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Soon after the breakout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the MeToo movement spread like wildfire across the internet, providing an umbrella of solidarity for millions of people to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, assault, and misconduct. Tragically, this week the movement lost one of its own.

Learn about the people damaged by the #MeToo movement

Soon after the breakout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo hashtag spread like wildfire across the internet, providing an umbrella of solidarity for millions of people to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, assault, and misconduct. This ongoing public reckoning has extended well beyond Hollywood and the broader entertainment industry.

Tragically, this week the movement lost one of its own. Veteran studio executive and producer Jill Messick died by suicide aged 50 last week after battling depression for many years. Messick, the former manager of Rose McGowan, was severely affected by press accounts and the resulting online shaming that portrayed her as a kind of predatory and complicit villain.

In a statement following her death, which you can read on The Hollywood Reporter, Messick’s family said she chose to stay silent in the face of McGowan’s statements in order to avoid undermining those who did come forward for the #MeToo movement. “She opted not to add to the feeding frenzy, allowing her name and her reputation to be sullied despite having done nothing wrong”, and as a result, became a victim who highlights that, now more than ever, words matter.

As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, “Jill was victimized by our new culture of unlimited information sharing and a willingness to accept statement as fact.” The goal of #MeToo is to offer a platform for people to share their stories and raise their voices on the issues of abuse, which in turn should help victims to feel supported while assisting others to understand the breadth of the problem.

However, there’s a side effect to the movement, and this was starkly highlighted by Messick’s tragic passing. In the words of the Daily Beast, “Ironically, it’s abuse conducted in the name of fighting against abuse . . . the social-mob vitriol directed at Messick, and the unspeakably damaging psychological toll it took upon her cannot be encouraged within the #MeToo movement.”

Even previous to the shocking news about Messick, there have been several critics of the movement who argue it has become a “witch hunt”. One of these critics includes filmmaker Michael Haneke (Happy End). “This has nothing to do with the fact that every sexual assault and all violence – whether against women or men – should be condemned and punished”, he explained. “But the witch hunt should be left in the Middle Ages.”

Of course, rape and sexual assault should be punished. But in some cases the lines have been blurred, opening up questions about the differences between misconduct and an awkward sexual encounter. Take the case of Aziz Ansari, for example. Last month the Master of None star and co-creator was accused of sexual misconduct by an anonymous woman in a story from Babe which described Ansari as being sexually forceful following a date, leaving the woman feeling “victimized”.

The accusations became the subject of debate; some argued Ansari should be held accountable for his actions, while others simply said he was a bad date. In the New York Times, feminist writer Bari Weiss suggested that though Ansari “sounds as if he were aggressive and selfish and obnoxious that night”, he’s guilty of “bad sex”, not assault.

Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Jill Filipovic criticized the Ansari accusation story as “a breathless celebrity exposé”. Similar to Weiss, Filipovic also slated Babe for reporting the story in a manner that forced it “into a pre-existing movement grounded in the language of assault and illegality”.

Ansari himself said he was “surprised and concerned” when hearing that the accuser did not feel comfortable with their interaction, and the case was made all the more surprising due to Ansari’s “woke bae” public image, the creator of a show viewed as socially progressive and an ardent feminist campaigner.

The allegations against Ansari are hard to define, and it seems stories like his add another layer to the #MeToo discussion. Whether Ansari committed sexual misconduct or is simply a guy who totally misread a situation is still up for debate, but in the case of radio personality Ryan Seacrest, there’s no argument. Last week, Seacrest spoke out about being wrongly accused of sexual misconduct, an experience he called “gut-wrenching”.

In his words: “I knew, regardless of the confidence I had that there was no merit to the allegations, my name would likely soon appear on the lists of those suspected of despicable words and deeds.” Although the accusations were subsequently withdrawn, Seacrest’s case is one of the more obvious negative byproducts of the movement: those wrongly accused who suffer as a result of resultant vitriol.

The problem is not the stated aims of the #MeToo movement, but rather the issue of taking testimony published online as the honest truth: an increasing inability to decipher the difference between fact and fiction among a sea of viral stories. From Messick to Seacrest, it’s essential at a time like this to stay vigilant and avoid knee-jerk reactions.

As people collectively seek to right the wrongs repeated for generations, we must not forget that words have power. According to The Hollywood Reporter: “We must ask more of ourselves, and of each other. We must take a moment to consider the ramifications and consequences of what we say and what we do.” Intentions aside, could the mechanism of the #MeToo movement be partly to blame for the fallout of accusations run wild? Keeping a level head and staying aware may be our only salvation – but sensible reactions seem to be at a premium of late.

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