What Happens When #MeToo Memoirs Meet the Marketplace?
The #MeToo memoir has become a genre of sorts since the explosion of the movement in October 2017. Though memoirs about sexual violence have existed for decades, creating a space for survivors to tell their stories, the celebrity endorsement of the fight against sexual violence by Hollywood survivors like Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan has opened up space for art and media about sexual violence in the mainstream landscape.
From memoirs written by survivors of highly visible cases—Brave by Rose McGowan, Know My Name by Chanel Miller, Consent by Vanessa Springora—to more localized narratives of violation and its lifelong effects—Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco, Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz—the self-narrative about sexual trauma has found a new marketability under the #MeToo umbrella. This brings fresh questions to the fight against sexual violence, as authors, readers, and sexual violence activists negotiate the increased visibility for the cause and their stories.
The importance of self-narrative storytelling for the fight against sexual violence cannot be understated: Telling one’s story and hearing stories from other women was the foundation of the first feminist consciousness-raising groups in New York and Chicago. #MeToo, the movement that was created in 2006 by anti-rape activist Tarana Burke and exploded in 2017 after Milano tweeted the hashtag in the wake of allegations against Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein, is arguably an extension of this feminist tradition, mediated through social media and making visible the instances of sexual violence in the workplace and elsewhere. The difference between the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the past and the #MeToo movement of now is an increased audience due to social media—whereas survivors would previously tell their stories to foster solidarity and healing with each other, today, there is an added layer of telling stories for non-survivors, outsiders of that experience of trauma.
The self-narrative about sexual trauma has found a new marketability under the #MeToo umbrella.
“If memoirs about sexual violence are more marketable than they were five years ago—and it does seem that way—I believe there’s a lot of good in that,” Jeannie Vanasco tells BAZAAR.com. “The marketability brings more people into discussions of sexual violence, which means that more people have the language to talk about sexual violence. And if more accounts of sexual assault are out there, the less likely it becomes that survivors are told that they’re imagining or exaggerating their experiences. Also, in writing their memoirs, survivors are shaping their own stories. And in reading memoirs about sexual violence, survivors might feel less alone. And I think there’s been a renewed examination of how readers consume memoirs about sexual assault, which is a really important discussion to have.”
Though there is an added audience to these memoirs, survivors are still reading them to combat the isolation that seems to be inherent in the experience of sexual violence. “I read enough of these books to get validation that my experience was not a rarity,” one survivor says. Another survivor reads memoirs about sexual violence to get confirmation that her life isn’t over and that healing is possible. “I want to understand how others feel after the trauma and how they glue themselves together. Mostly, I want to feel that their lives aren’t over, so maybe, mine isn’t either. I know it’s weird reading about rape culture when you’re a victim, but somehow reading about others’ experiences helps me lift the guilt of being a victim.”
I read enough of these books to get validation that my experience was not a rarity
This aspect of the #MeToo memoirs (and of memoirs about sexual violence that did this work before the emerging marketing strategy) is a continuation of feminist consciousness-raising groups: The shifting of isolation of survivors was central to these groups, and it led to collective organizing that was born out of connecting to each other’s stories. According to some authors, the movement helped them feel affirmed in their decisions to write about what happened to them.
“After feeling inhibited by these experiences for so long, revealing them was more relieving than anything else,” says Sarah Kasbeer, author of A Woman, a Plan, an Outline of a Man. “The #MeToo movement made me less concerned about whether I was unnecessarily burdening others—there was already an understanding out there about why I needed to speak and how silence on a large scale had been counterproductive.”
The #MeToo movement has shown how essential this storytelling is
For Vanasco, the #MeToo moment allowed her to connect with readers of all walks of life, including people who have caused sexual harm. “It’s been wonderful to hear from readers—from high school students to women in their 70s—about how the book helped them feel less alone,” she says. “I received letters from men imprisoned for sexual assault. They said that my memoir helped them reflect on the pain that they had caused women.”
Jaquira Díaz wrote about sexual violence with the express intention to fight back against the idea that these kinds of stories are simply “navel gazing.” All too aware that the sexual violence memoir genre is often dismissed as less important than nonfiction work published by men, Díaz says the #MeToo movement has shown how essential this storytelling is.
“I found myself deliberately resisting this silencing, and often, it felt like I was revealing secrets I was meant to be keeping,” Díaz says. “It felt necessary to keep working, to remind myself—and readers—that our stories and ideas are just as valuable and important. Writing in the post-#MeToo era has shown me that so many of us have similar stories. If Tarana Burke’s work has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not alone. That there are survivors leading the way, standing beside me, and that there is a way forward, toward justice. There is a way to keep making art. There is a way to keep living.”
