Adapted from #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice by Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey and Brooke Foucault Welles. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
#YesAllWomen, #SurvivorPrivilege, #TheEmptyChair, #WhyIStayed, #MeToo—each of these hashtags highlights women’s experiences with interpersonal and institutionally enabled violence, and each was precipitated by high-profile events involving male perpetrators.
Gendered violence has been framed as an individual problem in public discourse in a multitude of ways. From questions about women’s dress and behavior to laws that eschew the possibility that wives can be raped by their husbands, U.S. culture is rife with narratives that blame victims and normalize violence against them. On social media, victim blaming can intensify. But the #YesAllWomen network and those that followed it are part of what has come to be known as “Feminist Twitter,” where misogyny is challenged online in the tradition of the early feminist press.
Ultimately, these hashtags are embodiments of the feminist demand that “the personal is political,” and illustrate how storytelling on Twitter raises consciousness, creates solidarity, promulgates new cultural narratives, and articulates demands for change. What has become known as the “#MeToo moment” was not so much a moment but a loud chorus of voices that had for years been using Twitter and other social networks to tell the stories about women’s experiences with violence that were not and had not been told in mainstream media, by politicians, or by most journalists. In these networks, unlike in most other public spaces, women told their own stories, women were believed, male allies helped elevate women’s voices, and women—experts in their own lives—added nuance to the all too often oversimplified and inaccurately reported systemic issues of gender, violence and victimhood.
Each hashtag, from #YesAllWomen to #MeToo, did different work as part of a larger movement, creating cultural interventions in response to particular news stories and events that reached the public sphere. These hashtags provided a source of discursive and collective energy that catalyzed both online and offline movement work, leading to powerful cultural repercussions—and, yes, change.
#YesAllWomen: The Building Blocks of Hashtag Solidarity
On May 23, 2014, twenty-two-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed his three roommates to death before embarking on a shooting spree near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, that left three more dead and fourteen injured. Rodger exchanged gunfire with police before fatally shooting himself. It was later discovered that Rodger had created YouTube videos and a written manifesto explaining the impetus for his violence, citing a desire to retaliate against women who would not date him.
Using the hashtag #NotAllMen created by Twitter user @sassycrass a year earlier, feminists mocked this recurrent practice of men’s desire to distance themselves from misogynistic violence. On May 24, 2014, user @gildedspine started the hashtag #YesAllWomen to decry this distancing practice by men and to highlight women’s shared experiences of sexism and misogyny. Within four days, #YesAllWomen had been tweeted more than a million times. At its peak, #YesAllWomen resulted in more than 60,000 tweets an hour.
Though most popular in the United States and the UK, #YesAllWomen also trended in Pakistan and Iran, often appearing alongside its instigating hashtag, #NotAllMen, and political and cultural hashtags associated with women’s issues, such as #RapeCulture and #Feminism. #YesAllWomen spoke to a global experience of patriarchal hegemony, rape culture, and misogyny. The network provided a place for women to candidly discuss the harassment they experienced and find solidarity in other stories like their own. In illustrating the widespread nature of patriarchal and misogynistic thinking, #YesAllWomen documented the impact of gendered violence, demanded that defensive men sit and listen, and created rhetorical kinship among women.
#SurvivorPrivilege: Considering Lasting Consequences
On June 6, 2014, conservative commentator George Will wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post suggesting that the way university administrators respond to sexual violence on campus “make[s] victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges” and makes “victims proliferate.” Will’s arguments were painfully out of touch with data showing not only that sexual assault is underreported on college campuses but also that survivors face the most lasting consequences of often poorly written and poorly implemented university student conduct policies. In response, campus anti-rape activist Wagatwe Wanjunki tweeted, “The #SurvivorPrivilege of being too scared to leave my dorm room for fear of running into my perp.”
#SurvivorPrivilege trended less than a month after #YesAllWomen, starting on June 9, 2014, and remaining popular for several days, eventually appearing in more than 20,000 tweets in following week. Users explained how their sexual assaults affected their grades, mental health, relationships, and professional successes and finances.
#SurvivorPrivilege is an example of the thoughtful media criticism that arises from digital counter-publics. This media criticism specifically critiques rape-apology and victim-blaming narratives that construct survivors, and specifically women survivors, as diabolical schemers who reap social reward for accusing men of predatory behaviors. Together, the contributions to the hashtag made demands that women survivors be heard and that the severity of personal consequences faced by victims of violence be acknowledged.
