Infighting will save #MeToo

There's nothing more feminist than a civil war

The 2018 Women's March in Los Angeles.
(Image credit: DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

The nasty women are at it again. Somehow Aziz Ansari's night of alleged sexual misconduct has turned into a season of bitter recriminations between feminists of different generations. "What exactly was your beef?" HLN's Ashleigh Banfield, 50, rhetorically asked Ansari's 23-year-old accuser, prompting the writer of the account, editor Katie Way, 22, to call the host "a second wave feminist has-been." Banfield responded by citing her time as a war correspondent in "Afghanistan and Iraq, Gaza, and the West Bank" and dismissively suggesting Way "Google those places."

So angry. So nasty. Is this really what feminism is "supposed" to look like?

Well, yes. This is exactly what feminism is supposed to look like: contested. Infighting is what has advanced the movement for the past century, enabling it both to transform and to survive. Three months after the high-profile takedowns of Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo may be at a turning point, but it's fights like the one unfolding now that could give it a shot at enduring.

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The impassioned and ongoing debate around the Ansari allegations revolve around whether what the actor did warranted his exposure. Caitlin Flanagan characterized the story as "3,000 words of revenge porn" at The Atlantic, and saw a generational divide between herself and the "hit squad of privileged young white women" who "destroyed a man who didn't deserve it."

Other women had a much different interpretation: "I saw someone tweet something like 'if what Aziz Ansari did was sexual assault then every woman I know has been sexually assaulted' and like yeah, actually," tweeted Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura. Others still disagreed, saying Grace's story could threaten to pale more serious accusations, like those leveled against Weinstein. Neither side seemed ready to budge on their stance.

This is a battleground as old as feminism itself. Feminism is spoken of as coming in "waves," a useful way of grouping the collective identities formed by feminists in response to the political context of their time. That context, though, is what causes friction between the groups: Certain second-wave feminists, for example, are rightly criticized for being trans-exclusionary, an impulse born out of their particular activist movement which struggled for birth control and the presentation of femininity, and against sex work and pornography, which are viewed as oppressors of women. Third-wave feminism, which built off the gains made by previous generations, embraced transfeminism, intersectionality, and sex positivity to thrust the movement forward. And many in the previous waves agree that fourth-wave feminists, the new tech-savvy digital natives, are too mean and too sensitive.

But is that really a fatal problem? Not at all.

"Arguably, the presence and strength of conflicts over what it means to be a feminist and over appropriate feminist behavior and goals signify the continued vitality of the movement," argues Nancy Whittier in her book, Feminist Generations. "A movement remains alive as long as there is struggle over its collective identity, or as long as calling oneself or one's organization 'feminist' means something."

Feminism never would have grown beyond its predominantly white, heterosexual, cis roots if it wasn't constantly being questioned and debated. As Jetta Rae writes for Ravishly: "Feminism is only effective when it is self-critical." She's right. As bitter and ugly as the fighting that erupted last week, and as unnecessary the ageism and name-calling, the passionate self-interrogation happening within the #MeToo movement is vitally important to its continued existence.

Only through disagreements can the values and goals for moving forward be realized: Is #MeToo, at its core, a movement to dethrone powerful men from the roles that give them a position to abuse women? Or is it a wider discourse on the sexual politics in America, and the balance of power in relationships as "common" as a "bad date"? Does something even need to be a legal crime for it to be condemned?

Debating those questions without insults and ugliness would be nice, of course. But fights in feminist circles are often tense and personal for the very fact that they challenge "what individuals take for granted, how they understand their own experiences, and even their sense of self," in the words of Whittier.

In a 2014 interview with The Nation about feminist infighting, Mikki Kendall rejected calls for civility as being a luxury of women who don't have quite as much to lose as others, and who fear what might become of their own standing if they rock the boat. "You're going to have to deal with anger," Kendall said. "You're going to have to deal with hurt."

After all, when the inciting incident is in the rearview mirror, it becomes brutally necessary for the movement to do as its name suggests: Move forward. Reaching any sort of universal "agreement" on what the parameters are for doing so leads to complacency and acceptance, the enemies of progress. These #MeToo skirmishes might instead be the necessary growing pains of a movement that is only beginning to show us its strength.

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