Would #MeToo jump the shark?
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The day the Kevin Spacey allegations broke, I was sitting with my girlfriend on our couch in Brooklyn. By accident, we found ourselves playing a dark game. One of us would name a male star, as if removing an article of clothing, and the other would respond on instinct — first, with the chances of his being outed as a sexual predator, then with how disappointed she would be in the event of his fall from grace. The goal was to pick men who scored high in both columns. The whole thing smacked of truth or dare, or spin the bottle: games of needless, voluntary exposure, games about the risk of being caught wanting things you shouldn’t.
The secret, of course, was that the red-skied reckoning that had followed a blitz of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017 could be, whatever else it was, fun. Out there, in the fields of something like history, women were talking, telling stories of rape and abuse and harassment and weird texts and constant gaslighting. Most of these stories weren’t new. Those that were cleaved so tightly to the genre that they bore the seal of instant recognition. Maybe nothing would change; maybe this was one of those Matrix things, where the system would just adjust and reboot. But there isn’t anything especially feminist about being jaded. A world was ending, maybe. At any rate, the stars kept falling.
And then here we were, bae and I, kids playing hide-and-seek in a fallout shelter. We were enjoying it. Ours wasn’t just the righteous satisfaction of justice finally served, or even the hot joy of revenge. For sure, there was real pleasure in the prospect of seeing bad men suffer. But there was also another, less flattering kind of enjoyment, floating right beneath the waterline of consciousness. For all the great to-do, all the scandal and vindication, there were certain stars of film and television — just a select few, we told ourselves, a special club — whom, in a week or month or two, once the fires were out, we would find it in our hearts to forgive. That’s a lie, actually. We wouldn’t forgive them. But we also wouldn’t stop watching their shows.
Jeffrey Tambor hit particularly hard. I’d been avoiding starting the fourth season of Transparent on account of its multi-episode Israel arc, which filled me with the dread of Having to Have an Opinion. Transparent, for me, had never been about telegraphing a politics — for that, I had Orange Is the New Black, Atlanta, and Insecure. I had taken in the first two seasons with dumb luxuriance, as if ordering macaroni and cheese at a restaurant with three dollar signs on Yelp. The third I binged on a few months into transition, popping estrogen and waiting for the sadness to kick in. “I don’t wanna be trans!” cried Tambor’s character, in a bitter argument with her estranged sister. “I am trans!” Me neither; me too.
Then, shortly after the fourth season of Transparent went live on Amazon Prime, a former personal assistant of Tambor’s alleged that the actor had engaged in what Deadline Hollywood was calling “inappropriate behavior.” Tambor denied it. There was here, I knew, a brief window of plausible deniability: if I was going to binge with a clean conscience, it was now or never. But by the time Transparent actress Trace Lysette came forward with her own allegations — on set, she said, Tambor had told her he wanted to “attack [her] sexually” and mimed sex acts while pressed up against her — I still hadn’t watched.
The irony was thick and frothy: a transgender actress sexually harassed by a cisgender actor playing a transgender woman, and doing so to tremendous critical acclaim, with a winsome humility it was easy to slip your belief into, like a pair of comfortable shoes. Tambor was a good woman. Accepting his second consecutive Emmy for the role in 2016, Tambor thanked a team of trans media consultants and said the show had changed his life. When a piano tried to play him off, he shushed it, his face sad and urgent. “I’m not going to say this beautifully,” he warned, “but to you people out there, you producers and you network owners and you agents and you creative sparks, please give trans” — his voice failed mid-word, his mouth still moving, then he rallied — “transgender talent a chance.” The audience, warm and charmed, let the slip slide. “One more thing,” Tambor continued over the cheers. “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television,” he finished, awkwardly flipping the words transgender and female. More cheers, louder and looser. Sure, he hadn’t quite stuck the landing — but that could be forgiven, couldn’t it?
