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Color. Celebrity. Clout.

The Privilege of Media Representation: Social Opacity in an

Age of #MeToo

Written as an academic field review paper for a Cambridge course.

[ Note: There are images involved with this paper, for the full essay please see here on Academia.edu ]

In 1988, Peggy Mcintosh highlighted the socio-economical advantages persons with ‘white privilege’ held within society by identifying that although white women do not benefit from ‘male privilege’ as do white men, white women do enjoy a substantial degree of societal privilege due to an existing racial hierarchy. By indicating that “whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege,” Mcintosh extends the conversation of racial privilege into a concept that sheds light on the societal institutions in place that are both invisibly present as well as visibly enjoyed by those favored within the system (1988, p. 30). In other words, as a white woman herself, Mcintosh realized that she “was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, [but] never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth” (1988, p. 35). This racial privilege is a foundational factor that when structured into an established social apparatus, can be converted into socio-economic capital. Mcintosh proceeds to list everyday privileges that she experiences within society based on both self-identifying, as well as being identified by others, as a white female. From physical mobility such as being “pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which [she] can [both] afford and in which [she] would want to live” to tangible media representation in which she “can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of [her] race widely represented” (1988, pp. 31-32). Mcintosh's latter example of white privilege is a critical aspect of the everyday function of white privilege in how the seemingly invisible aspects of racial privilege can be physically witnessed in society though the literal conduit of representation. Specifically, in the context of the quality and quantity of media content and the act of content creation as both influenced and inferred from one's race. Privilege as marked and chequered through the lens of representation is crucial as according to Jen Webb, representation is “fundamental to everyday life, people practice representation all the time because we live immersed in representation: it is how we understand our environments and each other” (2009a, p. 2). In this context, Webb states that representation to be “an epistemological process” as it is “considerably more than a simple matter of standing in for; it is also productive of what we know, and how we know it; that is to say, it is constitutive – it makes us” (2009a, p. 5). From Sandra Harding’s definition of epistemology as “a theory of knowledge” in which “knowers” are referred to as “agents of knowledge”, it can be seen that representation in media is the production of said knowledge that mirrors the existence and reality within society as defined by the systems that enable racial privilege (1987, p. 3). Specifically, as “sociologists of knowledge characterize epistemologies as strategies for justifying beliefs", the media coverage of white women is a crucial lens to decipher the ‘beliefs’ of those with the most social power, such as that white women are superior to women of color (Harding, 1987, p. 3). In other words, to be privileged, there is an ‘other’ that one is privileged against, and white women enjoy representative privilege through media in both content and context in contrast to black women.

In 2017, mainstream media portrayed the launch of the viral trend “#MeToo”, a hashtag written within the context of sexual abuse (regarding both sexual assault awareness, as well as advocacy and community for sexual assault victims) as a global social movement jumpstarted through the tweet of white Hollywood actress and celebrity Alyssa Milano:

If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. Me Too. Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” —@Alyssa_Milano, October 15, 2017. (Gieseler, 2019, p. 1)

Within ten days of Milano’s tweet “a powerful, collective response to two small words spread to eighty-five countries with 1.7 million tweets” that simultaneously “expanded across other social media sites including Facebook” with the “‘Me Too’ movement spark[ing] over twelve million posts and comments in less than twenty-four hours” (Gieseler, 2019, p. 2). However, Milano’s tweet and the #MeToo campaign that followed was only one of the countless top-ranking stories with the underlying theme of sexual assault that dominated the mainstream media space in the late quarter of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. In the weeks between October and December 2017 alone, mass media coverage and story headlines from The New York Time’s Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s infamous exposé “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades” to Ronan Farrow's New Yorker article “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories” were the topics of much public discourse that all uncannily included stories of sexual assault against white women in the entertainment industry. Furthermore, as mainstream media were covering both high-profile sexual assault accounts (such as that of white Hollywood actress Ashley Judd’s at the hands of film heavyweight Harvey Weinstein) as well as the social media sphere of the #MeToo tweets (such as that of Milano’s who linguistically penned her own account by tweeting “me too”) within the same media conversation - the intense combined impact and media representation of these stories was recognized through the front page spread of these women, penned as “The Silence Breakers” in TIME magazine’s iconic annual “Person of The Year” issue that culminated the year of 2017 (Edwards, Zacharek, & Dockterman, 2017). However, as figures such as Milano and Judd became the visible ‘faces’ and ‘voices’ of a global movement in addressing both the impact and severity of sexual assault, these white women were also the privileged few whose stories gained the largest real estate in media in comparison to countless other survivors of sexual assault, such as the accounts of many black women that were excluded by the greater media.

