Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement, says that Johnny Depp's court victory over Amber Heard will not deter the progress of the movement. I am quite surprised by Burke's comments given her personal knowledge that the movement has come to represent something very different from what she intended in the first place.
The emergence of allegations in 2017 against Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood's most powerful producers, gave rise to innumerable stories from both famous and unknown women of sexual assault and exploitation. The Weinstein scandal has been credited with the birth of the #metoo movement. On the face of it, this movement has been a good thing. It has liberated countless women who for many years were unable to free themselves from the secret shame of assault. But sadly, not everyone has benefited from this liberation. The most high profile victims of #metoo have been Caucasian mostly wealthy, famous women; there has been little (if any) representation of ethnic women of lower socioeconomic status featured in the movement. And this is particularly shocking given the fact the #metoo hashtag and campaign was actually launched as far back as 2006 by Burke (pictured), an African-American social activist.
Burke's work in supporting black girls victimised by sexual violence dates back to the early 2000s. As these young girls opened up to her about what they endured, she found herself being reminded of her own experiences with sexual assault. Over time, she realised that she was most effective in her interactions with them by sharing that she, too, had also been a victim, hence the phrase 'Me, too.' From this, Burke developed a movement to build awareness about sexual violence against girls and women in ethnic communities. And whilst she successfully developed solidarity amongst those she worked with, her work was not internationally-recognised. It wasn't even acknowledged nationally. Because the experiences of black and ethnic women are not, and have never been, deemed as important as their Caucasian counterparts. This reality has been highlighted by many others and has been poignantly illustrated in the searing award-winning documentary 'I Am Evidence', released in April 2017.
'I Am Evidence' sheds an unflinching light on the epidemic of untested rape kits dumped in abandoned storage facilities across America. Rape kits contain key DNA evidence taken from victims' bodies when they attend hospital or the police department to report a rape. Why where these kits untested? Because in many instances, the victims who reported the crime were not deemed credible by the police officer recording the report. It cannot be ignored that while some of the women featured in the documentary were white, the majority of victims who weren't considered credible where disturbingly and without coincidence women of colour. Subsequently, the police department would decide that their cases were not worth the attention or resources to be followed through. And so, these women sat, for years, silenced and without justice. When Kym Worthy, African-American county prosecutor of Wayne County, Michigan became aware of over 10,000 untested kits in her state, she began a campaign to have them tested and pushed for the testing of kits across the United States. In doing so, they have begun to identify serial rapists across the country and to obtain justice for victims which should have received it years before. There should have been an international outcry about this. There should have at least been a national one. There wasn't either. When Mariska Hartigay, white American famed actress from 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit', courageously produced the 'I Am Evidence' documentary, international attention was brought to the issue. But before she spoke, it didn't matter.
One of the complexities of the #metoo movement is the issue of sexuality and choice. While contemporary actresses have largely chosen to ignore or decry this aspect of the discussion, some actresses of yesteryear have openly admitted that it has always been the norm for women to use their sexuality to propel their careers, not just onscreen but intimately with directors and producers. For many, this has blurred the lines between female sexual liberation and exploitation, causing older actresses to denounce the #metoo movement as hypocritical. But for the purposes of this blog, the real issue is of socioeconomic advantage.
Many of the women who interacted with Weinstein came from good socioeconomic backgrounds and had a variety of career options readily available to them. Entering Hollywood was a choice and for some that involved willingly using their sexuality to promote themselves even if just onscreen. This fact, by absolutely no means, entitled Weinstein and predators like him to rape and assault women, especially those who wanted to succeed purely on the basis of talent. However, we must question why the voices of advantaged women (in an environment where sexuality for promotion is a regular choice) are valued more than the voices of socioeconomically disadvantaged women of colour (often with little status or economic recourse), who are sexually exploited regularly in silence. The #metoo movement was originally launched to amplify these voices. But it has not.
It is for all of the above reasons that I think Burke is misguided. How can #metoo be 'very much alive' when it has never fulfilled its original purpose in the first place? When we think of the Depp v Heard trial, we only think of #metoo in relation to those who look like Heard; we don't consider the women that the movement was created to represent. It therefore makes no sense to me for Burke to insist that her movement is alive when, in fact, it has never achieved awareness in the public consciousness for the reasons originally intended.
In the current discussion of Depp v Heard, Burke can only be right with respect to what the #metoo movement has become, not what it originally was. It is true that people like Heard - white and famous - will always be more likely to capture attention on a high profile stage when making sexual allegations. In that respect, yes, #metoo is likely to continue despite Heard's shameful misrepresentation of victimhood. But while I will always admire Burke for launching the movement on behalf of the unseen and unheard, I am disappointed that she has - seemingly without resistance -allowed the forces of privilege and racism to redefine her movement. The original voices of #metoo are still going unnoticed. And so in this respect, I say that #metoo has been dead for a while.