Television was never good for you. In 1950, there were, by some estimates, six million television sets in the United States; a decade later, something like sixty million — nine out of ten households. By the mid-Sixties, Herbert Marcuse was suggesting that the masses would rather chance nuclear annihilation than be deprived of television. What postwar critics were talking about when they called it a technology of mass consumption was how television broadcast, on a historically massive scale, the helplessness of desire in the face of its object. TV didn’t have to be good to be good: all viewers asked for was the possibility of returning, over and over, to the scene of enjoyment’s crime — hence the episode, the serial, the sitcom. Trash just had to be reliable. Even contempt could breed familiarity. If the barrage of televisual garbage that Americans were willing to consume proved anything, it was that once hooked, desire is very hard to spoil. This was perhaps the ultimate spoiler.
Hence early critics’ second objection to television: its inherent quashing of the instinct for political resistance, or even just public life. “Television atrophies consciousness,” wrote Theodor Adorno. For him, television’s danger was its capacity for producing in viewers a feeling of social belonging that was in fact ideological cover for their increasing alienation under capitalism. The warm togetherness of the average American family gathered around a little box in their living room was a lie fabricated to keep people off the streets where politics might happen. Even Marshall McLuhan, no one’s idea of a Marxist, thought that television was too “cool,” too sensorially engrossing to drive political change. The political effect of television on the average American was therefore the formal inverse of the fascism of the Forties. Hitler’s radio had uprooted one country; now, television was potatoing another. “The dreamless dream,” Adorno called it, crowning it king of the culture industry. “The Timid Giant,” McLuhan called it, quoting from TV Guide.
But at some point, someone poked it. One will be forgiven for thinking that the current tenant of the White House represents a full-on invasion of the political by television. Even the popular fan theory that the President is secretly a Russian patsy, credible or not, feels ripped from the plotlines of some drama on USA. Equally, more than ever, television is political. “The Great Awokening,” the journalist Molly Fischer called this in the Cut, describing how wokeness — as in “stay woke,” an exhortation to political awareness popularized by Black Lives Matter — has consolidated as a televisual aesthetic. Witness Black-ish, Girls, Insecure, Louie, The Handmaid’s Tale, I Love Dick, Transparent, Master of None, even the rebooted Will & Grace. At worst, woke TV has all the moral subtlety of an after-school special. In one episode of Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s character has sexism explained to him by his female friends. The tone is self-congratulating and neogallant, as if pointedly sparing a lady the chivalry of an opened door. Writes Fischer, “This is not a blow to the patriarchy; this is Sesame Street.”
The promise of woke TV is that the naysayers of the Sixties were wrong: watching television can be a kind of political act, if only minor and tenuous. If this sounds like wishful thinking, that’s not simply because wokeniks like Tambor and Ansari left themselves vulnerable to getting called on their shit. It’s also because in the very act of delivering on its promise to make people feel political, woke TV accidentally proved that political was something you could be made to feel. That Transparent can make you feel political — the way, say, This Is Us can make you feel sad — implies that the political is essentially a special effect, a trick of the light, TV magic. The full discomfiture of this claim can be shrugged off as long as you maintain the fantasy that somewhere out there, in the bleeding wilds of the world, there exists a secret glade called Politics where the gods of history dance. This will let you cleanly cleave the world in two: true and pretend, genuine leftism and performative wokeness, real life and the stuff of television. The scarier thought is that feeling political is all that politics is. In truth, you can’t book a direct flight to the political. There are always layovers in aesthetic form: in tone, mood, shape, and everything else a work of art might employ to try to get you to feel part of something bigger than yourself.
The other way to say this is that politics is just a very special episode of belonging. Belonging is television’s forte. Television was never just a box; it has always been primarily a social event. When Adorno complained that television was a “substitute for a social immediacy,” he had forgotten that every public is a fantasy, projected by rituals and shibboleths that if held up to the light just so will, like the medallion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, point the way to God. This applies as much to the halo of national pride that in 1969 descended, like Apollo 11, onto the rapt faces of viewers at home as to the numberless moons of fandom now wandering the internet’s night sky. Mediation, televisual or otherwise, has always been necessary to make the leap from me to you, individual to group. All communities are imagined, as Benedict Anderson taught, simply because they could not be otherwise.