#WhyIStayed: Expanding Victimhood
Following the September 8, 2014, release of video footage of Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice’s violent attack on his fiancée and later wife, Janay Palmer, in a casino elevator, news media outlets engaged in egregious displays of victim blaming. Hosts on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” argued that Palmer set a bad example to other women by following through on the marriage and staying with Rice through all his legal trouble. In a discussion of this newsclip with fellow survivors, Twitter user Beverly Gooden wrote, “I stayed because I thought it would get better. It never got any better. #WhyIStayed.”
Her tweet and the hashtag were amplified; #WhyIStayed appeared more than 100,000 times beginning on September 8, 2014. #WhyIStayed allowed users to share their reasons for staying in abusive relationships by illustrating the coercive language and behaviors their partners used against them and, like other hashtags examined here, created a community around an experience of violence that might otherwise lead to isolation and shame. #WhyIStayed addressed the cultural prevalence of victim-blaming narratives and the work such narratives do to absolve men in particular of their responsibility to end violence. #WhyIStayed also served as a form of public education as it outlined the manipulative behavior of abusers, as well as the difficulty women in abusive relationships face trying to avoid and escape such situations.
Together, #WhyIStayed messages demanded the public hear the stories of survivors of intimate partner violence and worked discursively through storytelling and data sharing to expand definitions of legitimate victimhood that have long excluded women who experience abuse in the private sphere.
#TheEmptyChair: The Scale of Violence
On July 27, 2015, New York Magazine ran a cover story that featured an image of thirty-five of comedian Bill Cosby’s sexual assault and rape accusers who had come forward in the press to detail his decades-spanning predatory behavior. The powerful image shows the thirty-five women in the same position and the same chair looking out from the cover as if looking directly at the reader. Cover story authors Ella Ceron and Lainna Fader wrote that the empty chair at the end of the last row of women “signified the 11 other women who have accused Cosby of assault, but weren’t photographed for the magazine. But it also represents the countless other women who have been sexually assaulted but have been unable or unwilling to come forward.” The cover was so compelling that New York Magazine’s website crashed because of the overwhelming number of people accessing it.
Activist Bree Newsome and other Twitter users noted the visual power of the empty chair in the cover photo, and comedian and journalist Elon James White started the hashtag #TheEmptyChair by retweeting the cover image with the hashtag and the hashtag #BillCosby. Up to that point, the tweet had received only 321 retweets and 168 likes—but what White did next, as an ally, received far more attention.
After receiving a direct message from a rape survivor that read, “I can’t share my empty chair story bc I signed an NDA. needed the money more than justice, and he knew it #TheEmptyChair,” White agreed to share the tweet anonymously. His public tweet of this direct message launched a wave of others, leading White to open his Twitter inbox so that anyone could message him privately and he would post their story anonymously using his own Twitter handle. His tweets prompted the rapid proliferation of #TheEmptyChair, resulting in more than 40,000 tweets total.
#TheEmptyChair worked primarily to show the scale of sexual violence and the scale at which survivors are silenced. The discourse attached to this hashtag offered important nuance, noting that in light of how survivors are treated by the media, the legal system, and people affiliated with those who perpetrate violence against them, it is wholly understandable that they fear retribution and revictimization in the public sphere.
MeToo: The Tipping Point of Visibility
Sexual assault activist Tarana Burke started Me Too in 2007 to provide women and girls the opportunity to connect with other survivors. Through her nonprofit Just Be Inc., Burke has long created opportunities for women to share their stories of survival and access the support they need. However, her work was almost erased with the adoption of #MeToo in hashtag form by actress Alyssa Milano.
On October 15, 2017, Milano responded to the growing discourse about sexual violence in Hollywood initially sparked by actresses coming forward about producer Harvey Weinstein’s serial predatory behavior. Milano tweeted “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Milano’s tweet now has more than 50,000 likes.
Both #TheEmptyChair and #MeToo illustrate the power of cross-identity solidarities as White continues to use his platform to share the voices of women survivors and Milano quickly sought to align with Burke in orchestrating the next moves for #MeToo. After an immense amount of press around #MeToo, thanks to the high-profile identities of many of the actresses who came forward with stories about Weinstein, Burke and other longtime women of color activists partnered with Hollywood actresses and started a new campaign using the hashtag #TimesUp, putting men and other perpetrators on notice that time was up for them to keep getting away with their abusive behaviors. At the January 2018 75th Golden Globe Awards, A-list actresses invited Burke and fellow women’s rights activists onto the red carpet, where they donned all Black and spoke out about the need for significant changes not only in the entertainment industry but among all industries in which women are sexually exploited under the guise of naturalized labor conditions.
The primary frame of #MeToo is one of solidarity and an insistence that stories about the personal are systemic and political. In their #MeToo stories, women speak to mainstream media, to patriarchal establishments, and directly to one another as a form of community building that works to alleviate the risk and fear associated with coming forward that #TheEmptyChair so eloquently illustrated.