The #MeToo backlash ― much predicted, fitfully rehearsed ― arrived in earnest this week, disguised as feminism. The pretext: a messily written story published on Saturday on Babe.net, about a woman’s coercive sexual encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari.
The condemnations were swift. “It transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness,” wrote The New York Times’ Bari Weiss, who calls herself a “proud feminist.”
“#MeToo has jumped the shark,” opined the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser, who calls herself a “true feminist.”
This was the moment women had been predicting for months, ever since the national outcry against predatory men began in October. “All it will take is one particularly lame allegation … to turn the tide from deep umbrage on behalf of women to pity for the poor, bullied men,” warned Rebecca Traister in November.
It is important to know what the story did and did not say, and what the initial reaction from actual feminists was and was not. The piece did not call for Ansari to lose his career, get brought up on rape charges or go to prison, and neither did any high-profile feminist commentators. The woman, identified by Babe only by the pseudonym Grace, told writer Katie Way that she’d come around to seeing the incident as a “sexual assault” as opposed to “an awkward sexual experience,” in part because Ansari had ignored her non-verbal and verbal indications that she was uncomfortable with his advances. Though she characterized the experience as an assault, she also compared his behavior to that of a “horny, rough, entitled 18-year-old”; in short, the article and the feminist reaction focused on illuminating the pain caused by technically consensual but unwanted sex rather than on building a legal case.
But the story itself was flippant where the genre — as modeled by the careful, fastidious reporting of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in The New York Times — calls for solemnity, and sloppy where the genre calls for precision. The author lingered over irrelevant and frivolous details, like the cuteness of Grace’s outfit the night of the date and Ansari’s failure to offer her a choice between red and white wine. While the account of the date has not been disputed, the chintziness of the presentation gave the critics an opening. Soon enough the backlash was on. Two groups ― a fleet of male reactionaries, many of them veterans of previous culture wars; an auxiliary of middle-to-upper-class female pundits, delighted with their own wicked apostasies from the sisterhood and crowing over the professional boost it was giving them — joined forces to protect the beleaguered patriarchy from incremental change. This was a familiar process, in some cases down to the very names of the participants. And so far, the #MeToo backlash seems to be an eerie retread of the ’90s backlash, in which feminist conversations about sexual assault were likewise deemed hysterical and damaging, likewise by women who themselves claimed to be feminists. Culture may march on, but one backlash against women’s progress tends to look like another.
Pushback to a feminist sally is the most predictable reaction imaginable. Just about every woman who has challenged the patriarchal structures around her has met with vicious punishment. Sady Doyle’s 2016 book Trainwreck dissects the slander and ostracism Mary Wollstonecraft faced after publishing A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792; men like Robert Browning publicly slimed her as slutty, stupid and at least a little unhinged. The claims sank both her reputation and public support for women’s equality.
It didn’t take long for the realization to dawn on antifeminist crusaders that the most effective advocates for the status quo would be women themselves. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it might have been men like Browning leading the way, but once the debate began in earnest, women were invaluable to the cause. During the suffrage movement, some genteel ladies, like Josephine Jewell Dodge and Mrs. Albert T. Leatherbee, spoke out against women’s voting rights. By the second wave, career woman Phyllis Schlafly was an icon of a conservative movement that argued women should stay in the domestic sphere. How could anyone accuse these women of blind hatred for women? They were women, and they spoke for women.
But these women did not claim to be feminists, or suffragettes. They used their shared gender as currency in the fight to disenfranchise other women, but they openly opposed the movement itself. By the ’80s and ’90s backlash to the second wave, that was changing. With some gains solidified, a new generation of reactionaries was able to embrace the past achievements of feminism (and, nominally, the movement itself) while continuing to mouth patriarchy-serving platitudes. Feminism was big enough that the forces of antifeminist reaction could best be served from within feminism.
That’s how we got Katie Roiphe as a ’90s feminist symbol, even as she vigorously mocked the work feminists were doing and did nothing of note to shift cultural norms or structures to empower women. Roiphe rocketed to fame in 1993 as the 25-year-old author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, an impressionistic takedown of anti-rape activism on college campuses based almost entirely on her own observations as a student at Harvard and Princeton. The book was heavily promoted, especially by The New York Times. As a woman writing about women’s issues, she was easily accepted and promoted as a feminist. “I didn’t spend much time thinking about feminism. It was something assumed, something deep in my foundations,” she wrote in The Morning After. The Independent covered her as part of a splashy package on what it termed “Hot American Feminists.”
