As #MeToo Turns One, the Kavanaugh Case Tells Us How Far the Movement Has Come

Christine Blasey Ford (left) testified against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last week; Ashley Judd (right) was one of the first women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein in the initial New York Times story, one year ago Friday. Photo: Getty Images

On October 5, 2017, the New York Times — to be followed a short time later by the New Yorker — published the first article that outed Harvey Weinstein as a serial assaulter of women. That story helped kickstart #MeToo, the initiative first spearheaded by Tarana Burke to raise awareness of sexual abuse, then transformed, post-Weinstein, into a full-blown, male-status-quo-rattling movement. Suddenly, women once rendered powerless — and some men who had been, too — felt emboldened to identify high-profile figures who had engaged in gross misconduct, unchecked, for years.

This Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of that first Weinstein story. It’s expected that, on that date, the Senate will vote on whether to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. That vote will come in the wake of a contentious process that has involved multiple accusations that he, too, assaulted or harassed women during his high-school and college years, allegations he continues to deny. Given the timing of the decision and the strong feelings it has unleashed about when and how it is appropriate for women to name their abusers, whatever happens is going to feel like a referendum on #MeToo. This moment serves as an undeniable, significant bookend to what began 12 months ago.

With some notable exceptions — the resignation of Senator Al Franken being a big one — the impact of the movement has been felt most acutely so far in the media and entertainment worlds. Perhaps that’s why the sound of divided #MeToo opinions, certainly at a din over the past several months, hadn’t risen to a deafening roar among a greater swath of Americans until the Kavanaugh controversy. For many people, the worlds of journalism and filmmaking seem to take place in some faraway land that has nothing to do with their own, so it’s easier to observe the upheavals that have taken place there at a distance.

But when #MeToo more directly targets those in the political sphere, particularly in this climate, and when you’re talking about a Supreme Court justice whose decisions could affect every American, the nerves struck are much more sensitive and the perspectives far more polarized. That’s when the “this is going too far” arguments get trotted out on a larger scale, as exemplified when President Trump noted this week that “it’s a very scary time in America for young men” — women on the other hand: “doing great!” — then followed that up during a rally by mocking Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who delivered credible testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh attacked her in 1982, when both were high-school students. As we approach the midterms, the agony surrounding the Kavanaugh appointment has triggered sense memories of the agony of watching Trump — himself a known harasser, and one who has faced zero consequences for it — get elected in 2016 by encouraging misogynistic teardowns of his female opponent.

Trump may have sunk far lower than most when it comes to his assessments of Dr. Ford and the  #MeToo movement. Sinking far lower than most is kinda his jam, after all. But he’s hardly the first person to sound an alarm about the hazards of publicly accusing men of bad behavior. That noise has been building practically since #MeToo began.

Two months after the Times published that initial Weinstein story, the newspaper ran an op-ed with the headline: “When #MeToo Goes Too Far.” The author was a man who is, coincidentally, named Bret — specifically, Times opinion writer Bret Stephens, who wrote that #MeToo could potentially undermine itself by becoming too extreme and refusing to acknowledge that harassing behavior falls on a spectrum. To make that point, Stephens quoted a well-known actor who had spoken recently on that very subject: Matt Damon, who would go on to play a spitting-mad, defensive Brett Kavanaugh on Saturday Night Live. The circle of political life is funny, isn’t it?

More articles of this sort followed. Daphne Merkin, writing, again, for the Times, said in a widely circulated piece that many long-standing feminists have “had it with the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception, turning a bona fide moment of moral accountability into a series of ad hoc and sometimes unproven accusations.” Another piece for this very outlet, by columnist Andrew Sullivan, argue that, “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo.” In an essay for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino, who had been writing frequently about the Weinstein case, recalled seeing a medical specialist because of high blood pressure and listening to that doctor say — while he checked her blood pressure, no less — “Weinstein is a real scumbag. But how far does this go?” A crusade that began with a Twitter hash tag in front of it suddenly had an asterisk at the end of it, suggesting that #MeToo should come with caveats.

