by Pankhuri Prasad
The years since 2012 have broadly been classified under fourth-wave feminism. Brave individuals have battled against systematic sexism through multiple avenues; most recently, the work of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners Dennis Mukwege and Nadia Murad stands as a powerful example of individuals striving to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. In many countries, the feminist movement has heavily utilized technology and social media to fight for gender equality. Specifically, the #MeToo movement has been the most publicly acknowledged feminist campaign in the last year. Differences in perception of the movement in various countries provide important insight into the cultural distinctions that define each country’s views on feminist issues.
In particular, France’s wary reception of #MeToo stands out compared to the widespread support the movement received in the United States. This stems from French views on sexuality, suggesting that greater consideration of intersectionality is necessary when considering the cultural nuances that complicate a global social movement.
Is it a Global Movement?
The #MeToo movement was launched by the “#MeToo” hashtag, which spread virally on social media in October 2017. People who have been victimized by sexual violence used the hashtag to share their stories, revealing the extent of sexual assault and harassment faced by women everywhere, especially in the workplace. The hashtag went viral and was adopted by many celebrities soon after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Harvey Weinstein, a famous American film producer. Later that year, TIME magazine named ‘The Silence Breakers’ collectively as their “2017 Person of the Year”, honoring not one individual but all of the people involved with the rise of the #MeToo movement.
#MeToo resonated with individuals around the world, with many translating the movement into their own languages. An article in the Washington Post describes the scope of the movement: “From Stockholm to Seoul, from Toronto to Tokyo, a torrent of accusations has poured forth. Survivors spoke out, and many were taken seriously. Powerful men lost their jobs. A few went to prison. How diverse societies — some liberal, others conservative — saw sexual harassment seemed to be changing.” As the movement spread across the world, it raised new questions on how different cultures view sexual harassment and what kind of challenges may arise when trying to spur a change across different societies.
The “#MeToo” Movement in France
The French counterpart to the #Me Too movement is known as “#BalanceTonPorc”, which loosely translates to “Rat Out Your Pig.” First started by journalist Sandra Muller, #BalanceTonPorc resulted in thousands of French women speaking out on social media. However, unlike in the United States, the movement faced a backlash from the same demographic that had championed it in America. One hundred prominent French women ranging from artists to intellectuals, including famous French actress Catherine Deneuve, signed a highly publicized open letter denouncing the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movements. They defended what they called a “right to pester” and explained that “Trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not a crime”. The letter argued that the movement had gone too far: seduction was an inherent part of French culture and the movement was too moralizing, threatening to curb the sexual freedom that people enjoyed in France.
With the letter facing criticism from many inside and outside France, Deneuve apologized to victims of sexual harassment and distanced herself from the incident. Regardless, the letter provides an important perspective on the role of cultural differences in global movements. France has historically valued artistic freedom and prided itself on its lack of censorship in art. As a result, movements such as #MeToo face a challenge in adapting to a culture which fears cultural purging for accommodation of political overcorrection and fights censorship while still striving towards building a safer environment for women. Many in France were quick to reject the movement as an American import, while many in the United States called the letter a reflection of French internalized misogyny. Americans failed to recognize French concerns that the massive power of the movement, stemming from its popularity and size, could result in a censorship of the artistic, sexual and even ideological freedoms earlier generations have fought hard to achieve. Their anxiety stems from a past where a woman exerting her own sexual agency and depicting that in cinema, art and other forms of culture, were considered brave acts in defiance of existing patriarchal taboos. It seems people on both sides are ultimately trying to protect the same thing—an individual’s agency to make his or her own decisions. However, the letter’s argument is put forth in a problematic manner, potentially allowing harassers to present themselves as victims of misconstrued advances and entrenching the idea that a “certain” level of harassment is normal and should be accepted. The letter has highlighted a fundamental debate within feminism-sexuality as a source of power versus a source of oppression. France must not let traditional views on the nature of courtship and social interactions such as flirtation restrict it from participating in the new, albeit difficult, conversation on sexual harassment.
The challenge that the #MeToo movement has encountered in France–cultural criticism and religious stereotyping–amplifies the need for intersectionality in not only France’s feminist movement but in feminist movements across the world. Intersectionality refers to interconnected ways in which different social categorizations-in this case class, race and gender-apply to a group (or individual), aggravating overlapping and interdependent features of sexism. In analyzing the Deneuve letter, there is a need to remember that the ultimate goal of the #MeToo movement is to empower people. If the movement starts restricting the freedoms of others, then it must be restructured. Cultural differences like those demonstrated by France’s reception of #MeToo must ]be an essential consideration in feminism. Similarly, those supporting the letter must not forget that many individuals sharing their stores as part of #BalanceTonPorc are on the lower end of an established social hierarchy. They are often intimidated into remaining silent in the face of abuse. Therefore, publicly defending the “right to pester” only emboldens harassers who would like to use the “seduction” argument to defend themselves in situations where their actions could be considered harassment. Therefore, the social element of privilege has to be accounted for when considering any argument regarding feminism. Intersectionality is not only relevant to French feminism but across all feminist movements. If a movement seeks to be truly global, it must cease to be purely American and become a more inclusive platform. More efforts are needed to combat systemic sexism; ensuring global movements account for cultural differences and resonate with those of all backgrounds is an important step in that direction.