In 2006, activist Tarana Burke, the “founder of several organizations including Just Be Inc. and Girls for Gender Equity” led and created the initial “Me Too” grassroots campaign movement for survivors of sexual abuse “to show solidarity with one another” (Desai, 2018; Gieseler, 2019, p. 2; Edwards et al., 2017). Specifically, Burke focused on creating “the original campaign as a strategy to communicate with sexual abuse, assault, exploitation, and harassment survivors” as “a safe space for sexual abuse victims to step away from shame and silence” (Gieseler, 2019, pp. 2-3). Hence, more than ten years prior to the activist movement “Me Too” becoming the viral hashtag #MeToo of 2017, Burke was already actively working in the space of sexual assault awareness through the “iteration [of] a specific effort to reach underserved communities and women of color (WOC)” with the goal of opening “a dialogue where these women might find their voices in empathetic concert with others”(Gieseler, 2019, pp. 2-3). It is important to note that in her own words, Burke remarked that “from its inception the movement was about ‘us talking to us’” - with the aforementioned ‘us’ being a targeted focus on survivors of color, especially women of color such as Burke herself (Gieseler, 2019, pp. 2-3). Through the empirical case of Burke’s work as the founder of the “Me Too” movement - there are many subjects worth noting in regards to Burke’s motivations behind the creation of “Me Too”, the mission objectives of Burke’s “Me Too” as well as the mainstream media’s acknowledgment and representation (or perhaps, misrepresentation) of the “Me Too” movement to the global public. Unlike the aforementioned global public discourse in 2017 with stories regarding both high profile perpetrators of sexual assault such as Harvey Weinstein, as well as the given accounts of the perpetrators’ victims - showcasing clear, direct connections between perpetrators and victims, Burke’s mission and focus was instead solely embedded in creating solidarity between survivors. Burke's focus was on the victims and not on castigating perpetrators of sexual assault crimes in mainstream media.

In 2020, at a talk I attended at the University of Cambridge’s Cambridge Union, Burke reiterated that “Me Too can be the conversation starter or the whole conversation, that’s the point of it, that solidarity is important” (Burke, 2020). However, it is interesting to note that Burke does also clarify that “Me Too”, in her perspective, is neither a women’s movement nor about women’s empowerment but rather a movement directed at all survivors that experienced sexual violence, albeit a large majority of both the survivors of sexual abuse and participants in the movement do happen to be women (Burke, 2020). Yet in the same conversation, Burke also states that “my work has always centered first black and brown girls, women and girls, and marginalized groups” and she extrapolates further by stating that “sexual violence doesn’t discriminate but the response to it does” as “the response to sexual violence is different depending on to who the people are saying it” (Burke, 2020). Hence, although her movement wants to encourage solidarity between survivors of all racial and gender backgrounds, her focus on “black and brown girls” and women of color is because:

If I start there, that’s how I ensure that everybody gets what they need, everybody gets talked about because we are at the bottom of the barrel, so if we start there and move our way up, then we pull everybody in with us. (Burke, 2020)

