If you’re a sexual harasser or abuser, last week was big for you. You’re the CEO of a major broadcast network with a decades-long habit of harassing, assaulting, and humiliating women on the job? Congrats, you sailed out of your office with a pending $120 million exit package while your network pretended the ouster was just a business decision. Or maybe you’re a venerated former broadcaster who in 2017 found himself bounced from public radio after an internal review revealed complaints about sexual harassment, bullying, and creating a hostile work environment. Well, big ups! Harper’s published your meandering, self-pitying screed in which you profess to just not understand what happened to romance and use copious literary references to deflect from your own behavior.
And if you’re the public-radio personality who was fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Company after numerous accusations of sexual violence, acquitted on four counts of sexual assault, and compelled to acknowledge the harassment of a former colleague with a “peace bond,” you get prime space in the New York Review of Books to be sad that you’ll never be as famous as you once were, but also joke that you were a #MeToo pioneer. (“There are lots of guys more hated than me now. But I was the guy everyone hated first.”)
This October marks a year since a pair of explosive exposés on Harvey Weinstein put him at the center of the long-brewing, silence-breaking movement called #MeToo. For survivors of harassment, coercion, abuse, and rape, as well as those who support them, the past year has been transformative. For those whose careers have benefited from the fear and silence of such survivors, it’s been a necessary wake-up call. And for all corners of media, it’s been a way to rake in pageviews and rage clicks.
But even as new revelations about the depth and breadth of powerful men’s repellent behavior continue to roll in, one question keeps coming to the fore: When do these dudes get to make their comebacks? Have they not suffered enough? In August, the New York Post’s “Page Six” reported that former Today show host Matt Lauer, fired from NBC a year earlier, was plotting a return to television. In April, a mere five months after chef Mario Batali admitted to a pattern of sexual misconduct in a letter that for some reason ended with a recipe for cinnamon rolls, the New York Times ran a piece titled “Disgraced by Scandal, Mario Batali Is Eyeing His Second Act.” And the re-emergence of comedy’s serial jerk-off, Louis CK, last month at New York’s Comedy Cellar prompted a handful of fellow comedians to wonder what more the guy had to do for people to just forget about his coercive past and laugh. (For starters, probably not tell a rape joke right off the bat.)
The demands for a redemption arc harbor an unspoken belief—that staying out of the public eye for as long as they have is punishment enough for these men, and we now owe them our forgiveness. But Ghomeshi’s piece in the NYRB says the quiet part out loud, in 3,400 words that have the grace and self-awareness of a horny pipe wrench. It’s not a mea culpa, but rather a reminder that the mainstream media that’s covered #MeToo for the past year has also protected its own harassers and abusers as open secrets. So while the reflexive answer to a question like “What could the NYRB have done better here?” is “Fuck off, fuck all the way off, and when you reach the sea, fuck off into that,” I’d like to share some more constructive ideas, should other legacy-media publications want to take a chance and address the #MeToo’s comeback kings with something more nuanced than a redemption arc. (Spoiler: they probably won’t.)
1. Consider what message your publication is sending by letting a serial harasser/abuser frame the narrative.
The NYRB’s cover line—“Jian Ghomeshi on Jian Ghomeshi”—is nothing if not accurate; the piece confirms that the same entitlement that led Ghomeshi to harass and/or assault at least 20 women is still firmly in place, and he deploys it here to state that losing his radio platform and all the good tail that accompanied it actually makes him the victim. There’s nothing resembling a real apology in Ghomeshi’s piece, and there’s certainly no acknowledgment of the secondary damage he inflicted on women who were singled out for further abuse once they came forward. “Lessons From a Hashtag” is not actually about what Ghomeshi has learned, but about how sad he is that people think he’s gross and shitty. “I cannot just move to another town and reboot with a pseudonym,” he laments early in the piece. Yet by the last few paragraphs, he’s on a train to Paris chatting up an alluring woman and feeling exhilarated because she doesn’t even know that he’s a creep who nonconsensually punched and choked a bunch of women!
Even more self-aggrandizing is John Hockenberry’s Harper’s essay, dramatically titled “Exile” (because nothing says you’re a pariah like 7000 words in Harper’s!), which finds him revisiting a “small personal canon of works and experiences,” that includes Nabokov’s Lolita. In doing so, he soon realizes that he relates to Dolores Haze. Not the part where she’s a young girl exploited by a predator, but the part where Nabokov describes her as a lost innocent alone in the world. You know, just like the grown man who repeatedly harassed and bullied his colleagues and underlings!
It’s cute to imagine that having serial manipulators like Ghomeshi or Hockenberry or Louis CK reflect on their own temporary retreat from public life could yield a thoughtful accounting of what has been learned and how amends have been made. But, as both Ghomeshi and Hockenberry make all too clear, they’re not interested in learning anything other than how to re-attain power, influence, and adoring female audiences.
