Over the weekend of January 20-21, throughout the United States and beyond its borders, millions of protesters gathered in self-proclaimed “Women’s Marches.” 200,000 in New York City. 500,000 in Los Angeles. At least 1,000 in Richmond, Virginia; Concord, New Hampshire; and Raleigh, North Carolina. And 300,000 in Chicago, more than the number who assembled there one year ago for the first Women’s March, the day after President Trump’s inauguration.
A lot has changed in the past year. One year ago, it was the unthinkable election to the nation’s highest office of a man who was recorded on tape talking about grabbing women by the pussy that drove millions of protesters to the streets. Since then, the emergence of the #MeToo movement has provoked a seemingly endless stream of new stories to fuel the resistance. As one of the signs photographed at the Women’s Marches reads, “I got 99 problems, and sexual harassing douchebags are most of them.”
The message was representative of the many handmade signs held aloft at the marches that shouted their opposition to sexism in explicit language:
“My favorite sexual position is CONSENSUAL”
“Feminism is my second favorite F word”
“Women against electile dysfunction”
“I would call Trump a pussy but he lacks the warmth and the depth”
“Only Trump can imagine one inch equalling a thousand miles”
“Grab ‘em by the midterms”
“If I wanted the government in my uterus, I’d screw a congressman.”
“Does this ass [image of Trump] make my sign look big?” and “Does this ass make my country look small?”
“My pussy is your worst nightmare”
“Think outside my box”
“DTFight the patriarchy”
“Keep your hands off my Cunstitutional rights”
“Trickle down only works when done by Russian hookers.”
And, last but not least, “Trump has a small Pence.”
These signs are revealing of something important: the #MeToo movement is definitely not prudish. Despite the anxieties of doubters like Catherine Deneuve and Lionel Shriver, the #MeToo movement is not seeking to return to a historical order in which women were shielded from sexual language or imagery. Instead, protesters at last weekend’s Women’s Marches who held up signs with explicit language demonstrated their willingness to use sexual language as a metaphor for power, for the purpose of overturning traditional hierarchies that associate men and manhood with assertion or even aggression and white, middle-class women and womanhood with passivity and respectability.
The signs seen at the women’s marches draw on a long history of the use of sex as a metaphor for power. When European adventurers first encountered the new world and wanted to spread the message that the continent was ripe for exploitation, they depicted America as a naked maiden waiting to receive her male conquerors. When white people in the post-Civil War South wanted to retake control of state governments from the interracial coalitions who governed during Reconstruction, they mobilized characterizations of African-American men as rapists and threats to white womanhood. When Nativists sought to crack down on immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they depicted newcomer women (Jews, Chinese, and others) as prostitutes and threats to American sexual purity.
That weekend, when feminists attending the Women’s Marches held up signs using sexual metaphors and imagery to lay claim to power, they were entering into a long tradition. At the same time, they were making a break from the antipathy to the sexualization of women that was a major strain within second-wave feminism. Sexual language on Women’s March signs expand the narrow shared territory where it is possible to insist that women can want sex, be crass, demand respect, require explicit consent, and expect to be treated like fully cognizant human beings all at the same time. And when their partners refuse or fail, women turn language into a tool to renegotiate power and hold (at least some) men accountable, as #MeToo has shown.
And yet, this embrace of sexual language is not without risks. Some of the signs seen at the Women’s Marches use metaphors that reinforce old hierarchies rather than tear them down. As funny as signs attacking Trump’s small Pence may be, the underlying suggestion that good leadership can be symbolized by a large piece of male anatomy has the effect of imaginatively disqualifying women from office. Some might say there’s also the danger that equating womanhood with female reproductive organs excludes trans women, although as trans feminist Andrea Long Chu recently pointed out on Facebook, “the only way that one reaches the conclusion that the pussy hat is a biological essentialist symbol is to basically assume in advance that the meaning of a vagina is essentially biological.” The signs at the Women’s March, and the long history of sexual metaphors they draw on, demonstrate Chu’s point. The meaning of the sexual imagery and language on the Women’s March signs was definitely symbolic. And for our part, we prefer the sign praising the warmth and depth of female anatomy over the signs belittling the size of Trump’s Pence. That’s a sexual metaphor with the power to turn old hierarchies inside out.