Fall of 2022 marked the five year anniversary of a global awakening: in 2017, the New York Times released a story about Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual abuses at his company. The story triggered a worldwide revival of the #MeToo movement, a campaign to support survivors of abuse, and has since changed the conversation around sexual assault. She Said, a 2022 live-action film about the investigation behind the 2017 Weinstein accusations, debuted globally in November. Despite not doing well at box offices, the film reflects an ever-relevant conversation surrounding sexual abusers, the media’s approach to telling victims stories, and the risks survivors still face today when coming forward.
The film, directed by Maria Schrader, is an adaptation of the book, She Said, written by award-winning journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. The book recounts their experience reporting and breaking the New York Times story on allegations against Harvey Weinstein on October 5, 2017.
The next movie stars Zoe Kazan and Carrey Mulligan as a young Kantor and Twohey fighting an uphill battle to get high-profile actresses and industry executives on the record about Weinstein’s pattern of abuse at Miramax Films. The plotline primarily highlights the facts gathered in Kantor and Twohey’s investigation, setting a severe tone appropriate for the sensitive and distressing topics referenced in the film.
She Said was one of the “most anticipated films,” according to Deadline, garnering high ratings from critics at film festivals, winning nine awards, and receiving 35 nominations. The production will also receive a Seal of Female Empowerment in Entertainment (SOFEE) for a feature film.
Unexpectedly, the film received little traction in its first month, despite it’s timely debut coinciding with Harvey Weinstein’s most recent rape trial in Los Angeles. Some critics expected interest to grow over the holidays, given its high rating at film festivals. The $32M budget film, however, only grossed just over $12M by January 2023. In a Variety interview, Chief Analyst Shawn Robbins with Box Office Pro blames the search for escapism as a possible explanation for the flop.
However despite falling short in box offices, the seismic story is still seen as a catalyst for social change, the impact of which is still felt today. In fact, just a month after the release, Harvey Weinstein was again convicted of rape and sexual assault.
How the Weinstein story impacted the #MeToo Movement
In October 2017, inspired by the survivors of Weinstein’s abuses coming forward, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a call for solidarity. In her tweet, she referenced Tarana Burke’s 2006 #MeToo movement, which started calling attention to sexual violence against Black and brown women.
The Weinstein story and the sudden appropriation of #MeToo took news feeds by storm: columnists, activists, lawyers, etc. debated the validity of victims’ stories in the press as waves of survivors came forward with horrifying stories of sexual violence.
The movement, revived behind a hashtag, was not just a viral phenomenon. Other feminist hashtag campaigns, such as #DressLikeAWoman and #HeforShe, certainly contributed to the conversation in the years prior, but #MeToo was a tipping point.
Within a year of the hashtag gaining popularity, reporting on sexual harassment rose with a notable increase of terms such as “sex scandal,” “accuser,” and “accused.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation also estimated an increase in the number of rapes reported to law enforcement as a steady flow of women shared their experiences.
Amid global outcry, the media published an onslaught of stories detailing women's experiences at the hands of influential executives, actors, and politicians.
TIME went so far as to list 144 high-profile men ranging from actors to politicians who had been accused of sexual assault and rape. Number one on the list was Batman star Ben Affleck, who spoke out against Weinstein after the accusations were published.
How media took on the burden of holding abusers accountable
The social reckoning also challenged reporting boundaries, possibly thawing the ethical barriers of many news outlets. While the reporters who worked on the Weinstein story were careful not to allow personal feelings to taint their investigation – and documented how they did so in their second book – some other journalists were caught up in the sensational nature of the movement.
In a 2020 study on journalists reporting on the #MeToo movement in Denmark and Sweden, researchers noticed that many journalists had difficulty prioritizing journalistic research over their desire to solve and speak on social issues. The Yale Journal of International Affairs also argued in 2021 that many journalists sacrificed ethical standards to report on sexual violence stories.
Perhaps journalists were influenced by personal bias. After all, statistics show the rage-inducing reality: 1 in 3 women globally suffer from sexual abuse, according to the Take Back the Night Foundation. Other data show that in the United States alone, someone is assaulted every 68 seconds – many victims being children – according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). To top it off, many survivors are continuously dismissed and ignored.
If a survivor is lucky enough to have their assailant charged, only 28 perpetrators are convicted out of every 1000 reported cases of sexual assault, according to RAINN. Of those who are convicted, fewer perpetrators see the inside of a prison or jail cell.
Unfortunately, many sexual violence survivors see the media as their last source of justice. Survivors often have no witnesses or evidence to lean on. Given the intimate nature of the crime, proving someone is an abuser is incredibly difficult, and many cases are not prosecuted.
The risk of legal ramifications, however, also looms over the heads of victims and reporters alike. Depending on a country’s local laws, #MeToo articles can open news organizations and victims to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP).
SLAPPs are retaliation lawsuits meant to silence or punish those who speak out against influential figures, according to an article by the ACLU on how not to get sued while reporting sexual violence. Thankfully, depending on the state, province, and country, there may be forms of anti-SLAPP laws to protect both news organizations and survivors.
Despite risks, the now 17-year-old movement and its presence in the media continue to spark an increasingly open discussion surrounding sexual violence, prompting more abusers to be held accountable (at least to some extent). Currently, sexual assault and harassment cases continue to appear in news headlines worldwide. The most notable of recent cases include Ex-President Trump’s crude comments about writer E Jean Carroll, Journalist Andrew Callaghan receiving accusations of sexual assault via TikTok, and Andrew Tate and Tristian Tate’s recent arrest and charges related to organized crime, sexual assault, and human trafficking.
Though there is always progress to be made, investigative journalism from reporters like Kantor and Twohey – along with their subsequent projects in the book and film industry – is a valuable tool for accountability and continued conversation. She Said may have failed to succeed financially, but it marks a turning point in society, in which journalists and survivors came together to hold abusers accountable.
She Said is now available for streaming on the subscription service Peacock and is available for purchase through most digital retailers.
For resources on sexual assault, please check out RAINN.org.
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