Mona Lilja | 18 March 2019
The #MeToo movement could be seen as a transnational movement against sexual harassment. Starting in the U.S., it spread virally across the world during 2017. The movement is an interesting example of how new discourses can move between countries by the force of repetitions. The movement is to be seen as resistance, which reveals inequalities, produces new narratives and breaks silences. Michel Foucault addresses “silences” as the prohibition of certain ideas. By embracing the “true”, “sane” and “non-dangerous”, other knowledge is excluded and brought to silence (Foucault 1990).
Power in some of Foucault’s texts operates through discourses, which are produced and exercised through a net-like organization. The #MeToo movement, interestingly, shows how not only power, but also resistance can be transmitted in a “net-like” mode that involves signs, and the recognition of signs, as well as different emotions (intensities). It is resistance that circulates and mobilizes others to bear witness. As described in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in 2017: “The (#MeToo) movement is now sweeping through Swedish social media. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, women actors, journalists, artists, and private individuals testify about sexual abuses and harassment at their workplaces”. These kinds of repetitions of similar narratives in different venues can be understood through Foucault, who depicts discursive resistance as a “multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies” (Foucault 1990: 100). Foucault also points to resistance as appearing in an irregular fashion with varying densities, which spread over time and space. This kind of resistance is described as always existing in relation to power, but not as always doomed to be subjugated. Thus, Foucault opens up for discursive resistance, such as the #MeToo movement, to have major impacts and transform societies.
In Sweden, the #MeToo movement significantly affected the society for a period of time and is still impacting on policy work as well as on contemporary discourses of gender. In other countries, among them Japan, the movement had less bearing on the local context. In Japan, the journalist, Shiori Ito, came to represent the whole #MeToo movement. The limited effect of the movement has been explained by Liv Coleman, a Japan expert and associate professor of political science and international studies at the University of Tampa, who argued that the #MeToo movement in Japan has been met with disapproval: “when high-profile [alleged] victims such as Ito have come forward with allegations, they have received a lot of criticism … This deters other women from bringing forth allegations of sexual harassment and assault”.
The #MeToo movement moved transnationally to a Swedish as well as to the Japanese context, which is probably the reason why the movement has been embraced differently in different countries. In order for its narratives of sexual abuse to make sense in new settings, there must be some discursive preparedness. The message of the movement must be recognized and became intelligible in the new context (Butler, 2004; Martinsson and Lilja 2018). Thus, one precondition for recognition of a political question, and the success in mobilizing that question is a certain discursive preparedness. To be able to discursively anchor the narrative of abuse, similar narratives must already have been advanced and influenced the dominant discourses. In this sense, the #MeToo movement could be understood as being a result of feminist discursive power as well as of female subordination (Carlsson 2009: Lilja and Johansson 2018). In Sweden, in a context of discursive preparedness, the #MeToo movement as a form of resistance became productive of new—but still comprehensible and discursively anchored—narratives and new “truths” about men, masculinity, and gender, thus challenged previous truths and cultures of silence.
Butler, J. (2004) Undoing gender. London and New York, NY: Routledge.
Carlsson, N. (2009) Avslöjandets tid. Kvinnors bearbetning av sexualla övergrepp [Times of revelation. Women’s processing of sexual abuse]. Gothenburg: Gothenburg University.
Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality, Vol. 1: An introduction. New York, NY: Vintage.
Lilja, M., & Martinsson, L. (2018). Cultural artefacts as nodes for power, resistance and emerging com- munities of belonging. Journal of Resistance Studies.
Lilja, Mona and Evelina Johansson (2018) ‘Feminism as Power and Resistance: An Inquiry into Different Forms of Swedish Feminist Resistance and Anti-Genderist Reactions’, Social Inclusion.
Mona Lilja currently serves as a professor in Peace and Development Research at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Lilja’s area of interest is the linkages between resistance and social change as well as the particularities—the character and emergence—of various forms of resistance.