A year ago this month, the New York media scene was rocked by the creation and covert distribution of the Shitty Media Men list. The list was a Google spreadsheet of anonymous, crowdsourced accusations of sexual misconduct against men working in the media, and it rapidly became a symbol of all the dangers and possibilities of the ascendent #MeToo movement: It stood for the idea that now, at last, women could finally protect themselves from predatory men — and for the idea that such attempts at protection had gone too far and were robbing men of their due process.
The list was rapidly deleted, but copies abounded across the internet. It was explosive.
Formal complaints were filed against some of the men named on the list. Some of them were investigated, and a few ultimately lost their jobs.
Then in January, the media world experienced a second explosion. Rumors emerged suggesting that the writer Katie Roiphe planned to name the creator of the list against her will in an article in Harper’s magazine. Roiphe’s rumored decision was met with widespread backlash, and a group of women banded together to take credit for the list themselves, “I am Spartacus” style. But to head off Roiphe, the creator stepped forward herself. “I Started the Media Men List,” Moira Donegan wrote at the Cut.
Donegan is a writer who when she started the list was working as an assistant editor for the New Republic and who later left the magazine; a spokesperson for the New Republic told Vox in January that Donegan’s departure had nothing to do with the list.
“The value of the spreadsheet was that it had no enforcement mechanisms,” Donegan explained: “Without legal authority or professional power, it offered an impartial, rather than adversarial, tool to those who used it. It was intended specifically not to inflict consequences, not to be a weapon — and yet, once it became public, many people immediately saw it as exactly that.”
One of those who saw it as a weapon was Stephen Elliott, the founder and former editor-in-chief of the Rumpus, who was named on the list. Last week, he filed a defamation suit against Donegan, demanding $1.5 million in damages.
The day before Elliott filed his lawsuit, I spoke with Donegan over the phone. We discussed the arc of the #MeToo movement, what led it to erupt into the public consciousness, and where it can go from here. Donegan declined to make any follow-up statement addressing Elliott’s suit after it was filed, but our initial conversation touched on why she created the list, how her thinking about it has changed over time, and what her life has been like since she came forward as its creator. “It’s not something I would wish on anyone,” she says.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How do you think the past year of discourse has affected the way we talk about gender and sexual violence?
One of the biggest things I try to remember is that this conversation has actually been going on for a lot longer than just the year. Not only #MeToo as a movement, which of course Tarana Burke started in 2007, but also conversations about sexual violence, sexual assault, and gendered and power imbalances have been going on in a feminist context and a populist context for a really long time.
Something I was talking with some of my heroes about this past weekend was how much #MeToo reminds us of this second-wave practice called consciousness-raising, in which women would sit together in person, on floors or in university classrooms or in coffee shops, and talk about the ways sexism impacted their lives. In particular, there were a lot of first-person stories of enduring sexual harassment.
This method that women have had of using the female first person and their own experiences as a way to try to draw a connection between the personal and the political, and to try to effect meaningful change, this has been going on for a really long time. But renewed energy and excitement that we’ve seen over the past year, and the sense of real urgency around these questions, it’s all been building, really, for decades.
So why do you think it exploded last year with the Harvey Weinstein allegations?
A lot of other people have articulated this better than I have, but in the year, two years before that Weinstein story broke, there were a lot of public egregious examples of women’s suffering and women’s testimony not effecting any change. I think people forget that before he was eventually convicted, Bill Cosby, who had something like 60 accusers, had a mistrial. Before the election in 2016, that Access Hollywood tape where Trump bragged about committing sexual assault did not affect his chances of becoming president. There was this growing sense that the truth could come out about what women experience and it wouldn’t effect a change. I think people got very angry.
There was also what Soraya Chemaly, the author of Rage Becomes Her, described to me as a hashtag genealogy. She was talking to me about the ways that these conversations around sexual violence and sexual assault have been facilitated and sped up by social media: the 2014 hashtag #YesAllWomen, which dealt with the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault; and then this 2016 hashtag after that Access Hollywood tape was released called #NotOkay, which gathered a lot of the same stories.
So there was already a tradition, and there was also this growing unwillingness to accept the status quo. And so when the Weinstein stories come out, not only was the behavior really egregious and disgusting and very sad-making, but it was also devastatingly familiar. A lot of people who read those stories, not only in media or in Hollywood, a lot of people around the country read those and said, “Hey, yeah, I have a guy who does this, to maybe a less extreme degree, but who uses his power against women in this sexually predatory way in my industry too. I’ve seen this before. And yes, we are used to him just getting away with it, and why is that?”
The field was primed for people who were very upset about feeling powerless over this kind of violence and wanted to do something to change that.
Are the changes in the way we talk about this kind of violence getting reflected in concrete changes, or is it purely rhetorical, or is it some sort of combination, do you think?
