#MeToo has changed the media landscape, but there is still much to be done

Emerging in 2017 in response to allegations of sexual assault perpetrated by Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo highlighted the potential for traditional and social media to work together to generate global interest in gender-based violence. Within 24 hours, survivors around the world had used the hashtag 12 million times. 

Eighteen months later, #MeToo is showing few signs of slowing down. Stories continue to appear in world media about sexual harassment and assault. The accused are predominantly powerful men in the entertainment industry, with musician Ryan Adams providing a recent example. 

More recently, we have seen the corporate world tapping into the potential of #MeToo to ask how men can do better to call out sexist attitudes and behaviours that condone violence against women. The one that caused the most debate was Gillette’s advertisement questioning whether this is the “best a man can be?”

The #MeToo movement has undoubtedly reverberated through our cultural and political landscape. It is hard to deny its impact.

What is less clear is whether it is changing how we discuss gender-based violence and gender equality, and whose experiences are able to be shared. This is especially so given the well-documented issues with media reporting on gender-based violence.

Mainstream media reporting on sexual violence

While sexual violence has received increased media attention in the wake of #MeToo, it is also important to interrogate how it is being talked about. Arguably, much of the #MeToo reporting reproduces problematic stereotypes and reinforces sexual violence as monstrous and removed from everyday life. 

One analysis of journalists’ reporting on Harvey Weinstein in our forthcoming book on the #MeToo movement found that the media continued to reproduce stereotypes and problematic tropes of victim-blaming. They routinely ignore relevant reporting guidelines. 

Media reporting on the divisive Aziz Ansari case has produced both problematic and heartening results.

Taking a look at Australian reporting on this case, it was clear some articles excuse pressure and coercion as simply “the reality of sex” for women. One article even stated that “relenting can often mean consenting”. This reproduces problematic understandings of sex and gender relations, in which men are naturally aggressive initiators of sex, and women the passive gatekeepers of sexual activity. 

However, some articles provided more nuanced reporting that recognised “relenting is not consent” and that:

"more commonplace circumstances of coercion … account for a decent proportion of people’s traumatic sexual experiences."

This kind of reporting helps to unpack the complexities of sexual violence. It highlights that there are also harms associated with more everyday “grey area” behaviours. 

As journalist Jane Gilmore’s “Fixed It” series that rewrites media headlines demonstrates, there is still a serious issue with the language the media use to talk about sexual violence. However, some #MeToo reporting shows a promising start in shifting discourse around sexual violence, opening up space for nuance and diversity in survivors’ experiences. 

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