#MeToo extends beyond Hollywood
While conversations about the #MeToo movement’s impact on Hollywood have proliferated in the media for months, less attention has been paid to how the movement has affected other spaces, like academia. Take, for example, a recent controversy at Wesleyan University: The administration chose to invite Daniel Handler — a Wesleyan graduate also known as Lemony Snicket, author of the young-adult novels A Series of Unfortunate Events — to be the 2018 commencement speaker. But given the recent scrutiny the writer has faced in the young-adult fiction community’s contending with #MeToo, many took issue with this choice.
Handler, other writers have noted, is known for an off-kilter sense of humor that has often made his female colleagues feel belittled, demeaned, and uncomfortable. Though most of the discussion about his offensive jokes has taken place in the thread of a petition addressing sexual harassment policy in the YA/kidlit community, he was more publicly criticized after making a racist joke about author Jacqueline Woodson while MCing the National Book Awards. Despite these reports of concerning behavior, Wesleyan decided to invite Daniel Handler to speak to its graduates.
Shortly after Handler was invited to speak at commencement, #CancelHandler posters went up around the Wesleyan campus encouraging students to voice their discomfort and disapproval to the president as well as their class deans. A better alternative, according to many Wesleyan students, would be honorary Wesleyan degree recipient Anita Hill, who was already invited to attend this year’s ceremony. Hill, who is currently a professor of social policy, law, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, helped lay the foundation for the #MeToo movement in 1991 when she testified against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings, due to his history of workplace sexual harassment. Within a week of the protest’s start, Handler withdrew as the commencement speaker and Hill accepted the invitation to speak.
This relegation of a woman (especially a woman of color) to the sidelines in favor of a problematic man, even at a supposedly progressive institution, is emblematic of the #MeToo movement as a whole. Take the very origins of the #MeToo movement itself. The phrase “Me Too” was first used by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago as part of her work helping victims of sexual assault and abuse, particularly women of color and low-income victims. Yet, Burke’s phrase did not catch on until actress Alyssa Milano called on her Twitter followers to say “Me Too.” Only then did prominent white feminists flock to this movement. It is also no coincidence that of all the women who spoke out against Harvey Weinstein, Lupita Nyong’o was most vigorously questioned by Weinstein and his team. Women of color are incessantly questioned, doubted, and sexualized even within the context of progressive movements.
The #MeToo movement offers an important moment for us to call out not only the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment, but also how we create movements that aim to do the work of dismantling that oppression. It is imperative to include the voices of those who have historically been most marginalized, most silenced, as we try to break down the “conspiracy of silence.” It is important, therefore, that events like academic commencement are used to give platforms to women of color and other marginalized people. Having Anita Hill as the Wesleyan 2018 commencement speaker is an immense privilege. Although it is unfortunate that her invitation to speak was not Wesleyan’s initial decision, offering Anita Hill the platform to speak is a prime example of how institutions can elevate the voices of women of color.
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