How Susan Faludi’s feminist classic predicted this moment.
I started thinking about when the backlash to Me Too would arrive almost as soon as the Me Too movement took off in 2017. Most of the writers I know who cover feminism did the same. Not because we were pessimists, but because we knew: That’s just the way it goes.
In the fall of 2017, as if out of nowhere, people en masse began to evidence a deep concern about the problem of sexual violence in America. The Me Too movement was formally founded in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, but 11 years later, all of a sudden, the public actually cared about it. It was part of that apocalyptic feeling that emerged after Donald Trump won the presidency, when suddenly every injustice in American life felt massively visible and consequential.
First the news broke that film producer Harvey Weinstein had assaulted dozens of women. Then dozens more women who had been assaulted by Weinstein came forward. Then it was woman after woman coming forward with their own stories of assault by other people, and after that, not just women but men too. Every day another story broke about another powerful man assaulting another defenseless person; every day that story was greeted with widespread shock, outrage, and horror. Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey: the stories came out one after another, and again and again the public response was, for once, not to turn away and look in the other direction.
People lost their jobs. They were arrested. There were lawsuits and federal legislation.
This state of affairs, we feminists agreed, could not possibly last. America has never been willing to spend time caring about the safety of women without making them pay for it later. The Me Too moment was going to end. Then there was going to be a backlash, and it was going to hurt.
The backlash has arrived.
In June 2022, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The decision made it possible, for the first time since 1973, for US states to outright ban abortions, with no exceptions left for survivors of rape or incest and little to no room to care for the health of people whose lives might be endangered by a pregnancy. Most abortions are now illegal in 13 states.
There are other, less seismic indicators of backlash. Three big Me Too cases that had finally made their way through the court system this year hit massive legal setbacks, with Danny Masterson’s rape case resulting in a mistrial, a jury exonerating Kevin Spacey of sexual assault, and Johnny Depp winning his defamation case against Amber Heard, who had accused him of domestic violence. Women who have found themselves in the public spotlight over the past few months, including Heard, Olivia Wilde, and Megan Thee Stallion, have been targeted by a misogynistic outpouring that’s often bizarrely inflected by the rhetoric of Me Too.
Public opinion polls show the backlash rolling on. Feminism is becoming less popular, especially with young men. According to a 2022 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 62 percent of young Republican men say feminism is a net negative for society, and 46 percent of young Democratic men agree. (Less than a quarter of young Democratic women agree with that statement.) In contrast, in 2020 a Pew study found 60 percent of men across parties agreeing that feminism was “empowering,” and only 34 percent saying it was “outdated.”
The problem of fashionable feminist activism followed by extreme backlash is a known problem for the American women’s movement. It has been ever since it was chronicled by Susan Faludi in her 1991 classic Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
Backlash was written in the aftermath of the Reaganite conservative ’80s response to the gains of the second-wave feminist movement of the ’70s. Yet Faludi makes it clear that she’s not talking about one particular moment in time. Instead, she’s looking at a particular pattern of what she describes as “flare-ups” of misogynistic attitudes and legislation across the sweep of American history, from the colonial era onward.
Importantly, the backlash is rarely the product of a grand conspiracy or concerted effort among sinister misogynists to bring women down. It’s simply a mass reaction to a mass movement. Those who enact the backlash, Faludi writes, are often unaware “of their role; some even consider themselves feminists. For the most part, its workings are encoded and internalized, diffuse and chameleonic.” But she finds the pattern of this diffuse, unplanned backlash emerging throughout American history, every time the women’s movement appears to be making gains.
The American women’s movement is generally dated to the Seneca Falls convention of 1848. In the half-century that followed, as women agitated for the vote, more than 100 states passed laws restricting divorce. In the late 19th century, for the first time in American history, it became a federal crime to distribute contraception, and most states had outlawed abortion.
Meanwhile, studies circulated warning that only 28 percent of college-educated women would ever be married. A bestselling book by a Harvard professor argued that a “brain-womb conflict” would lead educated women into an infertility epidemic. Career women were said to be succumbing to “hermaphroditism.” Teddy Roosevelt declared the white women who postponed childbirth to be “criminals against the race,” while the married women pushing for rights were creating a “crisis in the family.”
“If we trace these occurrences in American history,” Faludi writes in Backlash, “we find such flare-ups are hardly random; they have always been triggered by the perception — accurate or not — that women are making great strides.”
In 2017, women seemed to be making great strides. The backlash is here to correct for that.
The backlash has two targets: Reproductive rights and financial freedom
Faludi argues that each feminist backlash always centers on two “pressure points,” which it rapidly endangers: a woman’s control over her own fertility, and a woman’s claim to her own paycheck. That’s the case here, too.
The Dobbs decision was a wrecking ball aimed squarely at a woman’s control over her own fertility. Generations of women went to bed one night entitled to a constitutional right they were born with — a right to reproductive freedom — and woke up the next day without it. Almost immediately, story after story emerged of women facing painful, traumatic miscarriages; of a 10-year-old rape victim, forced to cross state lines to get an abortion.
As for a woman’s claim to her own paycheck: It’s worth remembering that Me Too is, at its core, a workplace safety movement. The stories that launched Me Too into public consciousness were about people (mostly women) accusing their professional superiors (mostly men) of using their professional power to facilitate sexual harassment and assault.
In a time of backlash, Faludi writes, “the culture simply redoubles its resistance [to women in the workplace], if not by returning women to the kitchen, then by making the hours spent away from their stoves as inequitable and intolerable as possible.” One of the culture’s strategies, Faludi finds, is “subjecting them to harassment.”
We’re currently in the midst of a spate of high-profile celebrity trials focusing on whether women should get to keep their money or whether they should be dependent on men who they have said behaved violently to them. Frequently, the results are not looking great for women.
This year, we’ll see a lawsuit between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie proceed, with Pitt suing Jolie over her decision to sell her share of a vineyard they used to own together. Pitt says that Jolie sold her half of the property to a hostile company after promising never to sell it, but Jolie says she tried to sell her shares to Pitt directly and he refused — unless she was willing to sign an NDA swearing she would never discuss the infamous 2016 plane ride during which Pitt allegedly assaulted both Jolie and their children. Here, Pitt is seemingly attempting to tie up Jolie’s money with her silence in the face of his own alleged violence. The gossip media is overwhelmingly supporting Pitt’s side of the story, painting Jolie as a wronged woman out for revenge.
In June, a jury found in favor of Johnny Depp in his defamation case against Amber Heard after she accused him of domestic violence. This case might not seem to fit into the pattern of the backlash separating women from their paychecks, since Depp and Heard were married, but it’s important to remember that they were also co-workers. They met when Depp cast Heard to play his love interest in The Rum Diary in 2009. Their romance began on the set where they worked together. After their divorce, Depp allegedly attempted to get Heard “blacklisted” from movie projects. Heard did not experience the beginning of her relationship with Depp as an abuse of his power, but after she left the violence of their relationship, Depp used his professional power to target her ability to earn her living.
The examples have continued to mount: Danny Masterson was accused of rape by four women, one of them a former co-worker. His December trial was deadlocked. Kevin Spacey was found not liable for battery in a civil suit brought against him by Anthony Rapp, who says Spacey molested him when Rapp was 14 and Spacey 26, after they had appeared in Broadway shows together. Megan Thee Stallion was shot by a fellow rapper after she made it clear she outranked him professionally. She found herself the subject of intense scrutiny and mockery over the course of his December trial.
Backlash covers its tracks by stealing the language of feminism
One of the oddities of our current moment is how frequently the backlash avails itself of the rhetoric the Me Too movement developed. That slippage, too, is characteristic of backlash, which Faludi used as the title of her book in reference to a 1947 film of the same name, in which a man frames his wife for the murder he committed. “The backlash against women’s rights works in much the same way,” Faludi writes: “its rhetoric charges feminists with all the crimes it perpetrates.”
Me Too and its sister Time’s Up campaigns were built around a rhetoric of justice: At last, powerful men would stop being able to get away with it, would be made to face meaningful consequences for what they had done. The backlash flips the script: At last, all these powerful people (women en masse) will stop being able to get away with it (preying on men).
The #TimesUp hashtag was created to push for systemic change in Hollywood and other industries, to call for the professional empowerment and advancement of women so that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world wouldn’t be able to abuse their own power so easily. But now, it’s become a way to call out any woman who is currently unpopular, painting the callout with a veneer of activist virtue, in what Faludi calls “a coup through euphemism.”
Now, when a famous woman is in the cultural crosshairs, she is charged with having committed some nebulous abuse of power. At various points over the past few months, social media has trended with #TimesUpOlivia (because Olivia Wilde was in a consensual relationship with Harry Styles, who was 10 years younger than her and an actor in the film she directed), #TimesUpAmber (because a tenet of faith for Depp partisans is that Amber Heard was the true abuser in their relationship), and #TimesUpMeghan (because Meghan Markle has been accused of bullying her staff).
