The most visible faces of the #MeToo movement have largely been famous, white, cis, heterosexual women like Alyssa Milano and Gwenyth Paltrow, with those like Tarana Burke and Chanel Miller the exceptions that prove the rule. These celebrities have initiated the #MeToo hashtag; shared their stories publicly through court testimony, congressional testimony, news outlets and social media; and created and funded institutions to educate, litigate, and legislate. Even in the midst of the pandemic and major political strife, celebrities have continued to make the headlines with their #MeToo stories. No doubt that their celebrity status amplified their voices and spread their message in a way that non-celebrities would have difficulty replicating. But is the attention paid to such celebrities problematic? Does it hurt more than it helps? I suggest that conservation biology can help us think through such questions as well as develop strategies for harnessing celebrity contributions while providing better assistance to other individuals and communities facing their own #MeToo struggles.
Conservation biologists uses the term “glamour species” or charismatic megafauna to describe those aesthetically pleasing and recognizable species that act as symbols or rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action. Think giant panda bears, elephants, and lions. Conservation campaigns often rely on such species as they draw financial support, garner public interest and sympathy. Zoos use them to draw in visitors and introduce patrons to less well known species. Some glamour species are also keystone species or umbrella species, which means actions taken to protect them in their natural habitat will necessarily protect others as well.
But the reliance on glamour species as a conservation biology strategy has been controversial. Critics lament that glamour species exert a strong bias on the scientific literature, receive undeserved prioritization in research as well as program and law design such as the Endangered Species Act. Many glamour species are not keystone species so protecting them may not be essential to at-risk habitats. In worst cases, the creation of the large, protected areas for humans to see glamour species leads to overgrazing and the elimination of unsightly but beneficial biodiversity. While humans might relate to charismatic species, these animals don’t inherently provide vital ecosystem services which a rational cost-benefit calculator might prefer.
Celebrities seem to have much in common with glamour species. They are almost definitionally recognizable, often aesthetically pleasing, inspiring of devotion in others, and used to mobilize public awareness for a variety of social campaigns. They get outsized media coverage which might be problematic because they aren’t representative victims in many respects. They often have more money, power, and legitimacy than other survivors. While celebrity #MeToo experiences certainly encompass a wide variety of offenses, certain settings or types of issues are meaningfully different such as those faced by those who are incarcerated, are undocumented, are trans. Relatedly, any woman can be raped, but it is poor, Brown and Black women who are most likely to be sterilized against their will.
Is the assumption correct that #MeToo celebrity victims get more public attention than other victims and others at risk? While it is not always true for celebrity spokespersonship, empirical analysis bears that out here. Is it similarly true that when the victims are not celebrities and don’t fit the attractive, cis, white, female paradigm and the celebrity offender is not the typical one, they receive less support than other victims of celebrity offenders? Anecdotal evidence suggests this to be the case. Look at the accusers of fashion designer Alexander Wang who suggest that the reason Wang faces no widespread condemnation is that his accusers are men, trans, and queer. Or the recently issued Letter in Defense of Black Survivors which notes that the “credible accusations of horrific sexual abuse and violence at the hands of Black celebrities—including Soulja Boy, T.I. and Tiny” as well as R&B singer Raz B’s account of his own sexual abuse have received minimal attention and the coverage did not center survivors’ stories.
The letter co-authored by Time’s Up, the National Women’s Law Center, and Tarana Burke’s organization ‘me too.’ suggests one reason that the differential coverage might matter. Namely that “Black survivors are not afforded the level of attention, care, and impartiality that we deserve—and problematic media and cultural depictions fuel a culture of disbelief that pushes survivors further into the shadows.” In other words, a landscape created by and crafted for celebrities and those like them does not just crowd out the voices of other victims, it might silence them entirely because the audience does not know how to hear them.
What lessons might conservation biology have for the #MeToo movement hoping to capitalize on the visibility and sympathy afforded to celebrities without ignoring or injuring other victims? Well, conservation biology suggests that glamour species might be used as an initial hook to draw in an audience, but that education efforts must expand beyond that original focus to build support for a broader conservation ethos. Here, I think this means celebrity #MeToo victims consciously using their personal narratives to educate and illuminate aspects of sexual harassment and sexual assault that might not yet be well understood. The original hashtag and related efforts certainly have made the public aware of the pervasiveness of the problem, but much is left to learn and understand. Take, for example, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram about the trauma of experiencing the Capitol Hill coup attempt. Her discussion of how sexual assault victims respond to additional trauma shone a spotlight on an aspect of survivorship with which many people might be unfamiliar. Scientific experts also credited her with educating people not to tell or expect trauma survivors to simply move on or to forget, as that imposes additional harms. At the same time, she additionally demonstrated the value of talking about her trauma as part of her healing process. Similarly, actress Evan Rachel Wood’s recent decision to name musician Marilyn Manson as her abuser is showing us in real time the very justified fear of retaliation, which sometimes takes the form of revenge porn, and how enablers can contribute to a system of retaliation.
Another lesson from conservation biology is the importance of looking for so-called Cinderella species—that is, glamour species in underserved biodiverse systems. Take, for instance, African American actress Gabrielle Union’s powerful testimony about being raped at gunpoint while working in a Payless Shoe Store. She didn’t just dispel the myth of safety being conferred on those who dress modestly, she also used her privilege and platform to draw attention to the kind of settings more ordinary people may find themselves in. Similarly, musician FKA twigs recently went public with her story and filed a lawsuit so she could expose the isolation techniques that abusers use and how she was eventually able to escape. In so doing, she has repeatedly emphasized her fears that she would not be believed as a person of color, educating those who read her words with a deeply personal narrative about why people of color might not come forward.
Lastly, conservation biology teaches the importance of those who design glamour species campaigns being willing to expand the conservation agenda. While glamour species might get donors to reach into their wallets and families to visit zoos, they can also be leveraged as part of a multipronged strategy to address broader environmental issues. Similarly, those celebrities speaking out on #MeToo can share their platform with other related causes. The 2018 golden globes are a nice example. Vocal #MeToo celebrities brought activists as dates and ceded their red carpet interviews to them—fostering attention to domestic care work, the One Fair Wage campaign, and farmworkers’ rights. The aforementioned letter co-authored by Time’s Up, the National Women’s Law Center, and ‘me too.’ is another example—celebrities may have helped create Time’s Up, but that doesn’t mean they keep the organization focused on helping those most like themselves. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s aforementioned Instagram is another—using our better understanding of the ways in which bystanders and society gaslight sexual assault victims and how that insight can be helpfully analogized to the calls for national unity and to silence those seeking Capitol Hill coup accountability. Just because the most visible faces of #MeToo might not be representative of all victims, careful and thoughtful messaging inspired by the lessons of conservation biology may still spur better social understanding and legal reforms that protect a broader swath of victims.