A Wider Lens on the MeToo Backlash: Who Pays for Societal Change?

Before I became a journalist, I spent a brief period as a commercial litigation associate, working long hours on disputes over securities, bankruptcy agreements, and contracts.

That job taught me how much of the commercial world was just about expectations. Every contract, and every securitized transaction, had started out as a tiny little promise or prediction about what was going to happen in the future: Here are the rules of the game, it said, and here are the ways that you could come out a winner.

One thing that meant, I soon noticed, was that even when the world changed for the better — improved technologies that rendered old ones obsolete, fairer laws to make things more equitable — people got angry, and felt wronged, if they had invested on the expectation that the older, slightly worse world would continue. When progress for many meant costs for some, backlash followed, often in the form of a lawsuit.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week as I’ve been reporting on anti-feminist backlashes. That issue has been in the news lately because of all the vitriol around the Depp v. Heard trial, seen by many as a backlash to the broader MeToo phenomenon. But it’s a thread that weaves through a lot of other stories as well: anti-abortion politics, L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and the violence that many women around the world face when they try to demand economic equality.

One way to think about those backlashes is as an emotional response to loss of status. But another is to see them as an angry response to thwarted expectations, just like those lawsuits I worked on long ago.

Bride and prejudice

Rachel Brulé, a political scientist at Boston University, studies women’s rights and political participation in India. For years, she has been conducting research on the backlash against women who try to claim their inheritance rights there. And her findings can shed light on the dangers and incentives for women who seek equality not just in India, but in other countries, too.

The traditional system for most Indian families is that parents pass on a portion of their assets to their sons via inheritance, and a portion of their assets to their daughters via dowry upon their marriage. That system puts daughters at a sharp disadvantage overall, because dowries are negotiated by parents and become the property of the in-laws, leaving women with neither control over the process nor ownership of the assets.

Our Coverage of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Trial

A trial between the formerly married actors became a fierce battleground over the truth about their relationship.

Sons, by contrast, inherit assets directly, and are expected to support and care for their parents in old age.

Officially, dowries are illegal now, and daughters are supposed to inherit alongside sons. But in practice the custom still holds sway across much of the country. So Brulé set out to figure out what it takes for women to assert the rights they have on paper.

She found that political power was one factor: In areas where quotas gave a certain number of political seats to women, the female elected officials were able to help women assert their inheritance rights. But when that renegotiation of patriarchal norms upset the expectations that people had already relied upon, there was often a violent backlash.

Unmarried women, she found, had a chance to align everyone’s expectations by negotiating for inheritance rights instead of a dowry, thus aligning expectations in advance. But when married women, for whom a dowry had already been paid, started to demand inheritance rights as well, their brothers would often physically attack or even kill them, Brulé told me. And sons also often refused to care for their parents in their old age if they expected to have to share their inheritances with their sisters.

That meant that changes that would benefit women in general could be individually devastating for older women who had expected to rely on the support of their sons, and particularly their daughters-in-law, for care and respite from the often backbreaking tasks of household labor. By imposing those costs on parents, sons could bring extra pressure to bear on their sisters to give up their inheritance rights.

In some ways, of course, that situation is specific to India. But in a more general sense it mirrors the rules of nearly every patriarchal society, which dictate that women’s protection and success comes from their relationships with men — and so any threat to those men’s status can trigger a backlash, not just from the men who stand to lose out directly, but also from the women who have relied on expectations of those men’s support.

The patriarchal bargain

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Angie Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas who studies voting patterns among white, southern women. She found that at first, when the Republican Party’s “southern strategy” was focused primarily on opposing segregation and civil rights, it wasn’t very successful in attracting women. But when the message broadened to be anti-feminist as well, white southern women started voting Republican.

The key to understanding that, Maxwell believes, is understanding white southern women’s expectations under the patriarchal bargain that many had entered into, albeit under coercive and unequal circumstances: That women who followed tradition — getting married and staying at home — could expect financial support and protection from their husbands in return.