With the Kavanaugh case, those concerns have swelled into a full-blown conservative panic attack, one put on full display during last week’s confirmation hearing when Kavanaugh, Senator Lindsey Graham, and other Republicans expressed outrage at the way Kavanaugh’s life has been ruined. These sort of witch-hunt-style arguments are not new. (And hey, by the way, do you ever think about how wild it is for so many men to use a term that actually refers to a historical event in which a group of predominantly women were unfairly persecuted? Because I do.) They have emerged historically whenever a high-profile case of attempted rape or assault emerges that can’t easily be substantiated with cut-and-dried evidence. They are amplified now because the snowball effect of #MeToo has rattled men in the Establishment who are convinced that anything they do or say could be construed as reputation-damaging harassment by some vindictive female. Essentially, they imagine a world where every man is a wrongly accused UVA fraternity brother and every woman is going to falsely rat them out to Rolling Stone.

Data tells us that is not the case. Statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center state that rape is the most underreported crime and that “the prevalence of false reporting is low, between 2% and 10%.” The notion that there are many women running around spouting false charges simply does not match reality. It feels real to some men because their anxiety about it is so palpable. But just because a claustrophobic person senses that the walls are closing in on him doesn’t mean those walls actually are moving.

What the #MeToo movement has really taught us, so far, is not that our society has reached the point where we fully believe and support women who say they’ve been the victims of assault or harassment. Rather, it’s taught us that we — and I’m counting some women in that we, by the way — are willing to believe women in the most clear-cut, extreme cases: when a man committed a definitive rape or attempted rape; when multiple women were victimized by the same perpetrator, ideally in numbers that approach Cosby levels, so we can be sure this is a “he said/a multitude said” situation versus a mere “he said/she said”; and when there is enough physical evidence or witnesses to back up the story that it becomes impossible to deny. This is actually progress; not so long ago, we wouldn’t even listen to women at all even when many of those factors worked in their favor. But it’s progress that is woefully slow and backward thinking.

Basically, we prefer our harassment cases to be as black-and-white and resolvable as the crimes in our broadcast network police procedurals. But even when we actually know the truth about a dodgy situation, there are some who will use the “this wasn’t that bad” defense. You know that conversation because you’ve had it before: “Louis C.K. admitted he serially masturbated in front of female colleagues. He said it himself. But, like, that’s not as bad as Weinstein so he should get to do stand-up again after a few months of self-imposed punishment.” #MeToo has helped us talk about these things and start to suss out why we’re willing to give certain behavior or people a pass. But we’ve no more resolved all these issues than we solved racism at the end of Barack Obama’s two terms as president.

Even if Kavanaugh does get confirmed, realistically, all #MeToo progress will not come screeching to a complete halt. The Time’s Up initiative, which is committed to addressing assault as well as other issues that enable women to have more equal footing in society and the workplace, just appointed its first president and CEO, former WNBA president Lisa Borders. A confirmation for Kavanaugh also would likely galvanize women and other #MeToo supporters to be even more vocal and active in pushing the movement forward.

But there’s no denying that something Tolentino wrote earlier this year in that New Yorker essay still feels very accurate: “When women push back on sexual misconduct, the viability of the entire movement seems to hinge on each act.” When Christine Blasey Ford closed her eyes and raised her right hand to swear on her truth and nothing but her truth at the beginning of last week’s hearing, you could feel how true that was. And if and when the Senate votes “yes” at the end of this week, a year to the day from the moment when women started to feel more liberated to speak out against Hollywood’s most abusive misogynist, it will be heartbreaking proof that Ford’s belief that she might be “jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway” was correct. Women will have to sit with that heartbreak for a bit before they can move forward.

But then, women and their allies will do what they always do: Brush themselves off, get back up, and do their damnedest to make sure the trains they’re conducting keep on running.

The Kavanaugh Case Tells Us How Far #MeToo Has Come