s a white rich guy doing it to beautiful white women.

The hashtag takes off a bit more when powerful people are promoting it. What is going to make it blow up to a CBC News level or a New York Times level is going to be either a major court case, very photogenic or very powerful people. I think the rest of us have to hitch our wagons to that star and say it’s not just in Hollywood, it’s in education, journalism, or elementary school system. That’s when we can all really say “#MeToo”.

Melissa: What is your advice for Canadian women? What do we do next week?

Aimée: Keep on being awesome the way that we already are. If anybody wants to have a conversation with you about that, know that your own history of sexual harassment and assault is your own and you don’t have to share it to convince anyone about anything.

In many ways, this conversation can be very triggering for people who have suffered sexual violence. A lot of people have been saying that this week has been very difficult for them because memories that they have been working very hard to suppress in their lives are brought to the surface. Some people are at a stage in healing where it’s okay for them to talk about it, but other people have kind of been holding this really close to their hearts for a long time in ways that feel really spiky when you open that up and they’re not ready. I would say you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to. But if you’re willing to talk about it with people, start with the people closest to you and insist that they see the things that you see and they become part of the solution.

Melissa: Thanks, Aimee. Rockstar Aimée Morrison of UW. Thanks for being on our first podcast.

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