A shining example of the #MeToo movement's arrested developmentby Charlotte Graham-McLay
While the Harvey Weinsteins of this world are met with the justice system when evidence suggests they've committed a crime - what about the rest? As Charlotte Graham-McClay writes, it's not enough to say sorry and then expect to move on.
But another news story this week has laid bare the aspect of #MeToo with which we’re still deeply struggling: how to respond to the misdeeds of powerful men once we know about them.
“Not to belittle it or excuse it or anything,” began the actor Jason Bateman, an adult human man with his own brain, which should have been blaring a foghorn of warning in that moment. He was speaking in an interview with the New York Times about an incident in which one of his Arrested Development castmates, Jeffrey Tambor, blew up at another, Jessica Walter.
For someone promising not to offer excuses for Tambor’s behaviour, Bateman tried very hard to do just that. Actors were special sorts of people, he said, who needed context to be given for the way they sometimes behaved. A lot of men would like context for the ways in which they behave, and by that they mean they want you to take your impression that they’re behaving like a dick, and turn your opinion into one where you agree they’re not actually behaving like a dick.
In the astonishing, at times excruciating Times interview, the worst part wasn’t Bateman’s desperate bid to protect his castmate, Jeffrey Tambor, from… actually, I’m not sure what. Tambor was there, sitting alongside Bateman, still the wealthy star of a TV show about to screen its fifth season. No one was threatening his power or position, even though he’d admitted he yelled at a co-star.
The worst part of the Arrested Development interview wasn’t even that Jessica Walter, the actor Tambor had yelled at, was sitting there too. The worst part was, surely, hearing her audible tears as she tried to explain that Tambor’s verbal harassment was the most severe she experienced in 60 years in the acting business. This is a polished, professional woman used to media interviews, but in this case, the pain of the memory was so raw that she cried just remembering it, in front of castmates rushing to explain why it wasn’t that bad.
We don’t have to be Hollywood megastars for this scenario to feel all too familiar: the humiliation of being told that an instance of sexist bullying or abuse wasn’t as serious as we knew it was; of being asked to forgive, when the man you’re supposed to be forgiving hasn’t suffered any particular consequences for the thing he did, and his friends are falling over themselves to try and ensure he never will.
When men want a second chance
The Times interview with the cast of Arrested Development plays out a dynamic that will be familiar to many women who have complained about a man’s misconduct at work, in a bar, or even within their own family or group of friends. The man accused wants a second chance, a career comeback, and for their statements of regret to be the magic words that secure those things. Like a little kid who thinks they’re suffering eternal damnation because they’ve been sent to their room for five minutes, this man wants to know why, when he just said he was sorry, his life isn’t already back to normal yet.
Often, the woman is pressured to accept the apology - minimising her own grief for what she has lost through sexist or abusive behaviour - or she is held responsible for cutting short the career or legacy of an “otherwise good” man. And in between the two are their friends or colleagues, often more concerned with mitigating how embarrassing and awkward the situation is than they are with considering what would help the woman’s healing or sense of safety.
While we know Jeffrey Tambor was fired from another show, Transparent, after being accused of sexual harassment on set, the nature of his verbal harassment of Jessica Walter is opaque in the Times piece. But in a subsequent interview, another actor from the show, David Cross, characterised the incident as “egregious” with “a little bit of cruelty to it,” and said that while there had been other blow-ups between cast members on set, Tambor’s abuse of Walter “took the focus,” was in front of a large number of people, and was “shocking” and “uncomfortable.” This, clearly, wasn’t just a snide remark: it was a public, humiliating, dressing-down. The kind that should have consequences.
You know when David Cross didn’t say any of those things? During the Times interview, with Jeffrey Tambor sitting next to him. Instead, he and his cast mates looked on as Jessica Walter broke down in tears recalling how badly Tambor’s blow-up had thrown her, and shakily offered her forgiveness “for the New York Times.” But when only one member of the cast - the other woman present - had spoken up in her defence, what else was Walter supposed to say? Jason Bateman had already said he would not make another season of Arrested Development without Jeffrey Tambor. If Walter had said she’d prefer not to work with Tambor again, she would have been considered the one who had ruined it.
In the first piece of good PR work the publicist snoozing on the Arrested Development gig had done all week, the cast’s UK press tour has now been cancelled. But the damage was done. In this moment of reckoning for those who have abused their power - sexually and through other abusive behaviour - women have spent the past months learning to verbalise what has happened to them, and to expect, often for the first time, that the mainstream media and ordinary people might listen to and consider what they have to say.
Women have been tricked into thinking it's safe to speak up
What we haven’t yet learned how to do is to hold these men to account for their actions. We’ve tricked women like Jessica Walter into thinking that it’s safe to speak up now, but when they do, they are too often waved off with denials of how bad the harassment was or explanations that the man has committed to being a better person now (as Tambor has), so she doesn’t get to stay mad about this one.
It shouldn’t be incumbent on the victims of harassment, abuse or assault to accept apologies or give the all-clear for a powerful man’s career to roll back onto its upward trajectory. The Weinsteins of this world will be met by the justice system when evidence suggests they have committed a crime (although the justice system has traditionally proven inadequate at dealing with sexual offences), but when the wrongdoing doesn’t merit handcuffs and a court case, it’s up to us.
We can’t make every man who’s made his career by belittling, harassing or abusing women go and live in a cave or banish them to Mars. It doesn’t solve anything (and at this rate we’d run out of men). While we must create pathways for men who have abused power to atone and contribute to society in ways that do not put vulnerable people at risk from them again, we must take care of the people they have hurt first. For women who have suffered particularly egregious harassment or abuse, that might take years - so why should the man who perpetrated it be allowed to claim he’s done the work of remorse after a single interview or Twitter thread in which he uttered the word “sorry”?
While everyone deserves a chance to live their life, holding a position of power shouldn’t be considered a right, and only those harassers who can show they understand what they did wrong - and have done their best to fix it - should be allowed one again. For many, it might be that although they are welcome to jobs, relationships and friends, just like anyone else, a role in which they wield power over other people should never be theirs again. That’s what consequences for profoundly hurting another person should look like.
In the Arrested Development interview, Jeffrey Tambor’s costars seemed frustrated that Tambor’s public commitment to doing better after his admitted wrongdoing was not being sufficiently respected. What they failed to realise is that the cost of publicly committing to being a better person is exactly zero dollars! It’s free. And it is fair and understandable that women want to see change, progress and genuine remorse from these men before they go back to being treated with the same trust and respect they are accustomed to enjoying.
People are rarely irredeemable and we should remain open-minded and compassionate to that fact. But our compassion must not come at the expense of the women who have been hurt, like Jessica Walter, who deserves our acknowledgement that her experience was so shocking and upsetting that she cried months later, in public, just remembering it. We must demand that powerful men who want their comebacks do the work of fixing what they broke - and not merely saying they will. As the cast of Arrested Development learned this week, the conversations of holding people to account are hard and messy. But as we wrestle with how to respond when someone we know and love is accused of doing something sexist, harmful or destructive to another person, let’s steel ourselves to be brave in asking for consequences, even when our demands are embarrassing or come at a personal cost. Otherwise, we’re asking their victims to keep on paying.
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