In other words, Burke acknowledges that her focus on women on color does not diminish or add to “the exclusion of any other group” but it is because of the commonality of the exclusion of women of color within society, such as in the aforementioned metaphorical ‘barrel’ that motivates Burke to first address those at the bottom of this racial hierarchy, as it is only through this strategy then can she ensure that women of color are included in the conversation from the beginning (Burke, 2020). Here, Burke both addresses the racial hierarchy that systemically privileges certain groups and de-prioritizes others, as well as designs a social movement to benefit those that are systematically ignored and de-marginalized (such as women of color) within social structures. Moreover, Burke also illustrates the lack of “tangible media representation” given to women without white privilege in both her utilization of the metaphorical barrel (a real-life illustration of the social standing one has when living in a world dictated by white privilege), the place women of color have at the bottom of the barrel (i.e. at the bottom of the racial hierarchy), as well as clarifying as to her reason for fighting for those at the bottom of the barrel (since she is included in the “we”) as a reaction to the media representation given to those that are disfavored by racial hierarchy (Burke, 2020). By stating that “the response to sexual violence is different depending on who the people are saying it”, Burke demonstrates that while Peggy Mcintosh operates in a reality where Mcintosh “can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of [her] race widely represented”, this social reality (although placed within the same physical environment) is different to Burke’s, who as a black woman, must be socially conscious that her experience will not be portrayed with the same accuracy nor viewed through the same critical lens within media as that of a white woman’s (Burke, 2020; Mcintosh, 1988, pp. 31-32). A prime example of this response is that while Burke’s movement began in 2006, it did not become a viral sensation until ten years later with Milano’s tweet. It was only after Milano “drew immediate attention to the viral movement, it was [then] soon noted that black feminist activist Tarana Burke originated the ‘Me Too’ movement a decade prior to Milano’s call to action in the trending hashtag” (Gieseler, 2019, p. 1). In addition, Milano herself also did not initially acknowledge Burke until after her tweet had already gone viral, and “once aware [did] Milano acknowledg[e] Burke’s foundational work in the movement and asked followers to visit Burke and MeToo/#MeToo’s origin story” (Gieseler, 2019, p. 1). Thus as both the investigative newspaper reports and the Twitter explosion of #MeToo occurred interestingly in the same media space, the mainstream media headline both drew away as well as misdirected the attention off of the core values of Burke’s movement. In her own words:

[“Me Too”] wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone. (Gieseler, 2019, p. 1)

By putting focus on the individuals that were excluded or marginalized the most, Burke's goal was both of inclusion and representation through the centering of “Me Too” around women of color.

The viral #MeToo trend on social media that began in 2017 and the related “Me Too” social movement greatly differ from the movement started by Burke in 2006. As “millions of people responded with the hashtag #MeToo when Milano urged them to post their experiences on Twitter”, #MeToo transformed into a global phenomenon that trended worldwide (Edwards et al., 2017). Combined with Milano’s celebrity status, the raw palpability of an emotional topic such as sexual assault, and the “endlessly expanding power of social media”, the #MeToo hashtag was soon “used in millions of posts” over the time span of just a few weeks. It was translated to multiple languages from the “Italian (#QuellaVoltaChe, or ‘that time when’)” to the “French (#BalanceTonPorc, or ‘out your pig’)” (Bennett, 2017a). Therefore, although each tweet following Milano’s “varied from detailed stories of experiences to that simple message of ‘Me Too””, it is imperative to note both the colossal social media coverage of Milano’s tweet (as demonstrated by the large statistical amount of retweets), as well as the mainstream media coverage that enabled the quick time frame in which the retweets was marketed as the beginning of a global viral phenomenon (Gieseler, 2019, p. 2). Moreover, it is also crucial to recognize how Milano was given both the credit for starting a global campaign, as well as the societal systems that enabled her written words over social media to achieve the media coverage and representation in the time frame and manner in which it did. It is speculated that the ‘success’ of #MeToo as measured through its media representation could be attributed to the fact that “that the accusers this time were famous, media-savvy and mostly white actors with more star power than the accused (unlike, say, Paula Jones vs. Bill Clinton)” (Bennett, 2017a). For instance ‘“when you have Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow in the same sentence, well, people take note”, or particularly, white actors gaining representation in a racially organized system that allocates air-time to them due to their socially constructed white privilege (Mcintosh, 1988, p. 30). Consequently, the media real estate dominated by these white celebrities within the topic of sexual assault can be viewed through Stuart Hall’s systems of representation.

