Time Magazine declared the “silence breakers” of the #MeToo movement the Time Person of the Year. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, honored the courage of “hundreds of others, and of many men as well, [who] have unleashed one of the highest-velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s” in a statement on the Today Show.
The sheer number of women who have pushed back against a culture that often devalues them and their expertise is impressive. Likewise, the number of men who have actually lost their jobs as a result of their bad behavior is a step in the right direction. But, have we really seen a shift in America culture?
While time will tell, I am not very optimistic about the future of the #MeToo movement. Here’s why.
Outrage dies. Anger and moral outrage play an important role in getting a movement off the ground. Certainly one reason that we saw so many high profile men publicly shamed and dismissed from their cushy jobs is because Americans were outraged at the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in every outpost of society– not to mention that so many people knew and said nothing about it. In the harsh light of day, companies were quick to act, hoping to stave off a public backlash. This level of outrage, however, is difficult to sustain. Absent other reasons for Americans to care about this seemingly sprawling social problem, the outrage and the actions that result from it will die.
Media attention moves on. Mainstream media has played a critical role in raising public awareness about the problem of sexual harassment and assault in America. Consider these numbers. According to LexisNexis Academic Universe, which is a database of media outlets, #MeToo was mentioned in 230 broadcast news transcripts and discussed more often in American newspapers. In fact, American newspapers wrote 1,257 stories on the #MeToo movement in October, 1,224 in November and 1,216 as of December 18th. That’s 3,927 news stories since October – and LexisNexis does not include every outlet in the country. While this is an astounding amount of attention, the media spotlight inevitably moves on to “new” stories. Once stories related to #MeToo run out, so will the news stories. Most of the stories in December focus on the Time announcement and Merriam-Webster’s announcement that feminism is the dictionary’s word of the year. Unless something else dramatic happens, these stories may be among the last.
Viral campaigns do not make a social movement. While #MeToo is referred to as a social movement, it really isn’t. Social movement emergence requires the following: a sense that an injustice can be fixed, an opportunity to advocate for change effectively, and an organizational base. #MeToo is missing the latter. It has no organizational base, which means there are not individuals working to determine how we might proceed in solving this critical problem. This is different from other viral campaigns turned movements. Black Lives Matter, for example, also started as a social media campaign, but three activists – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi- made it into an organization with goals. If you visit the Black Lives Matter website, you can quickly learn about the movement’s goals, structure, and actions as well as how to get involved. This cannot be said of #MeToo. It is just a hashtag without a clear direction.
#MeToo and related social media campaigns are important. As I noted in a previous post on the issue, they play a critical role in conscious-raising and the cultivation of a collective identity. Movements, however, need more than this if they are to truly change American culture.
Deana A. Rohlinger is a Professor in the Department of Sociology. She studies political participation and mass media.
The feature image is from Time Magazine.