The consequences of Roiphe’s feminist branding persist to this day. A recent Jezebel piece called the #MeToo backlash “second-wave feminism,” pointing as evidence to Roiphe’s career-long skepticism toward sexual assault awareness, though it’s hard to say what makes her a second-wave feminist. (The campus Take Back the Night protests Roiphe trashed were themselves a product of second-wave feminism, and generationally, Roiphe, now 49 years old, would be aligned with third-wave feminism.) She has vaguely laid claim to a feminist identity, but has made her name by undercutting the movement itself.
Allowing Roiphe and her ilk to be installed as representatives of feminist thought in the ’90s profoundly distorted the discourse in ways that are still haunting us. It deepened the perceived divides between different factions of the movement by establishing advocates for the status quo as merely one faction of feminism. Of course, feminism is not a uniform set of ideologies. There has long been debate and disagreement within the movement, not only between waves but within them. But labeling as “feminists” women with retrograde ideas fostered the illusion that it’s a legitimate feminist position to argue that fighting sexual assault is weak and hysterical. After all, Roiphe said so, and she got a book deal and wall-to-wall coverage from The New York Times. But Roiphe is not a feminist; nothing in her public career suggests she ever was a feminist. To buy into her feminist brand is to buy into a scam.
If feminist self-stylings made an anti-feminist writer more marketable in the ’90s, that’s only more true today. As feminism became associated with pro-establishment figures as well as progressive ones, the label became less and less toxic. Who’s afraid of feminism, if you can be a feminist and think, well, whatever you want? If it will help you sell soap and checking accounts and tampons? If Emma Watson and Beyoncé are feminists?
“I can’t help but worry that those of us who hoped that the marriage of pop culture and feminism would yield deliciously progressive fruit might have a lot to answer for,” Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch magazine, wrote in the introduction to her 2016 book, We Were Feminists Once, which examined the rise of a feminism built around consumerism and brands rather than political change. Making feminism cool has had powerful positive effects ― it’s hard to imagine the #MeToo movement without a Hollywood where celebs were expected to be pro-women’s rights ― but it has also inevitably diluted it. In an era when feminism is commercially viable, when even Ivanka Trump can unblinkingly claim to be a feminist, it was inevitable that this new cultural clout would be weaponized against the movement itself. Feminism has grown too mainstream, too broadly accepted, and even expected, for vociferous anti-feminists to be taken seriously in any debate about women’s rights, even if they are women. More useful to the opposition are women like Roiphe, feminists in name only.
And so it was no surprise when news emerged last week that Roiphe, in an upcoming piece for Harper’s Magazine, planned to name the creator of the anonymous “Shitty Media Men” list. After intense outrage and a boycott threat, led by writer Nicole Cliffe, the magazine claimed the article would not name the list’s creator. But then came the pushback to the pushback, as the noisy scrum surrounding Roiphe’s dubious-sounding take gave the would-be backlashers something to seize on.
Last Friday, Andrew Sullivan had the jaw-dropping gall to open his essay “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo” with an anecdote about his accurate prediction of when the backlash would arrive. “A month or so ago, a friend and I mulled over when exactly the backlash to the then-peaking #MeToo moral panic would set in. Mid-January, we guessed, and sure enough here we are. No, we were not being clairvoyant,” he assured us.
No shit, Sullivan wasn’t being clairvoyant ― any more than I’m being clairvoyant to “guess” that I’ll drink an enormous glass of wine at the end of any given news day for the foreseeable future. One can’t be impressed with oneself for predicting one’s own actions, which in Sullivan’s case included bemoaning last Friday that “the righteous exposure of hideous abuse of power had morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.” He claims to support the aims of #MeToo, if acceptably limited, but in reality he’s been waiting in the wings to tear it down at the opportune moment.
And now we seem to be in that moment. The sneering and — hm, what’s the word? — hysteria from men determined to protect their own hegemonic power is uninteresting. It would be far more befuddling were an assortment of men like Matt Damon and Andrew Sullivan not to defend their fellow white male power players against a barrage of damaging sexual misconduct allegations. The sharper sting comes from a more intimate betrayal: woman after woman using her prestigious media platform and her disingenuous claims of feminist identity to undercut a movement that uplifts women’s voices and questions sexual norms that harm them.
“Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful — and very, very dangerous,” read the subheadline of a bizarre screed by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic that accused Grace and Way of having assassinated Ansari (“in a professional sense”). His career, which no one of note has called to end, appears alive and insanely lucrative as of this moment. Flanagan’s #MeToo takedown, published just a couple months after her defense of #MeToo, uses Ansari’s identity as a convenient tool to smear his critics as dangerous harpies. “I thought it would take a little longer for the hit squad of privileged young white women to open fire on brown-skinned men,” she wrote. The phrases may sound progressive, but they’re cynically deployed to protect male sexual entitlement.