But the fear of missing out is real. This is truer than ever today, when twenty-four-hour streaming services have succeeded in making live television live forever. Hence the recap: a new genre of internet writing that mixes summary with commentary while being neither, anchored by the gravity of a show’s sacred lore but prone to flashes of passion and diaristic longing. More than reviewing plot or assessing style, the recap’s first job is to record the achievement of holding a shared object. Here in the Golden Age of Television, the point is not just to watch but to have watched — to have been there, in a sense not wholly imaginary, for that twist, that fire, that wedding. Death emcees most of these ceremonies. (Jimmy Kimmel, the rest.) Take Game of Thrones, a high-fantasy program whose appeal rested in its defiance of the economy of celebrity. Central characters whom other shows would have clad in plot armor could be cut down with the ignominy of an extra. It could be anyone, at any time. They even had a saying in Braavos, the financial capital of the Thrones world: Valar morghulis, all men must die. And so the nation got hooked on a show about famous men falling when you’d least expect it.
As Game of Thrones sailed off toward its final season, a new show rose to fill its slot. #MeToo was another kind of fantasy drama, one that resuscitated the dream of Seventies feminism: arrows dipped in anger, fletched with optimism. Time’s up. Ban men. Burn it down. Only this time, the revolution would be televised. Allegations rolled out like your regularly scheduled programming. A political movement could be a form of entertainment; America had just learned this the hard way. Now justice was on prime time, and everyone was watching. In coffee shops, on public transit, all across social media, the whisper network was suddenly, shockingly loud, as if someone had forgotten to cut its mic. Soon, it was congressmen, journalists, professors, radio hosts, talking heads, celebrity chefs. The news reports popped up on our phones like recaps of a phantom show no one had ever seen. Even the hashtag was an impossibility, an improvised attempt to build a universal out of nothing but particulars. Me, too. The singular, multiplied.
Those who called it a witch hunt had clearly never watched the short-lived series Salem, whose premise was that the witches hunted you. But the backlash came all the same. Before long, the devil had enough advocates to hang a shingle. Could all women really be believed? That was a lot of women. Someone with money started calling in op-eds. The standing orders were clear: for every twisted panty, a wrung hand. There was bad sex, and then there was bad sex. The thing had degrees. It was complicated. Some, calling themselves allies, cautioned that sex panics are never good for queer people, people of color, sex workers. If it wasn’t careful, they said, the movement would jump the shark.
For others, it was already too late. Aziz Ansari, who for years had played a failed pickup artist on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, had finally badgered a nerve into letting him touch it. A woman with the pseudonym Grace told the lifestyle site Babe that Ansari had pressured her into a blow job and kept wheeling her awkwardly around his apartment looking for a space to park his dick. Everything was consensual-ish. “You guys are all the same,” she had told him, “you guys are all the fucking same.” The internet went up in flames. Harassment in the workplace was one thing, but a national referendum on heterosexuality? What were we supposed to do, not have sex? Bari Weiss, with the New York Times feeding quarters into the back of her head, figured that if Grace had been assaulted, so had every woman, including Bari Weiss, which obviously wasn’t the case. Someone in the Atlantic compared Grace to the weak female protagonists of the moralizing chick lit of the Seventies, at once slutty and hapless. Suck it up, honey. Spit it out. Call a cab.
What they were really saying was that Grace’s story played like bad TV. It was all too tropey: wine, tears, countertops. This wasn’t real life; this was Shondaland. They shouldn’t have described her outfit; they shouldn’t have included that sex thing with the fingers. Grace needed a better editor. But it was quickly becoming clear that #MeToo could turn broadsheets to tabloids with a single, unwanted touch. The truth was, many of the allegations read like outlandish episode pitches. Even Frank Underwood of House of Cards, who once had a bisexual threesome involving a Secret Service agent and also, like, murdered people, didn’t have a button under his desk that locked the door behind female colleagues he wanted to bone. At some point, the most unimpressed feminist could allow herself the trashy pleasure of disbelief briefly unsuspended. What do you mean, he masturbated into a potted plant? That was something out of Quantico, or Billions, or Scandal. It’s a twist we could have seen from miles away. It turns out that the men on TV act like the men on TV.
