I have been dreading the announcement of Time’s Person of the Year Award, because I feared it would go again to Donald Trump, who has been boasting that he would probably win the award. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when the magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as 2017’s Persons of the Year. The five women on the cover, and many more included in the cover story, are those who have been speaking out—persistently and bravely—about ongoing sexual harassment in many different workplaces and in the everyday life of so many, many women. This is indeed an important moment in our culture. It’s worth thinking about, and celebrating, during this holiday season.
On October 15, 2017, actor and activist Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to issue a call to action: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.” Milano was joining the conversation surrounding a spate of revelations about very high-profile and powerful people accused of sexual harassment: Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein. Milano’s tweet argues for standing up and speaking out—in big numbers. And her message certainly hit a nerve: within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world had joined the “me too” conversation, with over 12 million posts and comments.
Some of these comments pointed out that the “me too” movement is actually more than ten years old: it began with activist Tarana Burke, who, along with Milano, features in the Time story. Burke was directing a Girls for Gender Equity program in Brooklyn and created “me too” with the intention of giving voice to young women of color. As Burke told CNN after Milano’s tweet went viral: “It's not about a viral campaign for me. It's about a movement."
Burke’s response to the 2017 meme makes an important point, one that was echoed in some of the responses Milano received and was further elaborated by Jessi Hempel, the editorial director of Backchannel. In “The Problem with #MeToo and Viral Outrage,” Hempel said that, “on its surface,” #MeToo has what looks to be the makings of an “earnest and effective social movement.” But, like Burke, she wondered whether it would actually have the power and longevity of a true social movement. She was concerned that while millions of people are weighing in, at last, on a long-ignored issue,
In truth, however, #MeToo is a too-perfect meme. It harnesses social media’s mechanisms to drive users (that’s you and me) into escalating states of outrage while exhausting us to the point where we cannot meaningfully act.
Hempel cites extensive research by Yale professor Molly Crockett that suggests that “digital technologies may be transforming the way we experience outrage, and limiting how much we can actually change social realities.” In other words, expressing outrage online may let us talk the talk but not walk the walk of actual change.
But cascading events during the late fall and early winter of 2017 suggest that the work begun by Tarana Burke over a decade ago and given new urgency by Alyssa Milano’s viral tweet indeed constitutes a true movement, as women continued to come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men: Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose lost their jobs; Louis C.K. admitted to harassing five women; James Levine was suspended from the Metropolitan Opera; Al Franken and John Conyers resigned from Congress; and women continue to accuse former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and, indeed, the President of the United States, of sexual harassment.
So when I woke up a few weeks ago to hear that Time named “The Silence Breakers: The Voices that Launched a Movement,” as their Persons of the Year for 2017, I began to feel like women’s outrage is not going to waste and that true change in workplace safety and opportunity for women will happen. I know others are not so optimistic, but in this holiday season with so many things going all wrong for our country, this is one thing that is going right.
And let’s not forget the role that writing and speaking have played in bringing these stories to light: we need to celebrate how language acts can make change, even against all odds. So BRAVA and happy holidays to silence breakers everywhere.
Credit: Pixaby Image 2859980 by surdumihail, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License