Beyond the face of a movement: Why Asia Argento does not define #MeToo

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#MeToo has never just been about Asia Argento.

On Aug. 19, The New York Times reported that the 42-year-old Italian American actress had reached a $380,000 settlement with actor Jimmy Bennett, who accused Argento of sexually assaulting him in 2013 when Argento was 37 and he was 17. The controversy that typically surrounds any high-profile instance of sexual abuse was further heightened by the fact that Argento herself has been an outspoken figure in the #MeToo movement. Argento was one of a handful of women to accuse Harvey Weinstein in October 2017 in the watershed article published by the New Yorker.

The news surrounding Argento’s accusations is jarring. These allegations –– and Argento’s attempts to silence Bennett’s story –– could lead us to question Argento’s credibility as a #MeToo spokesperson, remind us that there are no “perfect victims” and reflect other instances that demonstrate a cycle of abuse.

But the allegations against Argento do not — and should not — undermine the #MeToo movement itself.

To argue for justice for Bennett but deride #MeToo is contradictory. Bennett’s sexual assault case is not evidence that #MeToo is invalid. It’s proof that our previous understanding of the scope of sexual assault is limited and must be expanded. And while we cannot discount male narratives, we need to acknowledge the patriarchal power dynamics that lead to abuse becoming a gendered issue; we shouldn’t let the allegations against Argento undermine the stories of women.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo hashtag, tweeted about the Argento allegations Aug. 20, shortly after news of the settlement broke. “People will use these recent news stories to try and discredit this movement – don’t let that happen,” Burke stated. This was part of a thread of tweets in which she argued that the #MeToo movement is as much about shifting false narratives of victimhood as it is about removing abusers from positions of power. As Argento should no longer be hailed as a “leader” of #MeToo or be seen as the apparent face of the movement, these allegations reinforce the importance of both of Burke’s points.

First and foremost, the allegations against Argento reveal the danger of assuming the “perfect victim” narrative. As Anna North argues for Vox, survivors of sexual misconduct often need to be considered perfect to be believed — and a failure to live up to those expectations leads to survivors coming across as liars by those eager to discount female narratives. Victim-blaming is ingrained into both our culture and our psychology. We’re all too quick to prioritize the accusations from those we deem innocent without acknowledging how this prioritization affects victims’ mental health and desire to come out against assaulters.

Moreover, the allegations lead us to question whether or not social movements addressing systemic issues –– such as sexual abuse –– should be ascribed public faces at all. What can we say about a movement whose public image has primarily been defined by white women, especially when the campaign was initially conceived by a woman of color? When we integrate a social movement with celebrity culture, how accessible can the movement remain to victims who don’t have a safety net of legal, financial and public support when they speak out?

That’s not to say we should remove individual narratives from social movements altogether. By viewing systemic issues purely in terms of shocking statistics, people often become desensitized and depersonalized to the reality of the violence that is occurring. We need personal narratives to keep us driven, connected and grounded to the issues at hand. But we cannot allow certain narratives to take precedent over others, especially to the extent that individuals –– who don’t necessarily represent the average person who these movements were originally created for –– become the spokespeople for them.

In a press statement email sent to The Daily Californian, Rose McGowan, an actress who was among the first people to publicly accuse Weinstein, alongside Argento, of sexual misconduct, reflected on her friendship with Argento and her desire to support positive change. McGowan noted that while losing a friend was sad, her larger concerns were what happened to Bennett and ensuring that victims could continue to speak out against abusers. “At this current moment it may be easy to focus on the drama of the situation,” she wrote. “But the real focus should be on supporting justice.”

She also addressed Argento directly in the statement, writing, “Be honest. Be fair. Let justice stay its course. Be the person you wish Harvey could have been.”

The Argento allegations do not invalidate the necessity of the #MeToo movement in bringing justice to victims of sexual abuse and removing abusers from positions of social power — and they also don’t negate or invalidate Argento’s own accusations against Weinstein. #MeToo may have lost one of its public faces, but the need to address systemic abuse cannot lose momentum.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.