Within the realm of language representation, Hall elucidates that the purpose of language is how concepts can be shared and communicated through language. Hence the use of language representation enables people to translate thoughts into a shared system of signs that can vary from sounds, written words to images that are then used as the physical or literal conduit to communicate those thoughts to other people (Hall, 1997, p. 1). Hence, as we translate the thoughts that are built upon those concepts through language, one can also inversely understand the concepts that reflect the epistemologies of the content creators within society via the language representation that uplifts the racial hierarchy in which white women benefit from within. In the case of #MeToo, the mainstream media and journalists praised the white celebrities that gave their accounts of sexual assaults through a combination of written media headlines as well as imagery as shown through magazine covers. The front page spread (shown above) in TIME magazine’s iconic annual “Person of The Year”, represented many of the women that came forth with their sexual assault stories as “The Silence Breakers” (Edwards et al., 2017). However, three of the five women shown on the front cover were white celebrities and more importantly, white celebrity women that occupied the front cover of a global phenomenon in the place of Burke, founder of the very “Me Too” movement whose activism was the beginning catalyst of the viral trend that cascaded into the national exposes and articles that followed. These white female celebrities were applauded for their efforts with statements such as “for perhaps the first time in history, powerful men are falling, like dominos, and women are being believed” (Bennett, 2017b). For instance, Judd was coined as “the butterfly of this moment” by Professor MacKinnon as “the actor who began the recent groundswell of accusations against Mr. Weinstein” back in 2017 (Bennett, 2017b). Specifically, Judd was given the media representation as “the one who broke it open, who has made this possible for so many other women” to tell their stories instead of Burke who started an activist movement (specifically focused on solidarity) ten years prior (Bennett, 2017b). It is also important to note that these quotes were directly taken from an article written by Jessica Bennett on November 5th, 2017 in the New York Times, titled “The ‘Click’ Moment: How the Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami” as one of Bennett’s very first articles in regards to chronicling the “Me Too” movement in which Tarana Burke was never mentioned. Accordingly, through both the visual representation of language via the Times magazine cover, the physical written statements of Judd, as well as the non-existent statement of Burke, these cases of language representation display that white women gain theoretical representation through both physical representation in media, as well as through the language representation used by the public that reports and shapes their actions to the masses.

Consequently, the outward translation of internal conceptions of the world around us is the same function that allows these very conceptions to be then shared as ‘language’, that constructs both how as well as what is expressed within society (Hall, 1997, p. 2). In “The Choice”, the editor-in-chief of Time magazine, Edward Felsenthal, wrote openly regarding why ‘The Silence Breakers’ are the ‘Person of the Year’ as well as the reasons behind choosing the women that graced the cover (2017). Felsenthal writes that:

The galvanizing actions of the women on our cover—Ashley Judd, Susan Fowler, Adama Iwu, Taylor Swift and Isabel Pascual—along with those of hundreds of others, and of many men as well have unleashed one of the highest-velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s. (Felsenthal, 2017)

