Believability in the wake of #MeToo

The rapid proliferation of the #MeToo hashtag in 2017—popularizing a phrase first used more than a decade prior by activist Tarana Burke—led to a massive international reckoning with sexual harassment and assault in workplaces and society at large. In the years since, television, books, and films have increasingly depicted the often-fraught conversation around the credibility of women who accuse men of sexual misconduct.

Masked people marching in protest holding signs that read I BELIEVE YOU and PROTECT ALL WORKERS.
Image: Mélodie Descoubes via Unsplash

As Annenberg School for Communication professor Sarah Banet-Weiser argues in a new paper, “Television and the ‘Honest’ Woman: Mediating the Labor of Believability,” women must undertake various forms of labor in an attempt to be visible, heard, and perceived as credible. Banet-Weiser and co-author Kathryn Claire Higgins see that reflected in recent streaming series that foreground experiences of sexual violence—“Unbelievable” (Netflix), “The Morning Show” (Apple+), and “I May Destroy You” (HBO/BBC One).

All three shows portray fictional narratives and discourses that, Banet-Weiser and Higgins write, “approximate highly visible sexual violence cases in the U.S. and UK during the five years after #MeToo.” These representations, the authors emphasize, are reflective of actual, deeply embedded cultural notions about womanhood, sexual assault, and how accounts of women’s experiences are regarded and scrutinized.

“We could have all the advice in the world about how we should present ourselves, but the fact is, there is such a deeply sedimented cultural understanding of women as liars—as ultimately not to be believed—that the labor that we have to do in order to have someone say, ‘She must be telling the truth’ is incredible,” Banet-Weiser says. “It’s exhausting, and it typically doesn’t work. One of the common things among the three shows is this futility.”

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.