But Flanagan is adept at this dance; in 2016, she recalled in her youth having been “proud, then, to use the word ‘feminist’ to describe myself,” mostly because feminists believed rape survivors, in order to explain why she couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Does it need to be said that this is hardly feminist? That these are only the idioms of feminism, being used for the reactionary purpose of elevating an accused serial sexual predator over the first viable female candidate for president because of that female candidate’s husband’s actions?
“Some glass ceilings should never be cracked,” the New York Post’s Peyser wrote in 2016. She called Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign “sexist,” castigating Clinton for “playing the chick card,” and described her nomination speech as “prattl[ing] on.” The language is almost hilariously sexist, like a parody of a chauvinist’s take on Clinton, but hey ― Peyser is a “true feminist.” As a true feminist, here was her take on #MeToo: “[Ansari’s] reputation is in tatters and his career threatened because of a lady who took her time saying ‘No.’”
In her New York Times column about Ansari, Weiss, the “proud feminist,” was almost too explicit in laying out her antifeminism. The Babe article “transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness,” she wrote in a piece entitled “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” Throughout the piece, Weiss derided as weak and entitled the concept of women working together to change norms that routinely harm them. Here was her proud feminist reaction to a story about a man repeatedly disregarding a woman’s nonverbal and verbal cues:
If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.[...]
If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.
In short, as a feminist, Weiss holds exactly the same views on male-female sexual dynamics as we held in the ’50s, and for eons before: If women don’t want to be sexually violated, they need to fight men off. Her stance on the issue is clear. What’s unclear is how she can justify her attitude as feminist, rather than an embrace of our current, broken sexual culture that often harms women.
“The insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches,” she wrote, careful not to specify which women have actually sought to criminalize encounters like Ansari’s. Criticizing men for hurting women with overly aggressive sexual behavior is not, to her way of thinking, feminist; the correct way forward for feminists is to again insist that women bear the individual burden of resisting.
If it’s difficult to see how that will actually improve anything, that’s because it’s the status quo, painted over with the language of feminism and progress. Women don’t want to be fragile, right? Don’t we want to move away from fainting couches? As feminists, shouldn’t we give women the agency to be responsible for protecting their sexual virtue? This falls apart under scrutiny, of course; it’s like the old joke about the definition of insanity: What if we fought for change by doing the exact same thing we’ve always done? This time, it just might work.
As Sarah Jones noted in the New Republic, this isn’t simply a generational divide between feminists, and Weiss is a millennial herself. “What’s remarkable is the familiarity of their arguments: The #MeToo backlash is almost identical to the backlash that greeted the wave of sexual assault reports on campus colleges in the 1990s,” she pointed out.
But where Jones frames this as a clash between feminist factions ― “One group of feminists will try to define sexual assault and another group will call them alarmists” ― it appears rather to be a modern elaboration of an age-old antifeminist tactic: Make it clear that you’ll give top dollar and top billing to women who are cool enough to trash feminist thinking, and at least a few women will do your dirty work for you. Find a woman who will sell out solidarity for a pat on the head and a cookie from the establishment, and use her identity as a dodge for claims of overt misogyny. If you’re really successful, this tactic will bear fruit for generations, as the precocious Katie Roiphes of yesteryear become the seasoned elder Katie Roiphes of today.
The patriarchal power structure might sometimes be hamhanded in enforcing its oppressive norms, but often it’s tricky. It hangs back amid an organic feminist boom and then disguises itself amid the earnest supporters, using their revolutionary vocabulary to argue for the status quo. It sows division and installs false prophets of feminism as leading lights. It gives Katie Roiphe a feature story. It puts Bari Weiss on the same op-ed page as Michelle Goldberg and congratulates itself for hearing all sides of the debate.
It’s a scam, same as ever. But we don’t have to fall for it. The backlash to the backlash has been swift but heartening. Many writers, like Anna Silman, Osita Nwanevu, Lainey Gossip’s Sarah Marrs, Andrea Grimes, HuffPost’s Emma Gray and the above-mentioned Sarah Jones have responded to the overwrought, strawman attacks on #MeToo with nuanced, thoughtful essays on how to take this opportunity not to imprison Ansari or banish him from the public realm, but to have a frank conversation about improving our damaging societal scripts around sex.
The backlash has decided it’s here, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it crush us. It’s not the ’90s anymore.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly indicated Robert Browning lived in the 18th century instead of the 19th century.