Amid the glut of retrospectives on the five-year anniversary of #MeToo, the where-are-they-now rundowns of accused men and movement icons alike, a sense emerges that the #MeToo movement itself has finally transformed from a cause du jour to grist for the cultural mill. What it gives us now isn't news but narratives: the Pulitzer-winning reporting, the bestselling books based on the prize-winning reporting, the movies based on the books.
The release this month of She Said, a dramatized retelling of how New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor exposed Harvey Weinstein for the predator he is, has a celebratory feel to it, a satisfied look back by the movement's documentarians at a job well done. It's also impossible not to notice the film's end-of-year release date, always a sign of a hopeful contender for the Academy Awards.
But there are loose ends still to be tied. And on this front, the remarkable reporting on Junot Diaz published late last month by Ben Smith of Semafor stands out, revealing not just the movement's far-reaching impact but its limitations and unintended consequences. Diaz was never the movement's greatest monster, his cancellation never one of its biggest victories. But the story of what happened to him has a "now it can be told" feeling about it, even as some angry commentators continue to insist it should not, and can never, be told.
It all seemed righteous enough at the time, when the movement was at the height of its momentum and any allegedly bad man could not be defenestrated quickly enough: Diaz, a Pulitzer-winning novelist and one of the most celebrated writers in the contemporary American canon, was accused of one "forcible kiss" and two misogynistic tirades, all of which was immediately shorthanded per #MeToo best practices to the nefarious-sounding "pattern of predatory behavior."
His swift departure from the literary public sphere seemed like confirmation that a predator was what he was, although if you had been paying close attention, you might have noticed that he held onto his job at MIT even as literary activists on Twitter eagerly announced the removal of his books from their shelves and their classroom syllabi.
The incompleteness of Diaz's ruination was the first sign of the truth that Smith's reporting would reveal: an independent investigation found that the charges against him ran from unsubstantiated to outright false. An audio recording of one of the so-called tirades revealed it to have been, at best, mild disagreement; people present for the other one said they didn't remember it happening the way the accuser said. And the forcible kiss? A peck on the cheek.
If some of those who celebrated Diaz's ostracization from public life felt chagrined to learn that they'd been misled, it was not readily apparent in the response to the piece. "I hope the sexual harasser is at least paying you for the nice PR," read one representative reply on Twitter.
It's fair, though, to ask how much said so-called P.R. will be worth for a man whose innocence of the charges against him has been a knowable fact for years, yet has done nothing to restore his reputation. The fact that Diaz didn't sexually harass anyone, that an independent investigative body spent months determining that he didn't, doesn't matter. He is, per the narrative, a harasser.
As much as the #MeToo movement revealed about the true and terrible nature of men, it also revealed something about women. Their courage and resilience in the face of oppression, certainly, but also their opportunism, their skill at turning interpersonal conflict into a clout-seeking exercise. The prospect of litigating every disappointing encounter, every heartbreak or act of disrespect, in a trial by internet, quickly resulted in the stunning spectacle of women voluntarily surrendering every last shred of their sexual agency for the promise of seeing some jerk get his.
There was the woman who had what could be most accurately described as a bad date with Aziz Ansari: In addition to Ansari's sexual overzealousness, much was made of the fact that she was served white wine, when she prefers red. There was the one who equated rape with her boyfriend's insistence that she wear a certain style of eye makeup. There were the Diaz accusers: the one who described a heated dinner party conversation as "verbal sexual assault," the one who described herself as "a wide-eyed 26-year-old" when the author "cornered" her and kissed her cheek.
And while the #MeToo narrative tells us that men are monsters, it's less sure what to make of women. Are they the competent professionals of She Said? The tragic victims of The Hunting Ground? The broken but badass revenge-seekers of Promising Young Woman, using feminine wiles to dish up a well-deserved comeuppance?
Or maybe they're best represented by the reluctant hero of the horror film Barbarian, one of the most interesting cultural properties to be born out of the miasma of #MeToo—and, sad to say, a far better-made and more watchable film than She Said. There are many different kinds of monsters in this story, but also an unusual sort of hero: the final girl, Tess, whose fatal flaw is that she's just too good, too nice, too willing to believe in the inherent goodness of people. We know, though she doesn't, that a sleazy Weinstein-esque character played by Justin Long is an irredeemable baddie: Asked by a friend what really happened between him and a woman who accused him of rape, he equivocates: "She took a little convincing." The fact that Tess tries to save this man's life is to her credit, but from a #MeToo perspective, it makes her a useful idiot for the enemy: it is her decency standing in the way of the narrative's satisfaction, preventing this monster from getting what he deserves—what he really deserves.
In real life, of course, there's no danger of this. With the exception of Bill Cosby, who was convicted but released due to prosecutorial overreach, the worst of the #MeToo monsters have not been spared. Some, like Weinstein, will deservedly die in prison. Others have been so thoroughly toppled that they'll never again hold a position of power that they can abuse.
And yet, looking back over the lists of canceled men, it's striking how few cases rise to the level of a Weinstein, how few of them even come close. The net cast by the movement ultimately caught far more men like Diaz: guys who weren't formidable serial predators but ordinary jerks, possessed of just enough name recognition to make it worth something to target them, but so little power that knocking them down took hardly any effort at all. Men whose behavior would have been written off as merely annoying or tacky or impolite, if not for the heady influence of a moment in which it was not just easy but a little bit fun to cast these moments as representative of systemic injustice, of the trauma inflicted on women for centuries by the careless, callous patriarchy.
There was, for a time, an almost party-like atmosphere surrounding the emergence of each new allegation, the humiliation of each accused man. One recent #MeToo retrospective in New York about the "Shitty Media Men list," a crowdsourced Google spreadsheet gathering allegations of everything from rape and violent assault to creepy DMs and awkward lunch invitations, offered up a remarkable quote from one of the women involved in making it: "It was the most fun thing I've ever done in my life."
It's rare to see anyone say so quite so out in the open, but this is the thing: It was fun. It's a feature, not a bug, that most #MeTooings became such public spectacles, fueled by an energy that less resembled the grueling work of activism than it did the malicious glee of a bunch of high school kids scribbling in a burn book.
Five years after the movement's inception, we don't want to look too closely at that part. Better to self-mythologize with prestige dramas about intrepid journalists, thrillers about victims getting revenge, even horror that affirms the need to be maximally merciless to the monsters among us—and to criticize in the most punishing terms anyone who dares suggest that maybe, in the excitement of seeing bad men knocked down like dominoes, we became a bit monstrous ourselves.