#MeToo and the feminist social movement generally is much bigger than individual media moments. It’s very tempting right now, when Brett Kavanaugh has just been appointed to the Supreme Court after very moving and upsetting testimony from Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford and credible allegations from other women, to say, “Well, clearly that means the #MeToo movement has failed because this guy got this one job.” But it’s a social movement that’s bigger than one guy and one job. It’s going to go on for much longer. There’s not going to be an endpoint at which we all get to say, “Oh, great, we solved gender.” This is an ongoing fight.
The thing about #MeToo in particular is it has this dual mandate. The first job is to help survivors, to try to facilitate opportunities for healing and for honesty. The opportunity to be honest about about one’s experience of sexual violence has been much more rare than the experience of sexual violence itself. So that’s the first daunting chance.
The second daunting task is to try to change norms. To try to make sure that this violence becomes less socially acceptable, less normal, less commonplace, and to try to make sure that fewer people suffer in the future. That’s all going to be difficult to measure, and it’s not going to be something that can be easily quantified, but I do think we’ve taken a big step in the right direction.
Prior to the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, there was a narrative that the #MeToo movement was starting to wind down or beginning to lack in energy. There were some comparisons to the Year of the Woman in 1992, which kind of plateaued. Then the accusations against Kavanaugh prompted this enormous burst of activity. Do you have any ideas about whether we’ll see this movement plateauing in the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, or whether it will evolve into a new phase of things?
I can’t predict the future, but I had — and I know a lot of other feminists had as well — a fear or a self-protective lowering of expectations where we thought, “This will be a moment, we will be able to effect a limited amount of positive change in this moment, and then the movie cycle will move on and the culture will move on.”
But I think that approach underestimated women’s anger in this moment, and women’s desire to no longer be powerless. There’s been a sense that women can say our own experiences all we want and it won’t change anything, and I think people are very sick of it.
I don’t think we should underestimate women’s capacities right now. I think a lot of folks are wondering what’s next after we share our stories, and how we otherwise build power to try and help survivors heal and help prevent this violence in the future. But I don’t think we can write it off as something that’s going to pass and recede into memory. I think it’s different than that this time.
In her new book Good and Mad, Rebecca Traister describes the Shitty Media Men list as “the first time [she] had experienced anything like radicalism in [her] own sphere,” which she is somewhat ambivalent about but ultimately seems to find exciting. Do you think of the list as radical, or did you when you created it?
When I created that document, I was responding to a feeling of powerlessness, a feeling that official sanctioned avenues served to discredit and further victimize survivors. It came for me from a place of frustration and powerlessness and, really, fear about how to protect myself and about how to protect my colleagues and the women around me from this kind of violence.
The spreadsheet and its tactics are something that reasonable people can disagree about. I’ve read a lot of very thoughtful good-faith feminist critiques of the document’s tactics, and I’ve done a lot of reflection on the document’s tactics myself. But I think there is a growing understanding that the ways we have to report this do not serve survivors, and often tend to re-victimize people who’ve already been through something that they shouldn’t have had to go through. So I do think people are thinking more about our reporting mechanisms and how they might be improved.
One of the persistent narratives that we keep seeing over the past year, that people use to discredit women making allegations of sexual violence, is that they are just doing it for the attention, and that being a woman who has made such an accusation in public is somehow a super-fun and profitable experience that yields both fame and fortune. I wonder if you can speak to what the past few months have been like for you after coming forward about creating the list, and perhaps clarify what that experience is actually like.
Speaking in public about sexual violence is terrifying. It is not fun. It is not personally fulfilling. It is very upsetting. It involves a lot of intense scrutiny of your own motives and behavior, and it can often be frustrating to have the focus be so much on the survivors in contrast to the focus being on the perpetrators or alleged perpetrators.
I was very frightened when I had to publicly come forward, and I experienced a lot of unpleasantness in those months after, which to varying degrees has persisted and has come back in waves. It’s not something I would wish on anyone.
So we’ve talked a little bit about the two current goals of the #MeToo movement: to help survivors and to change norms. What do you think changing norms would look like moving forward? What needs to change, and do you think it can?
That’s a big and hard question. I think a lot of people are wondering what to do with this new knowledge of the quantity of survivors’ pain, and in particular of female survivors’ pain, and this information about a lot of malice and obliviousness and predatory behavior by perpetrators. I think we need to find ways of accountability and healing that are new, because the methods of accountability that we’ve developed so far have not been productive and have not significantly altered the prevalence of this kind of violence.
I think there has to be a lot of real soul-searching and thinking about how sex education works, how we want our interpersonal relationships and work relationships to function with the most respect and mutual care that we can. And I think we have to think a lot about what we all need to learn. I’m including myself and survivors in this as well as perpetrators, and people who are trying to go about the world trying to avoid pain and avoid causing pain. I think we all need to think a lot more about the ways we’re treating others, and how we bear witness to other people’s needs.