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Heidi Stevens: Cruel response to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's trauma tells me we haven't yet outgrown #MeToo movement
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Heidi Stevens: Cruel response to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's trauma tells me we haven't yet outgrown #MeToo movement

Last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, which featured Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, caused a heated battle over a stripper pole. This year’s Super Bowl is today in Tampa, Florida.

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

A year ago this week we were locked in a heated battle over a stripper pole.

Naive to what the coming weeks and months held in store — a pandemic, hundreds of thousands of deaths, shuttered schools, record-setting unemployment, civil unrest, a deeply polarizing presidential election, an insurrection, another impeachment — we busied ourselves with analysis of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s Super Bowl LIV halftime show.

I liked the show. Many did not.

I wrote a column about where it fit into #MeToo, since a common rebuke of the performance was that it undercut whatever progress women had started to make under the movement.

“In a time that you and I and so many others advocate for not seeing women as sex objects ... WHAT HAPPENED?” one reader wrote to me the day after the Super Bowl, echoing the thoughts of countless others. The word “disgusting” came up a lot. Like, a lot.

I did not find it disgusting. I found it celebratory and muscular and sexy. More to the point, I thought it fit seamlessly within a movement that, at least partly, set out to reclaim and reframe female sexuality. The #MeToo movement doesn’t say women can’t be sexual. The #MeToo movement says women don’t want to be raped.

Why am I bringing this all up now? Other than to say HOW CRAZY THAT THAT WAS ONLY A YEAR AGO IT FEELS LIKE A LIFETIME SINCE WE BOTHERED WITH SUCH THINGS!?!?

I’m bringing it up because on Monday Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., delivered a 90-minute Instagram Live, recounting her experience on Jan. 6 when a violent crowd stormed the U.S. Capitol. During the Instagram appearance, she told listeners that she was a sexual assault survivor.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” she said. “And I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”

Her critics, who are legion, moved quickly to discredit her. Journalist Michael Tracey called her talk “a masterclass in emotional manipulation.” Political commentator Austin Peterson tweeted “Jussie Smollett’s story was more believable than AOC’s.”

By midweek #AlexandriaOcasioSmollett was trending.

Their disbelief isn’t specifically limited to her sexual assault. Many of her critics are seizing on the fact that Ocasio-Cortez was in her office across the street from the U.S. Capitol building during the siege, rather than inside the Capitol itself. But lawmakers and staff were told to evacuate their offices, which are on Capitol grounds and connected to the U.S. Capitol building through underground tunnels.

“They are manipulating the fact that most people don’t know the layout the Capitol complex,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

She also tweeted this:

“You may not know that you know a survivor, but it’s highly likely that you do. Survivors of trauma are close to you. They are people you love & you may not know. Many decide whether their story is safe with someone by how they respond to other survivors. Don’t push them away.”

She continued:

“This is all to say that survivors are watching. Loved ones are watching. They may share their story tomorrow, or in months or years. Or they may never. Speaking vitriol towards other survivors hurts you & your loved ones.”

An excellent point, in the face of a bunch of classless drivel.

It’s dispiriting, though, to see another round of scolding and shunning when a woman reveals too much for some people’s tastes.

It feels like the same sad dance we’ve seen so many times, just set to different music: Don’t show so much. Don’t tell so much. Don’t feel so much. Don’t want so much. The world will tell you what to show, tell, feel, want. Be quiet. Wait to be asked.

The #MeToo movement, by my reading, set out to change all that.

For far too long and in far too many spaces (workplaces, homes, campuses), women have been treated as conquests: Bodies to lay claim to and wield power over and use for pleasure, whether the women who inhabit those bodies liked it or not. It’s that separating of a woman from her body that leads to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I’ve always seen the #MeToo movement as a rejoining: Woman to her body. Woman to her agency. Human to her humanity.

It’s why the Super Bowl halftime show felt to me like progress, not a regression. It’s why the response to AOC, an exhausting, trauma-filled year later, feels so deflating.

There’s no shortage of problems right now, and it’s difficult to quantify the trauma taking root and growing in the shadows of those problems. But we won’t solve any of it by reverting to a time when women’s survivor stories are met with derision and disbelief.

We’ve suffered and grieved and learned and changed and grown a lot in a year. For better or worse, I don’t think we’ve yet outgrown the #MeToo movement.

Contact Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens at hstevens@chicagotribune.com.

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