In the past week, two prominent women have been accused of sexual abuse, resulting in questions about the #MeToo movement’s integrity. The first was Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University, who was suspended for allegedly harassing an advisee, Nimrod Reitman. The second was Asia Argento, who, according to a report in The New York Times, paid off a younger actor named Jimmy Bennett so that he would not go public with his allegation that she sexually abused him when he was a minor.
In the case of Ronell, a renowned intellectual who is not a #MeToo spokesperson, her allies in academia—including feminist luminaries like Jack Halberstam, Judith Butler, Chris Kraus, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—have closed ranks around her and sought to discredit her accuser. The controversy surrounding Argento’s scandal is different: She was one of the first Hollywood stars to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of abuse, and was an early leader in the #MeToo movement.* She deplored the way Weinstein and his enablers covered up abuse through secretive deals and legal maneuvers.
Yet the implications of Ronell and Argento’s cases were similar: As The Los Angeles Times asked, “Do the claims against Asia Argento invalidate the #MeToo movement?” Did they not expose the hypocrisies of feminists who themselves have been accused of being too quick to condemn and of succumbing to a mob mentality?
Weinstein’s lawyer pounced, saying the Argento story “reveals a stunning level of hypocrisy.” Her “sheer duplicity,” he said, “should demonstrate to everyone how poorly the allegations against Mr. Weinstein were actually vetted and accordingly, cause all of us to pause and allow due process to prevail, not condemnation by fundamental dishonesty.” In its write-up of the Ronell case, The New York Times said the complaint against her “raised a challenge for feminists—how to respond when one of their own behaved badly.”
In fact, the way feminists have reacted to these allegations has been deeply clarifying. Argento’s allies in #MeToo have taken her victim’s accusations seriously, while acknowledging that women are perfectly capable of committing the kinds of crimes that are also committed against them. If all the allegations are true, then there can be little doubt that Argento behaved irresponsibly in speaking out so publicly against the very things she was doing in secret.
In contrast, Ronell’s supporters have swarmed to defend her. But rather than expose a hypocrisy or invalidate the #MeToo movement, this has only underscored the point that #MeToo feminists have been making along—about the nature of power and the way it fosters abuse.
In its crudest form, the #MeToo movement has been presented as an alliance of women against men. This is a mistake, but one easily made. The vast preponderance of people publicly identified as abusers under the #MeToo rubric have been men. Often, they have been famous men, or men in positions of power in workplaces.
But #MeToo, which is after all a loose alliance between thousands of individuals, is about holding people who commit sexual offenses to account, especially when they have been protected from the consequences of their actions by systemic bias. Because inequality between men and women is a well-documented phenomenon in many workplaces and other social contexts, systemic bias has often erred in the direction of protecting abusive men. In the Hollywood system, for example, Harvey Weinstein’s criminal tendencies were amplified into an industry-wide pattern that drew many other professionals into complicity with him.
There’s an old question in criminology and gender studies about whether rape is a crime about power, or about sex. The consensus is that it’s a bit of both, in varying quantities according to the case. And power comes in many forms: A male perpetrator might, for example, have more power because of broader sexist social structures, but abuse can also come from a simple difference in power between two people.
Avital Ronell and Asia Argento are both women who held a great deal of power over their accusers. Ronell was Nimrod Reitman’s academic adviser, which means she was not only his mentor but a gatekepeer to his professional advancement. In a lawsuit Reitman has filed (subsequent to NYU’s finding of a Title IX violation), he alleges that his adviser “created a false romantic relationship” between them, and that he was “subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking.” Ronell “asserted complete domination and control over his life,” and threatened to put the advancement of his PhD in danger. Argento cast Bennett in a number of movies, beginning when he was 6 years old and appeared in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004), a movie she directed, co-wrote, and starred in. She is alleged to have given him alcohol and pressured him into sex when he was 17, which is below the age of consent in California, where the incident reportedly took place.
