#MeToo. A simple hashtag that tore through Hollywood and quickly captured the attention of the globe in 2017 was actually born in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Selma, Alabama. The driver of this movement is Tarana Burke. Burke is an activist from The Bronx, New York who was assaulted for the first time when she was just six years old and has been working at the intersection of gender equality and racial justice for almost three decades. In her works, she is driven by her persistent desire to de-stigmatize the shame that survivors often feel aboutsexual assaultand violence.
As a survivor herself, Burke preaches her ideology of “empowerment through empathy.” She firmly believes that this theory counters the cruelty of sexual violence and alters the way the world thinks and discusses this, previously taboo, topic of rape. Burke has admitted that her inspiration to use the phrase, “me too” came from her inability to respond to a thirteen-year-old girl who had confided in Burke that she had been sexually assaulted. Burke, who was paralyzed with poignancy in the moment, later wished she had simply uttered the words, “me too.”
The#MeToomovement initially emerged in2006on the Myspace social network platform to promote acceptance among women who had experienced sexual abuse, so what took so long for it to become apart of circadian conversation? Like most movements, it had to be something grander than “just” a rape allegation (gosh, can you even believe the way that sounds aloud) against, for lack of a better word, a “nobody” in the eyes of the community. To truly jumpstart this movement, someone big had to be exposed, and furthermore, someone even bigger had to accuse him. Who would this figure be?
Harvey Weinstein.You know the name, and you know it well. You have seen it in the credits of some of your favorite Hollywood films, and now you have seen it bolded across international news channels accompanied with a headline about sexual violence. In early October 2017, this revered, critically acclaimed Hollywood producer was exposed by the New York Times for “paying off sexual harassment accusers for decades” (Kantor). “Decades.” It literally took decades for an allegation against this vindictive man to even be considered viable. If it was swept under the rug for so long, whatnowwas the driving force to streamline this truth to every computer, phone, television screen across the world?
Salma Hayek. Another name that I am sure you know and have regularly seen as the spritely Latina woman in Oscar award-winning films. Hayek came forward admitting that she had refused his sexual advances a plethora of times, and he retaliated by saying to her, “I will kill you, don’t think I can’t.” This harassment was not experienced by Hayek alone, as over eighty new victims came forward with similar accounts against Weinstein since her initial statement. It took the courage of just onesurvivorcoming forward to unleash the power of these other strong women.
The incriminating allegations made against the, once popular, producer sparked a fire under the fellow producer, actress, and activist, Alyssa Milano. Milano felt that the hashtag “me too” would be an “amazing way to get some idea of the magnitude of how big this problem is…and to get the focus off these horrible men and to put the focus back on the victims and survivors.” Following in the footsteps of one of her biggest influences, Milano posted asimple tweet“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” to her surprise, this sentence transformed into a movement that swept the globe in just forty-five quick days. And now, eleven years later, Burke was called to action.
Pulling the focus away from the accused, Burke fixated on the survivors. She emphasized the necessity for “survivor-centered, survivor-led solutions.” Burke’s considerable candor towards this risqué topic was refreshing in the saddened eyes of Hollywood’s elite. Utilizing her, now expanded, platform, she also accentuated that healing is not a one-stop-shop, but rather a journey that requires time, patience, and understanding. This ideology brought a sense of community to survivors that once felt the need to remain silent and harbor the traumatic shame of their assaults in isolation. She unified those who had been feeling alone. And she unified them on a global scale.
Fast Forward to September 2018. Judge BrettKavanaugh, President Trump’s pick for Supreme Court Justice, took the stand after being accused of sexual assault by Professor Christine Blasey Ford. Tarana Burke was a member of the public gallery during the hearing in Washington, D.C. She noted the lack of empathy and understanding for Ford in the courtroom, specifically from the other women in attendance. In 2017, this was not the case, so what had people forgotten over the last year that caused them to lose all sense of empathy and understanding towards survivors? Again, Burke was called to action.
This time around, Burke used her own story to evoke emotion amongst those who were seemingly not recognizing the gravity of the situation. During the brief recess, Ford went to the bathroom to gather her emotions and prepare for the next part of the hearing. While she was wiping away hardened tears, the woman washing her hands beside her recognized Burke and questioned Ford as to why she was failing to provide every detail from her sordid experience in her testimony. Despite her own feeling that a survivor does not need to share their specific stories, Burke was so jarred by this comment that she said, “I’m 45 and I was first molested when I was six years old. So that means for the last 39 years, I have been carrying this. Everyone knows I have a terrible memory, it took me years to figure out why I have this terrible memory. I have spent every day for the last 39 years trying to forget” (Brené Brown on Being Heard and Seen Podcast).
Survivors understandably do not want to relive every vile detail and memory from their trauma. Years of therapy, self-help techniques, and mental exercises are employed to do just the opposite: to learn how to move forward. Imagine having every memory, every detail from your worst experience constantly running through your mind every day and occupying your entire headspace. I cannot speak for you but, to me, that sounds horrific.
With statistics like, “Every seventy-three seconds, an American is sexually assaulted,” (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) how can we, as a nation, be okay with our current standings on sexual violence? For the sake of the women who have been broken by sexual abuse and then further broken by the justice system, a change needs to be made. Burke recognized that need and filled that void for survivors.
In conjunction with Stephen Mack’s ideas, Tarana Burke epitomizes a public intellectual by uncovering “implicit orientations and world views that, in turn, affect public decisions and actions” (Mack, The Supposed Decline of the Public Intellectual). Burke invented an entire movement that altered the way survivors discuss their experiences. She streamlined support for a community that was in dire need of help and attention. Burke changed the world for the better by having the uncomfortable, muddy conversations that were so commonly ignored by the general public.
Now that Burke’s movement has exposed the nation to its extreme scale ofsexual violence, we have a firm grasp on what is happening behind closed doors to both men and women. We now realize that there must be something done to remedy this problem. Vital discussions onsexual violencein the mainstream media have been, and are continuing, to be conducted. Let us, as a nation, catalyze a global change and disrupt this repulsive system that encourages women to remain silent and allows for assaulters to go completely unpunished. As more survivors are encouraged to and feel comfortable to share their stories, far fewer aggressors are empowered by the secrecy of their criminal behavior. The most beautiful part of this movement is that you do not even have to tell your story to make a difference, you just have to simply say, “me too;” Burke has done the rest.
The true impact of this movement lies in its ability to unite victims with one another to jumpstart the healing process. When a young woman wakes up in a hospital bed the morning after her first night out in college and hears the words “you have been raped,” she will not feel alone and that is all thanks to Tarana Burke’s steadfast commitment to survivors. This young woman will know there is a network of support waiting to hear her story and working to bring her perpetrator to justice. At least I know I did.