This rhetorical reversal can also happen in more subtle ways. Last November, Ben Smith — media critic, former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, and founder of the media company Semafor — wrote a story on Junot Díaz, the novelist who was accused of sexual misconduct in 2018. In his article, Smith favors Díaz’s story while giving the impression that he is correcting an unethical bias in previous reporting. Smith suggests throughout the piece that the accusations against Díaz have been blown out of proportion, and that Díaz did not deserve to lose his professional standing so dramatically: that Díaz has, in other words, faced a miscarriage of justice. “It’s like being in prison for a crime you didn’t commit,” Smith quotes one of Díaz’s friends as saying.
Smith’s article is exemplary of backlash because of how thoroughly and invisibly it returns to a pre-Me Too understanding of how we should treat accusations of sexual misconduct. As the writer Jude Doyle has argued, Smith downplays and belittles the accusations against Díaz. He reveals with a flourish that when Díaz was accused of a “forcible kiss,” the kiss in question was only on the cheek — as though a kiss on the cheek cannot constitute sexual harassment. He treats the stories of Díaz’s accusers with extreme skepticism and the stories of Díaz and his allies with extreme credulousness. He does not engage with or outright ignores many of the public accusations against Díaz. Multiple people who spoke out against Díaz in 2018 say Smith never contacted them in reporting his story.
One of the distinctive patterns of backlash is its strategy of making false concessions. Its rhetoric will generally admit that there was at one point a problem; that at some point in the bad old days, women really did have to worry about inequality. Then the backlash posits that the problem has been solved well before it actually has been. “The anti-feminist backlash has been set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it,” says Faludi. “It is a preemptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line.”
“The reckoning brought on by the #MeToo movement, reported on by my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleagues at The Times, was long overdue and a huge net positive,” wrote New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul last May. “It took years of dogged reporting on odious cases like those of Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein to fuel the #MeToo movement, bringing necessary attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The behavior here was clearly egregious; the results were clear-cut and necessary.”
But, Paul went on: Surely Me Too had by now gone far enough? Surely it had targeted too many innocent men? “We’ve thought a lot, as a country, about what to do with the men who are guilty of sexual violence and harassment,” Paul concluded. “We’ve thought about how seriously to take such accusations and what to do with the monsters. But we still haven’t thought enough about how to handle all accusations with proportion and fairness.”
After all, she pointed out, not every accused predator is Harvey Weinstein.
The monsters at the center of the movement
In December, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape in California. He is now awaiting sentencing for that conviction, on top of the 23-year sentence he is currently serving after being convicted in New York state on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault.
Weinstein’s multiple convictions have served as a milestone of sorts for the Me Too movement: the ogre whose crimes sent the whole movement screaming into the public eye, the boogeyman next to whom everyone else’s monstrousness looks small and petty — at last, he has been brought to justice.
Weinstein is 70 years old. It is extremely likely that he will die in jail. In a culture that only speaks carceral languages when it comes to responding to crimes, surely this is what justice looks like.
The question I keep asking myself during this time of backlash is: Are Weinstein’s convictions a victory, or are they a scapegoating?
I can’t shake the sense that these convictions are a way of targeting all the movement’s anger onto one man, rather than onto the systems that let him operate with impunity, or the other men who took advantage of those systems in perhaps slightly less grotesque ways than did Weinstein. Rather than doing the difficult work of redistributing power and thinking about what a meaningful response to various forms of sexual misconduct should look like, we can simply point to Weinstein’s fate and say, “See? We fixed it. And anyway, this predator isn’t as bad as Weinstein, so what does it matter?”
Weinstein also serves as an avatar for the figure whom Me Too seems to have been, in a way, intended to punish: Donald Trump. Trump was elected despite being caught on tape apparently bragging about assaulting women, and despite more than 20 women accusing him of sexual misconduct. It is no accident that Me Too hit its peak of public outrage in the year that Trump took office; it is also no accident that public interest in the movement cooled dramatically as soon as he was out of office. Me Too was the punishment of Trump by proxy, with Weinstein playing the role of the comically villainous and far-too-powerful predator mogul.
Currently, Trump is facing a lawsuit from writer E. Jean Carroll for defamation and rape. If Carroll wins and Trump is found liable, how much will this be a victory for the movement? And how much will it be a public sacrifice for a movement the public has already dropped?
If we want real and lasting change, we have to do more than target two individual monsters and then go back to ignoring all our other problems. I don’t want to have to wait another 30 years before we get to make progress again. What will it take to break the backlash pattern once and for all?