Before continuing to mention within the same wavelength, Milano “who, after the first Weinstein story broke, helped popularize the phrase coined years before by Tarana Burke” (Felsenthal, 2017). With positive, activist terms to describe these women’s work such as ‘galvanizing’ and to the ‘highest-velocity’, Felsenthal further evangelizes these women by spotlighting the impact of civil rights activist Rosa Parks within a direct comparison to the social media flurry prompted by Milano. In short, Felsenthal asks audiences to “imagine Rosa Parks with a Twitter account is to wonder how much faster civil rights might have progressed” in terms of explaining his view of the monstrous effect of Milano’s tweet (Felsenthal, 2017). In other words, this direct comparison highlights that Felsenthal presents the contributions that white celebrity women such as Milano made as an ‘activist’ (through simply her tweet) to be at a similar standard of the effect in which Rosa Parks contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, apart from the women cover models, Felsenthal also writes positively of the “determined journalists—including Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Ronan Farrow, Brett Anderson, Oliver Darcy, and Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain” that wrote and published many of the high profile sexual assault accounts that year (2017). However most, if not all of the journalists mentioned and the majority of the cover models were white. In the space of language representation, Felsenthal’s actions and words further perpetuate the systems in which white voices are privileged and revered through large scale media representation, a system in which gives them both influence as well as generates further credibility through representation. Therefore both white survivors of sexual assault as well as the white journalists that bring forth these accounts are given similar coverage through media representation. In his article “How New York Times Reporters Broke Hollywood’s Biggest Sexual Harassment Story”, Brent Lang praises the white journalists who wrote the infamous exposé “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades” that had unveiled several high profile cases which dominated the media sphere in 2017 (particularly those of white celebrity women such as Judd) by writing that:

New York Times investigative reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor deserve a lot of credit for helping to spark this industry-wide reckoning. Their tenacity helped them break the initial Weinstein story and, along with The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, they’ve painted a portrait of a serial predator who was able to use his power to prey on female employees and actresses in a methodical fashion. (Lang, 2017)

Through the phrasing of Felsenthal and Lang, it is clear that there is a case of social conditioning present in which those with white privilege are both represented, but also received cordially by the public (as the content would not be written if it would not be well received and vice versa). Therefore through the examples in which white voices like Judd, Milano, Twohey or Kantor take up more space in the media world as compared to women of color, these articles evidently displays “the invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance” by those in power (Mcintosh, 1988, p. 35). Thus as language determines both what and how subjects can be expressed, it also determines who is excluded through representation. In other words, in the same space where their white privilege allows them this positive language representation, the same privilege given to these white activists, celebrities, and journalists are not given to their counterparts of color.

The ignorance of the greater public to the work of Burke’s activism as showcased by the limited or skewed media representation of the initial “Me Too” movement display not only the social structures that allow the overshadowing of Burke but also the systemic repression (through limited media representation) of the stories brought forth by women of color. As aforementioned, Jessica Bennett wrote several articles for the New York Times in late 2017 regarding sexual assault in the wake of Milano’s viral #MeToo tweet as well as the media domination of Harvey Weinstein’s high profile accusations. From her November 5th, 2017 article “The ‘Click’ Moment: How the Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami” in which she surveys how “social media, famous accusers and generational change add up to a profound shift” in the conversation regarding sexual assault as “in 1991, women wore ‘I Believe Anita’ buttons. Now they post #metoo” to her November 30th, 2017 article “The #MeToo Moment: When the Blinders Come Off”, Bennett fails to mention Burke in either article (Bennett, 2017a, 2017b). Therefore it is not until December 7th, 2017 in “The #MeToo Moment: No Longer Complicit” is Burke’s large involvement in the “Me Too” movement - as the founder of the movement - is mentioned for the first time in Bennett’s writing in The New York Times. Bennett points out that “the paradox of those Silence Breakers is that, in many cases, those women were not silent at all. It was that nobody heard them when they spoke” as a critique of societal’s ignorance of women’s accounts of sexual abuse (Bennett, 2017c). However, it is quite ironic that while Bennett writes about how society does not hear women “when they [speak]”, she is simultaneously failing to hear women of color, specifically black women such as Tarana Burke through her past reports that fail to mention Burke’s name. As Bennett continues to implore that “as more women step up into these high-profile roles, will women’s voices continue to be heard? To what extent will women at the wheel change the way we report, reflect, convey and ultimately ingest culture?” she ironically, continues to undermine women of color within the context of her own journalism (Bennett, 2017c). In other words, is she referring to all women by mentioning ‘women’ or just white women? Throughout Bennett’s reporting of “The Silence Breakers” in TIME magazine, both the lack of diversity in the cover, as well as the scarcity of Burke’s account in contrast to white celebrity women (such as Judd) is not all acknowledged - even when Bennett is writing an article (“The #MeToo Moment: No Longer Complicit”) that puts Burke at the forefront (Bennett, 2017c; Edwards et al., 2017).

