Widespread outrage over the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations continued to play out on social media over the weekend — this time through #MeToo, a powerful hashtag aimed at illustrating that anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment.
The hashtag was spurred primarily by an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein's World,” which was written by The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik and quickly went viral. Bialik argued that women are essentially harassed on a hierarchical tier based on how attractive they are and how they dress.
The argument was an affront to many readers, who rushed to point out that in reality, women of all types are harassed. As discussion of Bialik’s op-ed continued, actress Alyssa Milano suggested that women reply “me too” to a single tweet:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
This isn’t the first time the idea of testifying to sexual assault through the framing of a “me too” has gained traction. An earlier "Me Too" movement was started over a decade ago by black feminist Tarana Burke, to empower other black women and girls who are sexual assault survivors.
Milano wasn’t aware of that background until Vox reached her for comment Monday evening, whereupon she tweeted noting the movement’s origin story, which she described as “heartbreaking and inspiring.”
But the idea resonated with many women and other survivors, who responded to Milano’s original tweet and passed it on.
Me too. I don’t know if means anything coming from a gay man but it’s happened. Multiple times.— Javier Muñoz (@JMunozActor) October 15, 2017
The idea spread rapidly, as women began speaking about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault on both Twitter and Facebook, and the #MeToo hashtag was born.
In her op-ed, Bialik painted herself as being savvy enough to preemptively ward off sexual assault
Bialik’s op-ed piece in the Times was framed as an account of her personal experience with rigorous beauty standards in Hollywood relative to the Weinstein scandal. Her argument was two-pronged: She suggested that Hollywood’s emphasis on extreme beauty has insulated her from the worst forms of harassment throughout her career, and she described the acts of “self-protection” — including dressing down and modifying her behavior — that have helped her ward off unwanted attention from men.
“As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms,” she wrote. “Those of us in Hollywood who don’t represent an impossible standard of beauty have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and, in many cases, ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.”
While Bialik acknowledged that “Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women,” she went on to declare that women “can’t be naïve about the culture we live in,” explaining that she makes “choices” she deems “self-protecting and wise.”
“I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with,” she wrote. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”
Many people who read the piece felt that it amounted to victim blaming, and that Bialik was unforgivably asking potential targets of sexual assault to be responsible for curbing the behavior of predatory men. But the more widespread backlash was reserved for Bialik’s suggestion that only pretty women experience harassment and assault.
Lots wrong with Mayim Bialik's op-ed but one quick thing: Being an awkward girl with a big nose never protected me from harassment. https://t.co/C0oA7zxAab— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) October 14, 2017
This is a terrible and dangerous opinion. “You wouldn’t get assaulted if you weren’t so pretty.” https://t.co/yhl0UYBSIj— a damn kobold (@skinnyghost) October 14, 2017
The schadenfruede that Mayim Bialik seems to have over the fact that she thinks that only pretty girls are sexually assaulted is gross— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) October 15, 2017
Really want to again congratulate @missmayim on being too SMART to be PRETTY ENOUGH to get raped. What a great take to give to the world.— Amanda Duarte (@duarteamanda) October 14, 2017
In particular, numerous actresses spoke out, with many saying that their own experiences with sexual assault didn’t align with what Bialik was arguing.
.@missmayim I have to say I was dressed non provocatively at 12 walking home from school when men masturbated at me. It's not the clothes.— Patricia Arquette (@PattyArquette) October 14, 2017
Reminder. I got raped at work at a Payless shoe store. I had on a long tunic & leggings so miss me w/ "dress modestly" shit.— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) October 15, 2017
Bialik’s own experience also didn’t align with those of the thousands of survivors who trended the #MeToo hashtag in response.
I have typed & deleted this more times than I can count. I learned about evil before any person should. I am heartbroken at how the cycle continues & to see how many others have suffered because of it. #MeToo #WomenWhoRoar— Alt Fed Employee (@Alt_FedEmployee) October 15, 2017
#MeToo When I served in the military. More than a few times. I stayed silent for self preservation. I regret it daily.— Rita Abraham (@Rockabilly_Rita) October 15, 2017
As a male childhood rape survivor who has gone public and had so many disclose to me, I promise: any rape stat you see is low. #MeToo— Barry Crimmins (@crimmins) October 15, 2017
It's not your clothing.— quinn cummings (@quinncy) October 15, 2017
It's not your feminism.
It's not your education.
It's your assailant.
Words of support and empowerment were also widespread.
To all the women sharing stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment, thank you for your bravery to speak up. You are not alone. #MeToo— Women's March (@womensmarch) October 15, 2017
Isn't it sad that most women have multiple stories about sexual assault?— Rebel Girl A (@thatrebelgirl8) October 16, 2017
No wonder we all keep believing it's our fault.#MeToo
There were also calls for men to do more to combat harassment, instead of relying on women to do so by sharing their stories:
I wish #MeToo was rapists and assailants admitting to being trash humans instead of survivors having to bare their souls.— Dr. Lucia Lorenzi (@empathywarrior) October 16, 2017
Men,— Nick Jack Pappas (@Pappiness) October 16, 2017
Don't say you have a mother, a sister, a daughter...
Say you have a father, a brother, a son who can do better.
We all can.#MeToo
Twitter’s ongoing role in the discussion wasn’t forgotten either:
Bialik responded to the backlash Sunday night, tweeting that her words had been taken out of context.
There was, however, at least one chilling reminder that the “too ugly to be raped” myth is alive and well:
Exactly 1 year ago (Google it) Trump said at a rally all the women accusing him of sexual assault, harassment, & rape were too ugly for him— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) October 15, 2017
Update: This story has been updated to include the historical context of the “me too” movement started by Tarana Burke over a decade ago.