Good TV, of the long-form, narrative sort, is believable. Believability is never about reproducing reality. Time travel may be believable; a kitchen sink may not be. Believability is, essentially, an aesthetic of proportionality. It consists in the invention of an imaginary but plausible relationship between character and plot: that is, in negotiating some kind of correspondence between the squishy sentimentality of interiority and a few discrete, relatively high-impact events that interrupt, like meteors, the atmosphere of everyday life. In the land of television, critical acclaim is handed out to whichever shows manage to bridge these twin peaks most attractively. Usually, this means keeping the writing within a few standard deviations of the premise at hand: no secret clones, unless it’s Orphan Black; no acts of God, except on The Leftovers.
Sexual violence is, however, notoriously difficult to portray realistically on television — hence its relegation to the fringes of good taste, from the family melodrama to the police procedural. Even HBO’s female-driven Big Little Lies, which follows a clique of affluent women in airy California beach houses as each gets caught in a riptide of abuse, couldn’t help draping rape in the lush folds of Emmy-nominated cinematography. The show’s failure — and, equally, its success — was to have made abuse believable. In this way, Big Little Lies predicted, a little too well, how Harvey Weinstein would fall. The New York Times’s Weinstein report was a believability project years in the making: it systematized abuse, turned it into a pattern your eye could follow. There were interviews, emails, audio recordings, legal documents; facts were double- and triple-checked. But its paradoxical consequence was to set the bar far too high for every subsequent story whose breaking it had made possible. What’s a little masturbation between friends when the king of Hollywood kingmakers had employed former agents of the Israel Defense Forces to silence his accusers? In one final act of gaslighting, Weinstein made all other abuse look not so bad and all other evidence look not so good.
But trauma rarely announces itself the way it does in the New York Times or on HBO, in the dramas that win big men statues of little women. In real life, trauma is soapy. The soap opera is distinguished not by the tremendous suffering borne by its characters but by the requirement that the degree of this suffering feel unwarranted. An unexpected death may be mourned in minutes; a personal slight can be grounds for arson. It’s always too much, or not enough. This is why, despite all Big Little Lies’s high production values and A-list stars, there were still male critics who classified it as an “upscale soap.” When Vogue asked Reese Witherspoon (who both acted and produced) for her response, she laughed at the question. “This is how women really speak to each other,” she said. “There are a lot of dynamics where women are not telling each other the truth, and I think it’s deeply relatable.” Big Little Lies wanted to tell the truth about the truth about abuse, which is that the truth will always sound like a lie.
This is why the case against #MeToo rested, ironically, on charges of disproportionate response. Calm your tits, its critics said. Most men aren’t monsters. Most things aren’t rape. Of course, the thing about moral panics is that it takes one to know one. Women are panicking, they said, panicking. But it’s genuinely worth considering whether panic is the only form of publicness available to the airing of sexual grief. Sexual harm is constituted by the impossibility of its being proven. Outside of statutory provisions around age, consent is basically immaterial. Rape and its cousins are ultimately determined not by the presence of physical violence but by the victim’s mental state. Of the latter there can never be direct proof, only secondary indicators. Sexual assault is therefore, by definition, all in your head. Hence the slogan “Yes means yes,” a spell for conjuring a world where people always say what they mean and mean what they say. But usually, they don’t — and usually, they can’t, since people are rarely any more transparent to themselves than they are to others. Events are not self-narrating. Violence is rarely realistic. You’re expecting a break, but instead you get weird, curved continuity. Someone missed their cue. That can’t be the line. What did he just say? Where are we going? Did I ask for this? No one calls cut. No one checks the gate. Not knowing what happened becomes part of what happened.
It is impossible to have a proportionate response to something that never, strictly speaking, occurred. That’s why the beautiful risk run by all the public blacklists, unchecked facts, and internet yelling that coalesced alongside the due-diligence journalism like #MeToo’s evil Twitter twin was its wholesale refusal to play ball with believability’s evidentiary regime. No smoking guns, no blue dresses. Saying so would be proof enough. This was breathtaking, the way the open maw of deep space is breathtaking: nothing, catching fire. Nuance exists, obviously. We’re big girls. Women hoard subtlety in a world where belief is something you have to save up to buy. This is a secret of femininity: paying careful attention to the world’s complexity can mean letting it walk all over you. But to admit this was to concede too much. We deserved some recklessness. It can look like violence when women afford themselves the luxury of generalization.