(Race was still a factor: the implied protection was against the supposed threat from sexually predatory Black men — the same myth conveniently employed to try to justify both white supremacy and male patriarchal dominance over women.)

And just as Indian mothers feared losing their sons’ support if daughters achieved equal inheritance rights, many southern white women feared losing the benefits of that patriarchal bargain. Activists like Phyllis Schlafly warned that feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment would release men from their obligations to support their wives and children — an especially threatening prospect for mothers who had given up educational and career opportunities in the expectation of support from their husbands.

Johnny Depp’s Libel Case Against Amber Heard

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In the courtroom. A defamation trial involving the formerly married actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard just concluded in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia. Here is what to know about the case:

Ms. Heard’s op-ed. Mr. Depp’s suit was filed in response to an op-ed Ms. Heard wrote for The Washington Post in 2018 in which she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Though she did not mention her former husband’s name, he and his lawyers have argued that she was clearly referring to their relationship.

The domestic abuse claims. In the 2020 trial, Ms. Heard accused her former husband of assaulting her first in 2013, after they began dating, and detailed other instances in which he slapped her, head-butted her and threw her to the ground. Mr. Depp has since accused her of punching him, kicking him and throwing objects at him.

The verdict. After a six-week trial, the jury found Mr. Depp was defamed by Ms. Heard in her op-ed, but also that she had been defamed by one of his lawyers. Mr. Depp was awarded $15 million in compensatory and punitive damages, but the judge capped the punitive damages total in accordance with legal limits for a total of $10.35 million. The jury awarded Ms. Heard $2 million in damages.

“I have a lot of empathy for them,” Maxwell told me. “If you’re financially dependent and people are saying that you’re going to have to fend for yourself, that if you get divorced your husband won’t have to pay child support, that’s terrifying.”

The result was a reactionary backlash from women that stopped the Equal Rights Amendment in its tracks, and helped the Republican Party cement its dominance in the south.

I have wondered, watching the passionate anger that so many women have unleashed against Amber Heard in recent weeks, if something similar is now happening in reaction to the changes wrought by MeToo over the past few years.

Some of that response is undoubtedly because of people’s parasocial relationships with the charismatic star in that case, Johnny Depp, and some of it may also have been amplified by bots and other less-than-authentic social media activity. But in nearly every contentious discussion of MeToo that I’ve ever had, there has been an undercurrent of fear, from women as well as men, of the costs of accountability.

The bargain, pre-MeToo, was that powerful men could behave in abusive and toxic ways toward less-powerful women, and the women and men who allowed them to get away with it would get to share in some of the benefits. Over the last few years, that bargain has started to crack. At least some powerful men have started to experience the consequences of their behavior. And, as a result, many other people who had relied on that old bargain have experienced losses as well.

When a male star’s abusive behavior means his movie gets shelved or his television show canceled, that affects the careers of producers and agents, actors and crew members, press officers and more, many of them women. And a similar if lower-profile pattern plays out in other workplaces as well. Firing a law-firm partner can mean losing lucrative clients; firing a professor could void a grant that supports graduate students. An executive who sexually harasses some women may mentor and cultivate relationships with others, and their careers may suffer without his sponsorship.

One lawsuit is not enough to put an end to MeToo, which is about far more than just the movie industry. It is notable, for instance, that the same week the Depp/Heard suit was wrapping up, the Southern Baptist Convention released a long-awaited report about sexual abuse by pastors and other church officials, prompting a nationwide reckoning about the costs of patriarchal silence and institutional misogyny.

But Brulé’s research also hints at a more chilling lesson about who really bears the costs of changing the patriarchal bargain. In the communities she studied, when inheritance norms shifted, men lost some assets, and some older women lost the support they had expected in old age. But it was the younger, married women trying to assert their rights ultimately who paid the highest price.

“Those are the women who see physical as well as psychological violence by brothers,” Brulé told me. “To get them to sign their rights away, they physically attack them. And sometimes kill them if they won’t.”

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