#MeToo. If you were not living completely off the grid for the last few months, you all but certainly saw these words on your Facebook feed. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal – followed by a mass reckoning that is still going on, with new horrific stories every day – women posted “#MeToo” on social media to demonstrate how widespread an issue sexual harassment and assault are.
Sexual assault is not a new problem, nor is #MeToo a new hashtag (it actually originated years ago by Tarana Burke), but we seem to be reaching some kind of a tipping point. As The Onion puts it, “Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore told reporters Monday that the women accusing him of pedophilia were only doing so now because ‘shifting sociocultural norms have created an environment in which assault allegations are taken seriously.’”
Women who have recently gone public with stories of abuse that happened years or decades ago may be dismissed or disbelieved with questions like “Why is she only saying it now, after all this time?” when in fact many of these events were reported at the time and not taken seriously then either. In other cases, victims simply stay silent and put up with harassment because they need that paycheck to survive or they fear even worse retaliation.
And the dismissals, disbelief, victim blaming, and retaliation continue to this day. We saw a year ago that confessing to sexual assault on tape, coupled with numerous accusations from a variety of women, is not a deal-breaker for the minority of voters who elected our current president. (As Petula Dvorak wrote, “Any woman who has ever been abused or harassed — which is most of us — knows the scenario: Trump bragged about kissing and groping women. And America’s response was to promote him.”)
Girls and women are not the only people who experience sexual harassment and assault, of course, but #MeToo highlights the fact that it is by and far a problem faced by women – and there is much in our culture that encourages us to simply accept it as our lot in life. Too many girls have grown up with it in their families or communities. Too many women encounter it in their dating lives or simply while walking down the street. There has been a particular focus, though, on the harassment and worse that women face at their workplaces, in their careers.
Rebecca Traister correctly identifies workplace sexual harassment and assault as “a professional and economic crime committed against women as a class.” I have been reading each story (after story after story) through the lens not just of a woman, but of a woman who works to support herself. Donald Trump, Jr.’s quaint comments in the 2016 presidential campaign that women who don’t want to experience workplace harassment should “teach kindergarten” astounded me both in their implication that all elementary schools are magically free of harassment and in the suggestion that simply opting out of the workforce is a viable choice.
For the past year, I have been wondering: if I were being harassed at work, would I feel comfortable confiding in someone for whom sexual assault is not a deal-breaker in a presidential candidate? But then, of course, these crimes happen everywhere, and you can find perpetrators on both sides of the aisle. Maybe it’s just our lot in life. Maybe we’re so used to it that it never occurred to us that we should expect our leaders not to have committed sexual assault. Maybe it didn’t even occur to us that we can choose this as a deal-breaker.
The choice to share one’s personal experience is ultimately an individual one, and there have been tweets and articles about why people may not post “#MeToo” and why you should not assume that your female Facebook friends who didn’t post have never been harassed or assaulted. Perhaps you have a friend who has confided in you about her story, but she did not post “#MeToo” on Facebook. Some have simply written “#MeToo”; some have shared their specific experiences.
Others may only wish to share anonymously.
PostSecret is a space where anyone can artfully express a secret about anything on a postcard and mail it anonymously. There’s everything from lost loves to religious doubts, from memories of suicide attempts to theft of office supplies. Given a chance to send any kind of secret at all, some secret-senders write about being molested or raped – perhaps sharing anonymously what they may not share with anyone in their lives.
While anonymous, a fraction of the postcards is viewed by the public in books (several have been published), on the Internet, and in museum exhibits. Frank Warren started the project at the DC area’s art exhibition event Artomatic in 2004; I caught a glimpse of him and his PostSecret exhibit at Artomatic in 2009. He is listed as one of the visionaries at the American Visionary Art Museum, where I have seen a display of postcards related to the main exhibit topic on both of my visits.
Currently, there is a PostSecret exhibit on view at the National Postal Museum. In the bundled stacks of countless postcards behind a glass display case, the top postcard in one stack tells of trauma in adulthood due to having been molested in childhood. Another states, “my husband treats me like a prisoner.” When I visited Art Museum of the Americas in 2012, a similar project, called Write Home Soon, was part of the Ripple Effect exhibit; there, too, were postcards that would fit the #MeToo hashtag.
PostSecret exhibit at the National Postal Museum
One month ago, PostSecret’s Facebook page shared a postcard that incorporates the words “#MeToo” – in this case, being attributed to the cat who is relentlessly chased by Pepe Le Pew in Looney Toons. (While many commenters agreed that the cartoon is one of the subtle ways such dynamics are ingrained into our culture, others pointed out that cartoons are not to be taken literally and they don’t go around running off cliffs just because they saw an animated character do it. Looney Toons may not exactly be the consummate example for a discussion on the relationship between the make-believe and the real. However, in light of the recent wave of accusations and the fact that several involve men in entertainment, writers have recently grappled with the age-old question of whether art can be separated from the artist – and how an atmosphere of power and sexual abuse shapes what art is, and is not, made.)
Nina Simon wrote in 2007 about what museums can learn from the success of PostSecret: “PostSecret is self-help through art, through community. It opens people to each other and to themselves. It pulls in creative expression from all kinds of people all over the world. It has web components, but is essentially about physical objects.” Simon clarifies that PostSecret could offer inspiration to any number of user-generated projects. That said, the exhibits of postcards that I have seen in museums and art events reflect the success of this particular format.
As another take on the concept, Mónica Mayer’s El Tendedero / The Clothesline Project currently on exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (which I have not seen in person as of yet), takes the anonymous secret idea and applies it specifically to the issue of sexual assault. In this case, the secrets are written on sticky notes; the art is not in the creative expression of the individual’s contribution but in the whole, the airing of an immense amount of dirty laundry.
A social media post promoting this piece at NMWA predictably got a response questioning whether the piece really has artistic value or is reflective of artistic talent. Such questions can be chalked up to individual taste, or they can be taken in the context of a broader discussion of the purpose of art.
In the case of #MeToo and the forums that allow victims of sexual abuse to share their stories, the exact purpose is being refined as thinkpieces abound discussing the next steps – for surely posting “#MeToo” is a beginning, not an end. Yet it’s refreshing to see that anything is being done – in public discourse, in industries, in museums finding ways to incorporate pieces that are crowd-generated and relevant.
The topic of sexual harassment and violence is often met with a reflexively defeatist sense of inevitability. It’s an inevitability whose logic excuses bumbling men because they simply didn’t know better, while simultaneously dismissing workplace sexual harassment training on the grounds that everyone just needs to be a decent person – thereby absolving individual and institution alike.
PostSecret, Write Home Soon, El Tendedero, and #MeToo turn audiences’ attention to some of the most sordid aspects of what is. A refusal to accept defeatist inevitability will be necessary in order to imagine what could be.