It is important to note that the problematic issue of why Bennett fails to mention or even question as to why Tarana Burke is not on the cover of “The Silence Breakers” as opposed to Ashley Judd or Taylor Swift is not that white women should not be afforded media representation, but that black women and women of color are not nearly represented as their white counterparts. Therefore the ‘problem’ in this lack of media representation can then be understood as a visible symptom (the epistemologies of the content creators) of the invisible system in which white privilege is factored into society as a benefit that only women who are white can enjoy (Mcintosh, 1988, pp. 31-32; Webb, 2009a, p. 5). Burke herself states that “[the mainstream media] is not representative of the work that we started…People have made ‘Me Too’ into a verb….That kind of a thing does a disservice to the work that we did in the past and the work we are trying to do now” (Burke, 2020). Thus, as Hall elucidates that the mental system within society forms relationships between all the objects, places, people, etc in the world - as this is how one would organize everything we perceive in the world around us - then in the same happenstance, cultures are formed based on shared systems of meaning (Hall, 1997, p. 17). In other words, if culture is the shared conceptual mass of both the representational systems and codes that govern the relationships between the systems of mental and language representation - then the effect of how people (or women of color) are represented in media, transitively further shapes the culture of the society in which it is found. Therefore in regards to the lack of representation within mainstream media of either herself, or her movement (which is an extension of her core values), Burke acknowledges that it is:

Something we fight against, we push back against, to change the language, to correct it, that if you hear this on MSNBC or CNN…But this is what is actually happening on the ground. This is what the movement is actually about. (Burke, 2020)

Burke continues to point out that she distinguishes between “Me Too’s viral moment” from the movement “because the movement predated the viral moment and it continues after it” (Burke, 2020). Accordingly, if representation is “fundamental to everyday life [as] people practice representation all the time because we live immersed in representation” then the language that forms and portrays that representation is both crucial as well as indicative of the social fabric as “much of the work of representation happens below the level of consciousness” (Webb, 2009a, pp. 2-6). Furthermore, in regards to the lack of representation of black people (and in the case of Burke, black women) within society through language, Elizabeth Alexander states that “no satisfactory terminology in current use adequately represents how I am describing a knowledge and sense of African American group identification which is more expansive than the inevitable biological reductions of race and artifactual constraints of culture” (Alexander, 1994, pp. 77-78). In other words, by Alexander lamenting her “desire to find a language to talk about my people”, the ‘desire’ mentioned only further highlights the lack of language used to represent black individuals, who are then methodically placed to operate as actors suppressed by a system that favors white actors through white privilege. Accordingly, the stories and accounts of white women as represented through coverage in mainstream media is not indicative that media coverage of white women is unnecessary, but that it is both the dominant lens in which representation is viewed through as well as given to - as opposed to women of color. Consequently demonstrating, both the lack of representation within media as well as the privilege that white women hold. Hence, it is the “sidelining [of] the most vulnerable constituencies and failing to listen to the voices of diverse survivors [that] impoverishes everyone that it claims to speak for” as the ‘sidelining’ of Tarana Burke disvalues the impact her story has on mobilizing solidarity between sexual assault survivors (Desai, 2018). Specifically, lack of representation (and in this case, of women of color) through media depreciates the maximum impact any movement can have within society. Hence, the critical analysis of social media movements such as #MeToo is a shocking, yet crucial reminder of the deeply embedded epistemologies still in place in society today. Privileged structures may be invisible, but are always present.

Reference List

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Lang, B. (2017, December 13). How New York Times Reporters Broke Hollywood’s Biggest Sexual Harassment Story. Variety. https://variety.com/2017/biz/features/new-york-times-harvey-weinstein-report-megan-twohey-jodi-kantor-1202637948/

Mcintosh, P. (1988). White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account Of Coming To See Correspondences Through Work In Women’s Studies.

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