Taiwanese Netflix show ‘Wave Makers’ sparks #MeToo allegations

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Chien Li-ying wrote the script for Taiwanese political drama “Wave Makers,” she had no idea it would become a Netflix hit, let alone that it would generate real political waves.

But the show, which follows a group of political staffers during a presidential election campaign, has triggered a tsunami of allegations as Taiwan prepares for a real presidential election in January.

“Because of Wave Makers, we are now seeing the first wave of a #MeToo movement in Taiwan,” said Chen Mei-hua, a professor of sociology and feminism at National Sun Yat-sen University.

In a pivotal scene in the show, which premiered at the end of April, a staffer complains about being sexually harassed by a colleague. Although the revelation is damaging for the party, the party spokeswoman won’t allow the issue to drop. “Let’s not just let this go,” she tells the female staffer.

That line has since become a rallying cry for a flood of sexual harassment and assault allegations — including multiple cases that have sparked high-level resignations within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

This prompted President Tsai Ing-wen to issue a public apology.

“Our society as a whole must educate ourselves again,” Tsai said in Facebook post on Tuesday night after more allegations surfaced. “The people who have been sexually harassed are the victims, not the people who did wrong. These are people we want to protect, not treat with prejudice,” said Tsai.

The accusations have caused the DPP’s favorability ratings to plummet just as Taiwan gears up for a tough election campaign. The ruling party, in power for two terms, risks losing to the nationalist Kuomintang. The KMT prioritizes closer ties with China, which claims the island democracy as part of its territory.

The “Wave Makers” scriptwriters set out to produce a show about women in politics, rather than focusing on #MeToo issues.

“But if you want to address the challenges women face in the workplace, you can’t avoid talking about sexual harassment,” said Chien. “Especially in organizations where the collective goal is prioritized over individual needs, there is often a culture of self-sacrifice.”

In a turn of events straight out of the show, the DPP’s deputy secretary general, Hsu Chia-tien, resigned last week after a former staffer said in a detailed Facebook post that Hsu had dismissed her sexual harassment complaint.

“Let’s not just let this go,” the Facebook post began, ending with a screenshot from “Wave Makers.”

The former staffer said Hsu had responded to her complaint with a question that echoed one put to writer E. Jean Carroll in her recent trial against former president Donald Trump: Why didn’t you scream for help?

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As further sexual harassment allegations have surfaced in the week since the “Wave Makers”-inspired Facebook post, two additional DPP officials have stepped down. A senior adviser to the president resigned on Tuesday.

During the same period, the DPP’s favorability rating has dropped by half, according to the Taiwan Public Opinion Center.

The party’s chairman and candidate for president, Lai Ching-te, has vowed zero tolerance for any future harassment within the party. Lai has proposed an official inquiry into the accusations, which Tsai has endorsed.

Lai also set up a hotline for people to report incidents directly to the party secretary general and said party members should take gender equality courses, which he would also attend.

The accusations haven’t been limited to the DPP. Across the aisle, a KMT legislator has been accused of grabbing a female journalist’s hand and kissing her head in 2014.

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Although “Wave Makers” and the initial Facebook post it inspired were concerned with politics, people across Taiwan have now come forward with experiences of harassment by university professors, doctors, directors and baseball umpires.

Gender equality has been a point of pride in Taiwanese politics, especially compared with neighboring China, where women are increasingly being told to have babies and the political leadership is entirely male.

Taiwan has been led by a woman for nearly a decade, and 42% of its members of parliament are female — well above the global average of roughly 27%, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

But the government has until now been slow to respond to reported cases of sexual harassment.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, while there were 17,000 sexual assaults reported in 2022, there were just 2,100 incidents of sexual harassment. Experts say people are unwilling to come forward with reports of harassment where any ambiguity might exist.

Chen, the professor, says these numbers are likely a major underestimate, and that many people remain silent.

It is too early to tell how Taiwan’s #MeToo moment will affect the upcoming presidential election. “MeToo is not a partisan issue,” said Chen. “Things change rapidly during election season in Taiwan, so it’s not like there’s no chance to turn the tide.”

For her part, Chien, the “Wave Makers” screenwriter, said in the wake of the response to the show, she was herself compelled to share — and posted on Facebook her own account of being sexually harassed.

“A lot of people have endured for a really long time without an emotional outlet,” she said.

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