Survivors read these memoirs to combat the isolation inherent in the experience of sexual violence
But writing about traumatic experiences can be a minefield with or without the context of #MeToo. In a recent essay for Scribd, reflecting on the difficulties and rewards of writing about trauma, award-winning author Roxane Gay recounted her experiences with journalists and reviewers demanding more details about her rape once she had mentioned it in her writing. “A reviewer said she threw [the book Bad Feminist] across the room when she realized I was not going to go into any detail about the rape itself. I was furious when I read the review—furious at the reviewer’s unwarranted entitlement, furious at myself for opening myself to the entitlement of others, furious that I had this terrible story to tell.” Gay went on to discuss other moments when journalists trespassed on her boundaries because she shared such vulnerable truths about how trauma impacted her body in her book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.
Despite a mostly positive experience publishing her story, Vanasco also experienced some demanding readers expressing frustration over the boundaries of what she did and did not disclose in her book. But for Vanasco, the point of the book was to explore a less clear-cut instance of sexual violence and expose the nuances of sexual assault and language. “More than one reader expressed frustration that I didn’t spend more time writing about the second rape, the one that happened in my 20s,” she says. “I was more interested in the first experience, the one committed by one of my best friends. To call that first rape rape, I needed to more clearly explore the language we use to define sexual assault and how language shapes one’s thinking.”
Navigating a landscape where these stories are marketable can have adverse effects on the authors, who might feel pressured to reveal more than they’re willing to or to tell their stories in a particular way. “After 2017, I did feel pressure to offer something new to the discourse, which I think can be harmful to one’s own recovery,” Kasbeer says. “The sense that I am somehow not telling my own story right, or in a way that would make other people care, is re-traumatizing. For an artist, navigating the needs of a marketplace can always feel bad, but when the art is about a traumatic personal experience—in a culture that’s evolving rapidly on the subject—that further complicates this dynamic.”
The sense that I am somehow not telling my own story right is re-traumatizing.
The feeling that #MeToo is a rapidly evolving landscape might be connected to how the movement is inextricable from social media and how that affects the publishing market. This complicates things for authors who are survivors of sexual violence. For one, the original survivor storytelling dynamic was not dictated by the market or by social media attention; it existed outside the mainstream, because those stories were impossible to get published in the first place. And once feminist memoirists gained that space, the genre was a safe niche for survivors. Making the jump from a niche feminist genre to the mainstream spotlight can be jarring and unpredictable.
“The contemporary #MeToo memoir is inextricable from the effects of doing collective storytelling and solidarity building in the public gaze through these platforms,” says Boriana Alexandrova, a researcher and lecturer at the University of York, in the United Kingdom, who focuses on historical abuse trauma narratives in contemporary women’s writing, digital feminist cultures, and performance art. “These platforms have their own agendas, and this kind of marketization didn’t happen to the stories that were being published in feminist and activist zines in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. So this marketization is having its own very peculiar effect. The exhibitionism the #MeToo hashtag encourages invites the gazing of objectification, I think these things are inextricable from the ways the #MeToo memoirs are being written now.”
The jump from a niche feminist genre to the mainstream spotlight can be jarring and unpredictable.
On the one hand, the #MeToo movement is reaching survivors and allies across borders at a scale that previous feminist generations couldn’t have imagined. On the other, this high visibility and engagement requires a level of institutionalization of the movement against sexual violence.
“We have to read the #MeToo memoir with this awareness of how the systems that are enabling us to sell the #MeToo memoir are actually reshaping it and warping it. And how they are creating room for some types of #MeToo memoir and not others,” Alexandrova says. “I think maybe part of the reason why you might not have come across as many #MeToo memoirs by storytellers of color may have something to do with this: What is sellable?”
Díaz says that the question of what is sellable in the traditional publishing industry goes beyond the memoir genre and usually defaults to white writers. This has larger implications for whose stories are marketed to the mainstream and who is perceived as a victim in wider society. An example of this is the traction and publicity McGowan’s book Brave got on mainstream media versus the memoirs written and self-published by R. Kelly’s victims, Kitti Jones (I Was Somebody Before This…), Asante McGee (No Longer Trapped in a Closet), and Lisa Van Allen (Surviving the Pied Piper). (BAZAAR requested interviews with Jones, McGee, and Van Allen, but got no response.)
Why does the spotlight always fall on certain kinds of victims, and how can this be changed?
“Publishing is very white, and as a predominantly white industry, it has historically valued mostly white writers,” Díaz says. “Let us consider who the dominant literary culture supports and protects. Who does it silence? Women and girls of color, especially Black women and girls, are not believed when they speak out about sexual violence. This isn’t just in publishing. This is in every industry, in every school, in all of our institutions. This was a country founded through the genocide of native people, on the backs of people who were enslaved, and through the exploitation of undocumented and migrant workers. This country, and this industry, is steeped in racism. It’s that simple.”
The #MeToo memoir genre brings out many of the issues the feminist movement has been reckoning with since 2017. What does it mean to fight against sexual violence through institutions that do not see an interest in changing? Why does the spotlight always fall on certain kinds of victims, and how can this be changed? How does speaking out through mainstream channels warp the message of feminism or invite outsiders to demand more exposure? And a question that sometimes feels completely off-limits: How many instances of sexual violence should be exposed until the world is convinced it needs to stop?
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