In 2017, a viral hashtag became a worldwide movement. Though the phrase “me, too” was first used in reference to sexual violence in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, the hashtag #MeToo gained widespread attention when, on 15 October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano used it on Twitter and encouraged fellow survivors to follow suit.
Milano’s tweet was a call to arms to expose the ubiquity of sexual violence, and that call was answered more than 12 million times across various social media platforms in the first 24 hours alone. Scholars Jessica Ringrose, Kaitlynn Mendes, and Jessalynn Kellar note that #MeToo is the most high-profile example of a growing movement towards “digital feminist activism, [following] a growing trend of the public’s willingness to engage with resistance and challenges to sexism.”
Four years later, #MeToo is synonymous with the global fight against sexual violence. It was no surprise, therefore, that the movement would be explored in feminist fiction. But how is #MeToo fiction influencing the cultural conversation, and vice versa?
The Cat Person Effect
Feminist scholar Catharine R. Stimpson asks, “Does a single book change a life? Not by itself, for nothing exists in isolation. A lightning bolt needs a sky charged with electricity and a vulnerable ground.” Stories can both document social change and serve as a means of bringing about that change. Good fiction can reinforce or disrupt narratives, provide a warning, or offer new and enticing possibilities for a better society.
Gayle Green, author of Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (1991), described the feminist fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s as “so close to the pulse of the times that it is possible to use it as documentary of and commentary on the social and political scene.” Much the same could be said about more recent feminist writing and about #MeToo fiction in particular.
Academic and critic Rita Felski also explores the idea of fiction as a form of social construction and historical record. She writes in Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change that fiction “does not reveal an already given identity, but is itself involved in the construction of this self as a cultural reality.” Arguably the most influential piece of fiction associated with the #MeToo movement is Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published in the New Yorker in October 2017. The story chronicles a bad date, bad sex, and the ugly, misogynistic aftermath between college student Margot and thirty-something Robert, and has been described as the first short story to go viral.
At its heart, Cat Person is about the grey areas of consent. The story was read, shared, and discussed worldwide, with many young women expressing how relatable they found Margot and her experience. Cat Person is uncomfortable to read, forcing the reader to experience an awkward, unwanted sexual encounter up close and to acknowledge that people (particularly women) sometimes say yes because it seems less risky than saying no.
Unlike many portrayals of sexual violence in fiction, Cat Person contains no crime or clear act of violation. Instead, it embraces the ambiguities of sex, power, and the limits of virtual communication. Since the sex portrayed in the story is at least nominally consensual, in that Margot outwardly gives consent despite her discomfort and even revulsion, it raised challenging questions and sparked fierce debates about personal responsibility, consent, and whether Robert is the villain of the piece or not.
Cat Person’s viral success can be attributed to the fact that it captures, at precisely the right moment, a conversation that was at the forefront of cultural consciousness. It seems likely that, in another fifty years, stories like Cat Person will be viewed as historical social commentary in the same way as feminist fiction of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
To return for a moment to Stimpson’s memorable metaphorical question, when real-world events charge the sky and prime the ground, stories can be those lightning bolts of clarity.
Reading in the #MeToo Era
Regardless of authorial intent, any post-2017 piece of fiction that deals with sexual violence will be understood in light of the #MeToo movement. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s 2020 novel My Dark Vanessa—which tells the story of an abusive relationship between fifteen year old Vanessa Wye and her English teacher, Jacob Strane—took eighteen years to write, according to the author. In an interview with Fiona Sturges for The Guardian, Russell admitted that she was nervous about the timing of the novel’s publication and did not want to be viewed as opportunistic.
Though My Dark Vanessa does make reference to a collective social-media-based reckoning similar to #MeToo, it is clear (given the lengthy writing, revision, and development time) that Russell did not originally conceptualise the novel as a #MeToo story. But does authorial intent matter, and to what extent? I argue that it matters far less than the context into which the work is released.
A novel about sexual abuse published in 2020 can never be separated from the #MeToo movement, and any audience will receive the work in that context. Regardless of the precise timing of its writing and acceptance for publication, a novel like My Dark Vanessa will be viewed as a #MeToo story and consumed in light of that reality.Similarly, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney was released in 2018 and, according to the author, written and accepted for publication before the #MeToo movement gained traction. Even so, Zinovieff acknowledged in a 2019 interview with Eleni Papargyriou that Putney will inevitably be perceived as “part of the zeitgeist” in relation to the movement.
Where Will #MeToo Fiction Go Next?
Something of a second wave of #MeToo fiction is currently in progress. In the wake of several significant real-world events, from the sentencing of Harvey Weinstein to the murder of Sarah Everard in London, the #MeToo movement has seen a resurgence in activism and engagement across the world. It seems likely that a new generation of #MeToo fiction will follow.
Reviewing the canon of fiction about sexual violence reveals a notable trend away from futuristic, dystopian themes in the last two to three years. Instead of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale or the nightmarish isolated island of Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters (2017), many of the post-#MeToo additions to the canon bring sexual violence into everyday locations: schools, homes, campuses, bedrooms. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise explores harmful power dynamics between teenagers and adults at a performing arts school. Kate Walbert’s His Favorites tackles the abuse of a student by a teacher. Rosie Price’s What Red Was explores sexual assault alongside other contemporary concerns such as addiction, class, and family dysfunction. Even ostensibly dystopian fictions often tackle immediate and pressing real-world concerns. For example, Leni Zumas’ The Red Clocks imagines an America without legal abortion, a reality that seems to come closer each year.
#MeToo forced societies around the world to acknowledge the enormity of the sexual violence problem. It challenged the idea that violations are rare and committed only by monsters, and showed us that the “monsters” are ordinary people who walk among us. Fictions related to the #MeToo movement will likely continue to follow this same path. I believe we will continue to see more stories anchored in the real world and real (or at least realistic) experiences, as well as those that embrace ambiguity and nuance, asking difficult questions about the nature of consent and power. It is also my hope that we will hear from more diverse voices. As of now, the #MeToo movement and associated literature is disproportionately dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied women with educational and financial privilege. Though this is beginning to change, there is a long way to go before the canon is truly representative of the vast array of stories and experiences that exist. What will be the next Cat Person—the next story that captures the heart of an issue at precisely the right moment? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.