Harvey Weinstein’s conviction overturned: is that it for #MeToo?

The movement’s mantra – believe women – was a powerful corrective to a society that was too happy to dismiss their stories. But seven years of hindsight on, we can understand its failings with greater clarity

Harvey Weinstein – the now disgraced Hollywood producer – was the first domino in the #MeToo revolution. In 2017, he faced a flood of accusations about serious sexual misconduct, including rape. It was a galvanising moment for women: all of a sudden, the curtains were drawn back and women – with strength in numbers – could come forward with their own stories of abuse by powerful (and previously unaccountable) men. #MeToo will be remembered as a defining moment of the 2010s; Weinstein as its ultimate symbol.

The ruling of a New York court last week, seven years on from the inception of the #MeToo movement, is a historic moment. Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction was thrown out on legal technicalities, with this statement from the court: “The trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts”, adding that lines of questioning in the trial were “highly prejudicial” and an “abuse of judicial discretion”. There will be a retrial, however. And Weinstein still faces a 16-year sentence in California after he was convicted of rape there.

This ruling has hardly vindicated Weinstein; he will still always symbolise 2017′s great reckoning with sexual abuse; and his original conviction will remain a hugely important cultural touchstone, where attitudes, world over, to such misconduct were changed forever. But it also seems to represent a setback of sorts, a sharp rebuff to his accusers, a re-excavation of all of the wounds opened up over 2017. Weinstein emerging from the entire saga somehow a free man – at least as far as New York’s top appeals court is concerned – does not seem like a suitable conclusion. But that is just a feeling and those, rightly, are not factors in matters of the law.

Seven years of hindsight from the start of the movement, we can understand its failings with greater clarity. #MeToo was far from perfect. As flurries of allegations emerged – faster than anyone could keep up with – waters became terribly muddy. It at once became a movement that was about making sure there were serious consequences for grave and violent sexual crimes, and simultaneously, an umbrella term for any level of vaguely described impropriety. Senator Al Franken’s resignation over allegations of being a bit lecherous comes to mind. It seems now a foolish oversight to design a movement that tries to capture such a broad spectrum of behaviour in one go: from rape to an unwanted hand on a knee.


The second failing,the more important one, was the speed at which due process was forgotten. Innocent until proven guilty has always been a cornerstone of civilised society, but as the momentum of #MeToo gathered it receded into the back of minds. It created a cultural milieu where a mere anonymous accusation without investigation or substantiation had profound and lasting professional consequences. #MeToo’s mantra – believe women – was a powerful corrective to a society that was too happy to dismiss their stories. But, as Michelle Goldberg put it in the New York Times, “a reflexive assumption of guilt is not a decent substitute”.

A backlash arrived in time. In 2018, about 100 French (of course) women – including actress Catherine Deneuve – signed an open letter condemning the overreaches of the movement. Sexual crimes are bad, it thankfully conceded. But sex is complicated, the boundaries are not always clear, we shouldn’t remove all sexual intrigue from life at the altar of #MeToo, it contended. Such retrograde piety is bad for women, too. “Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss,” said the letter. It was all a rather predictable rebuff. But not entirely unfair.

All of this can be true. #MeToo is certainly not beyond reproach: there were overreaches, conflation of serious crime and lightly inappropriate behaviour. And maybe the French have a point too. But for all its flaws and failings, it was still necessary, the vestiges of 2017 will be felt forever, and the world is on balance – for almost everyone – better off for it. This is precisely why the Weinstein moment feels so strange. There is a grim irony as the face of an international reckoning with sexual abuse – where women’s testimonials were heard properly, perhaps, for the first time – has his case thrown out on a legal technicality.

#MeToo was messy, at points meaninglessly cruel, and no less necessary for any of those facts. This is the case with most revolutions – hardly moments in time known for their restraint, order and unassailable sense. #MeToo sacrificed nuance for momentum, and at great cost to some. An ideal world would not have to suffer such a trade-off, but this was always going to be an unavoidable reality. But in spite of all this – and regardless of Weinstein’s case – the long lens of history will look on the movement kindly, as it should.