That’s certainly how it went in Big Little Lies. Nicole Kidman’s abusive husband cannot be defeated until he is revealed, in the season finale, to be Shailene Woodley’s rapist. For a split second, two different women’s experiences of abuse are perfectly aligned, like lenses in a camera, each bringing into focus the objective reality of the other. The monster must be shared to be slain. And he is — falling down a long staircase in what the show’s women tell the police was an unfortunate accident. They’re lying, obviously. Abuse’s solution ends up as unspeakable as abuse itself. The season’s final shots depict the women spending a day at the beach, touching each other affectionately and looking out onto the breaking waves. Among a group of women accustomed to wielding niceness like a telescopic baton for knocking out each other’s kneecaps, it’s a scene of genuine female solidarity.
The price of this was murder, of course. Maybe it always is. #MeToo never actually killed anyone, though that might have just been an accident of opportunity. The desire to kill was real enough. While sensible people, garden-party appalled, wondered aloud if important men should really lose their careers in the small of some woman’s back, we sat at home knowing that getting fired was mercy, not vengeance. But the desire to punish, for better or worse, isn’t the same thing as punishment. Unlike the women of Big Little Lies, most of us will never get the chance to watch our abusers die. That mass murder would be morally untenable, or at least practically tricky, only whets the poignancy of the thing. That is the dark comedy of the desire we call feminism: we are ethically compelled not only never to get what we want, but never to stop wanting it, either. The only real justice would be unforgivable injustice. Separatism, the only answer, is also the wrong one. That fucking sucks. It means that justice is the biggest little lie of all.
The thing is, it’s all of them. It’s every single last one of them. Not just the famous ones. Not just the ones you don’t personally know. Never let anyone persuade you otherwise, even if they write for a fancy magazine. But let us say, too, that it is a specious compassion that would make us reluctant to admit these things. Whether or not men deserve forgiveness — and if so, which ones — is not the question, much less the answer. In fact, there is no question. The reality is harder. What hurts isn’t when the people we love do unlovable things. What hurts is when, afterward, we still love them. This goes as much for the neon of celebrity identification as it does for the quieter affections: friends, mentors, exes. What this means is that all of us will be caught wriggling on the flypaper of apologism before this thing is over. Lines in the sand blow away eventually.
No wonder, then, that the ninetieth Academy Awards, the first held after Harvey Weinstein’s expulsion from the academy, passed largely without incident. The Oscars are prom for famous people. There is a white-people jazz band. The writing is cut from cardboard. The whole thing is equal parts ham and cheese — hardly the place to hold a protest. Viewers who had tuned in expecting #MeToo Live! were met with gentle ribbing. Host Jimmy Kimmel jokingly praised the male Oscar figurine for having “no penis at all.” Emma Stone announced the Best Director nominees as “four men and Greta Gerwig.” People said the word women a lot. The closest anyone got to the wrath of yesteryear was Best Actress Frances McDormand, butcher than usual and dependably electric, who ended her speech with the enigmatic phrase “inclusion rider,” pronouncing it like code for something dangerous. Perplexed viewers scrambled to Google, whose guess was as good as theirs. The next day, the media clarified that an inclusion rider was a way for A-listers to stipulate diversity in casting and staffing as a condition of their fancy contracts. Oh, we said. That sounded like probably a good idea.
Like most finales, the Oscars were a disappointment, masquerading as a shock. If anything, they were a reminder that #MeToo never stood a chance. The celebrities were just doing what we’ve always wanted them to do: acting out our fantasies, not because we can’t, but so we don’t have to. Television is Westworld for people who can’t afford to leave their living rooms. That its stars were all just trying to get paid made them no worse than those of us who were just trying to pay them. And just like them, at some point, we will cut to a commercial; at some point, we will change the channel. This could be an indictment, but it doesn’t have to be. Politics, too, can be a guilty pleasure. A political movement is no more tarnished by its finitude than a romance, or a childhood, or a good TV show. Maybe it will be a relief to remember that #MeToo accomplished what every guilty pleasure accomplishes: itself. Weigh us; find us wanting. Wanting could be enough. Desire isn’t revolution. But it might play one on TV.