Contrary to claims from #MeToo’s critics, women are capable of believing male accusers, too. Many feminists understand that Argento may have done a terrible thing and can no longer be a public face of the movement. Rose McGowan, her ally in activism, has expressed sympathy for Bennett. Argento’s actions, then, do not compromise the activism of those she previously called allies.
The response from Ronell’s supporters could not be more different. The Times located a draft of a letter written by a group of scholars in support of Ronell, which praised her “grace,” “keen wit,” and “intellectual commitment.” The first signatory to the letter was Judith Butler, the famous feminist scholar. Other celebrity signatories included Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Slavoj Žižek.
The letter’s authors admitted that they have had no access to the dossier of claims against Ronell. But they called Reitman’s allegations “malicious,” while emphasizing Ronell’s seniority and prestige—precisely what the allegations accuse her of exploiting. The signatories said they have “collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar, but also as someone who has served as Chair of both the Departments of German and Comparative Literature at New York University.” Later in the letter the group noted, “As you know, [Ronell] is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.”
In the last few days, further defenses of Ronell have appeared online from well-known figures in cultural studies and literature like Chris Kraus, Lisa Duggan, and Jack Halberstam. Duggan, a professor in New York University’s social and cultural analysis department (where, full disclosure, my own PhD supervisor is also a professor), dressed up harassment in the guise of sophisticated theory. The language of Ronell’s emails must have baffled the investigators, she asserted, because they could not understand the sexualized language that passes between queers (Ronell and Reitman are both gay). “The nature of the email exchange resonates with many queer academics, whose practices of queer intimacy are often baffling to outsiders,” she wrote. This reasoning echoed the philosopher Colin McGinn’s denial that he sent sexual overtures to one of his graduate students, saying he referred to masturbation in an email only to teach her the difference between “logical implication and conversational implicature.”
Kraus, Duggan, and Halberstam all blamed the victim in the Ronell case. But after investigating, NYU concluded that Ronell’s harassment—including kissing, touching, constant calling, and refusing to work with him when her demands were unreciprocated—was “sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.” (You can read the lawsuit lodged by Reitman against Ronell here.)
Furthermore, other former students have accused Ronell of abusive behavior, with one anonymous student accusing her of a variety of unethical practices on Facebook, including breaking her students’ self-esteem, humiliating them in front of others, then using the newly malleable student to do menial tasks for her, like folding her laundry. Andrea Long Chu, who was at one time Ronell’s teaching assistant, wrote on Twitter that the accusations track “100%” with Ronell’s “behavior and personality.”
Despite the different responses to Ronell and Argento’s cases, they serve to clarify, not muddle, the nature of #MeToo. It is an open movement, formed across social media by people in constant conversation with one another. It is not centralized in any form, led loosely by activists like Tarana Burke. By contrast, the reaction of the academic establishment to Ronell’s infractions has been an attempt to consolidate the establishment’s power. If her supporters actually had no idea about Ronell’s behavior—if they have real reason to believe in her innocence—then that divide speaks to the segmentation of academia according to rank, to the power dynamics that plague the academy and make its institutions ripe for abuse. Graduate students are strongly incentivized not to speak up, since their entire future is in the hands of their advisers.
These two affairs illustrate, with depressing succinctness, just how badly power corrupts. Asia Argento may be famous, but she was not protected by tenure. Her allies in what has been a horizontal, democratic movement have no institutional reasons to support her. The Ronell cheerleaders, on the other hand, are almost universally intellectuals who once upon a time considered themselves cultural outsiders—queer theorists, postcolonial scholars, feminist thinkers. They act as if they are a politicized coalition defending a vulnerable person, without the awareness that they are now the tenured, the published, the well-off, the powerful: precisely the demographic that #MeToo proposes to investigate.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Asia Argento had been a leader of #MeToo since the movement’s inception. She was at the forefront of #MeToo when it gained widespread recognition in 2017, years after Tarana Burke founded the movement. We regret the error.