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Renée Graham

At Bill Cosby retrial, #MeToo is also on trial

Bill Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse for the second day of his sexual assault retrial on April 10 in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Bill Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse for the second day of his sexual assault retrial on April 10 in Norristown, Pennsylvania.David Maialetti/Getty Images

The #MeToo movement is on trial.

Bill Cosby is the defendant in his sexual assault retrial, yet the undeniable subplot is whether the still-burgeoning movement will impact the verdict. Between Cosby’s trials, published stories about entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial sexual predation unleashed a deluge of harrowing stories and accusations, followed by the resignations and firings of once-powerful men.

Now the legal proceedings that began Monday in a suburban Philadelphia courtroom have been tagged “the first big trial of the #MeToo era.” Nearly all of the potential jurors, when asked by a judge, indicated they had heard of the movement. #MeToo was founded a decade ago by Tarana Burke, but gained new currency in the aftermath of the Weinstein revelations.

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Andrea Constand, who says Cosby drugged and raped her in 2004, represents not only herself, but also all accusers unlikely to see their own assailant in cour t. Cosby has pleaded not guilty to three counts of aggravated indecent assault.

In the 10 months since a jury deadlocked on Cosby’s fate, our society has supposedly awakened to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in every walk of life. For better or worse, this trial will be judged not only for its legal outcome, but also as evidence of whether the accountability and consequences that #MeToo demands have replaced the hush money and cultural complicity that sustains abusers and pushes victims into silence and shame.

Of course, whenever a marginalized group — in this case, sexual assault survivors — dares to be heard, there’s a backlash. At first, men seemed willing to shut up — not necessarily because they were finally listening to women, but they knew that they would likely say something dumb. (See: Damon, Matt.) Yet as the carefully constructed reputations of men like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey crumbled, cries of “witch hunt” grew louder. And men weren’t alone in charging that the #MeToo movement had gone too far.

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Recently, Tony Robbins, an alleged motivational speaker, publicly challenged the motivations of sexual assault survivors. At one of his mega events last month, he said women use #MeToo “to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else.” A woman in the audience challenged Robbins’s victim-blaming foolishness, but he dug in deeper. He told a story about a “very famous” businessman who gave a job to a less qualified man because it was “too big a risk” to hire an attractive woman.

Cue the fragile male tears. Men, you see, can’t be expected to resist a good-looking woman, so better not to have those temptresses around at all. This also pushes the falsehood that sexual misconduct is about sex and attraction, when it’s really about power and control.

Once the clip hit social media, Robbins got a deserved dragging. Burke tweeted, “If you talk to more SURVIVORS and less sexist businessmen maybe you’ll understand what we want. We want safety. We want healing. We want accountability.”

Robbins’s eventual apology didn’t lessen the carelessness of his words. Six months into this movement, it’s clear some people don’t get it because they still refuse to get it.

Inevitably, such attitudes pervade sexual assault trials. Will jurors see Cosby as a once-beloved TV dad? An 80-year-old man with failing eyesight who requires assistance? Or a serial sexual predator who hid behind his good-guy persona for decades?

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The Cosby trial also arrives in the midst of unsettling news for the movement. On Monday, the Los Angeles District Attorney declined to file charges against writer-director James Toback because the statute of limitations expired on sexual abuse claims by five women. And restaurateur Mario Batali, shunned last year after several women spoke about his decades of abusive behavior, is already plotting his comeback.

And then there’s R. Kelly, someow still unscathed after all these years.

Still, Cosby may be more worried about his retrial, and not just because five other women who say the comedian sexually assually them will testify for the prosecution. Last January, Cosby, out with friends at a Philadelphia restaurant, greeted a woman reporter with a handshake and a plea:

“I just shook your hand like a man . . . please don’t put me on #MeToo.”

More than 60 Cosby accusers already have. In about a month, we’ll see if this time a jury will as well.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham