#MeToo: A success or a failure? An interview with Ella Whelan

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Ella Whelan is the author of ‘What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism’ and assistant editor at Spiked.

Whether it’s #Resist or #MAGA, viral movements seem to generate support and hate in equal measure. #MeToo has been no exception. It has opened a conversation which for many is long overdue. How do men in positions of power treat women? What are the boundaries for acceptable behaviour? These questions, and many more, have been at the forefront of the campaign, and the women who came forward with their stories of sexual abuse and harassment have exposed and publicly shamed predatory individuals. Many cases, especially those involving litigation against celebrities or public figures, have resulted in mass media scrutiny, but equally some contributions to #MeToo have been as simple as a tweet.

Now that enough time has passed for the initial furore to die down, people are starting to question #MeToo and what it has done for society. The movement is clearly not without its problems, and it has been criticised from both ends of the political spectrum, from the left for its social elitism and lack of racial diversity, and from the right for persecuting men in the style of a ‘witch hunt’. Yet many people see #MeToo as having empowered women and created a climate in which they can talk about assaults they have experienced freely and openly in their quest for justice. The divisive nature of #MeToo was highlighted at a recent debate at the Cambridge Union. Speaker Ella Whelan argued that movement was a failure, claiming that the ‘victim narrative’ generated by women encouraging each other to post online about their experiences actually disempowers women and that the movement is more about ‘everyday sexism’ than effectively addressing abuse.

Ms Whelan acknowledges that she holds a controversial position on the issue of #MeToo. She stresses that she wants women to ‘call out anything [they] don’t like’, but draws a distinction between different types of behaviour. One of her major criticisms of the movement is that it blurs the line ‘between malicious intent […] and bad flirting, awkward interactions and the messy plane of human relationships’. This is a subject which is clearly close to her heart; she tells me that #MeToo is contributing to a societal culture where ‘when someone goes to kiss you […] and you don’t want it, that’s traumatic’, although for her this is ‘part of the risk of sexual interaction’. She stresses the importance of women’s sexual freedom and feels that #MeToo is creating ‘a culture of fear’ for both men and women, where men are scared to ask women out for a drink, and women are scared that any man approaching them is a potential predator. However, for many women, this may be an over-simplification of the issue, as both abuse and the responses to it can vary so greatly. While Ms Whelan may not be a typical feminist, she believes that women ‘cannot be empowered if [they] are afraid’. She has clearly thought a lot about the changes she would make to #MeToo, as when I ask her she immediately informs me that women (and men) need to ‘discourage the victim narrative and challenge the politics behind it’. She means to empower survivors of sexual abuse through the idea that a woman should move on as best she can after an assault or rape, not letting ‘the actions of that bastard continue to affect [her] life’. Her suggestion is that #MeToo may be stopping women from doing so by ‘celebrating victimhood’ and attaching a label to the women who come forward.

The conversation moves to the recent issues surrounding the #MeToo movement in the USA, particularly the scandal surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Ms Whelan tells me she is ‘disgusted by the way [Dr Ford] was treated and by the way she was expected to act’, elaborating that the academic was ‘set up to be a weeping, vulnerable, incredibly exploited figure’. However, Ms Whelan takes issue with more than just the treatment of Dr Ford, which in itself has angered many women across the world. She sums up the case as a ‘he said, she said situation from thirty years ago’. In her view, the ‘level of hysteria [seen in the case] completely discredits a serious assessment of what we need to bring more justice to women who have suffered’. A key point of the #MeToo movement raised by another speaker at the Union Debate, Dr Miranda Horvath, is that women ‘want to be believed’ and #MeToo offers them a space where their voice can be heard. In contrast, Ms Whelan does not take any accusations at face value, instead recommending a thorough investigation and describing the case as being ‘pretty shaky on both sides’. She argues that the situation was abused for the political end of stopping Kavanaugh from holding the position of Supreme Court Judge, which she believes was not the right way to try to achieve this. She is critical of the ‘Crucible-esque, mad spectacles [which are] becoming increasingly prevalent’ as well as of the #MeToo movement for, Whelan claims, pushing Dr Ford to relinquish her anonymity and to testify (as a result of which she has received death threats and other abuse).

Ms Whelan takes issue with many of the key points of #MeToo, and, in her mind, the movement has done more harm than good. She is somewhat dismissive of the ‘middle-class celebrity uprising online’ and its effects on society. Her controversial opinions highlight the polarising nature of this debate; the heightened emotions of those involved have meant that abuse has been prevalent from both opposers and supporters of the movement. Many women see the movement as liberating, others find it disempowering or even patronising, while some men have come to accept that their conduct towards women in recent years has been unacceptable. Whatever one’s opinions of #MeToo, the political and social traction it has gained is undeniable – a ‘Me Too bill’ is even being considered in the US Congress. MeToo has fundamentally readdressed the balance of power between women and men in society, for better, or as Ms Whelan fears, for worse.