2. Think less about rehabilitation and more about amplification.
Or, to put it more bluntly, stop thinking that the bruised career of perpetrators is more important than those of the women they harassed, coerced, and assaulted—because they lost a hell of a lot more. The women Louis CK blocked from leaving rooms and compelled to watch him jerk off were fellow comedians. TV legend Linda Bloodworth Thomason’s Hollywood Reporter essay, published last week, detailed the nonsexual but nonetheless vicious harassment she experienced at CBS under Les Moonves and her involuntary departure from TV. Kathryn Borel, Jian Ghomeshi’s producer at the CBC, did exactly what people who experience workplace harassment are told to do, reporting the harassment to both her executive producer and her union; she was discredited and gaslighted by both. And we’ll never know how many acting careers Harvey Weinstein killed, though at this point I just assume that any promising indie actress of the 1990s who dropped off the map was one of his victims. (That’s not fair to him? Too fucking bad.)
Current headlines, often accompanied by reader’s polls, about whether admitted harassers are receiving punishments of an appropriate severity and duration are, for the most part, not discussions about their own behavior but rather condemnations of the big mean bullies of the #MeToo movement. They read as though the previous unnamed people who were traumatized and often driven out of their industries—and then blacklisted and rape-threatened as soon as they came forward—are the ones who hold all the power. Or, as comedian Norm Macdonald pleaded to the Hollywood Reporter, regarding his friends Roseanne Barr and Louis CK, “There are very few people that have gone through what they have, losing everything in a day. Of course, people will go, “What about the victims?” But you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that.” (No, Norm, instead they went through something much worse, you big dim dillhole.)
The central conceit of the post–#MeToo redemption arc is that it matters more when big stars lose “everything” they’ve worked for in their careers (well, not their comfortable homes and bank accounts, not their colleagues, not their ability to move freely throughout the world, and certainly not the frequency with which they are offered platforms to discuss their own victimhood. But, you know, everything else!) than it does when someone lesser- or -unknown loses the very little they have in theirs. And it’s not only that it matters more, but also that preserving the big star’s public image means categorically treating his accusers as crazy, jealous, attention-seeking harpies. There will never be a level playing field as long as men’s behavior consistently pushes women to the margins of it.
Throwing money at these problems never required the men to think about what they actively took away from their victims—and in every case, it also didn’t stop them from moving on to harm other woman in exactly the same ways.
3. Commit to restorative justice.
CBS announced on September 9 that Les Moonves would be leaving the network and, on his way out, making a donation of $20 million dollars “to the Me Too movement” (which is not in itself an organization, to give you a hint of how much thought went into this act of contrition). For masters of the media universe like Moonves, Weinstein, and former Fox News honcho/serial sexual predator Roger Ailes, paying settlements to women has been clean, simple, and efficient. But it’s also another form of dehumanization: These women weren’t really people, they were problems. Throwing money at these problems never required the men to think about what they actively took away from their victims—and in every case, it also didn’t stop them from moving on to harm other woman in exactly the same ways.
It’s not commendable that a man worth at least $700 million has earmarked $20 million from his severance package for organizations whose names he’ll never have to know. Restorative justice, a process in which criminals address the actual harm they’ve done and take actionable steps toward restitution, isn’t part of these men’s redemption arcs because that would force them to recognize the humanity of their victims—and shatter the long-held belief that victims reap all sorts of benefits (money, fame, better careers) from coming forward.
Shortly after Louis CK made a surprise appearance at New York’s Comedy Cellar, writer/comedian Jenny Yang tweeted a list of actions that men who cared about making things right—as opposed to simply waiting for the right moment for a comeback—might do. For CK, she proposed, apologizing to victims would be an obvious start, as would urging the legion of people who protected him (“comedy club bookers, hosts, waiters, agents, managers, tour managers, and fellow comedians”) to do the same. Her other suggestions included using his money and connections to redress harm to his victims’ careers and change the culture of comedy clubs themselves.
“How long should [X] be punished?” or “Should [X] have to lose everything, forever?” aren’t the right questions because they, again, suggest that the perpetrator has no agency and that his redemption happens at the whim of survivors and their allies, rather than when he’s actually taken concrete, demonstrable steps to make that comeback meaningful.
4. Ask whether prioritizing (and, presumably, paying for) this story is a good look.
Ghomeshi’s NYRB piece hit the internet last Friday morning; by late that afternoon, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner contacted its editor, Ian Buruma, to ask: What the fuck? Chotiner did an admirable job asking difficult questions, but the editor’s commitment to evasion as he insisted that Ghomeshi’s story needed to be told (though he himself seemed troublingly unaware of its details) were unrelenting and exhausting.
This isn’t an issue that’s confined to Buruma; the history of prestige publications and review journals is one in which a largely male leadership structure “doesn’t see” male or female writers but just happen to publish far more of the former. The NYRB has shown consistently poor numbers for both publishing women writers and reviewing books by women; the 2017 VIDA count revealed that it had “the most pronounced gender disparity” of the publications counted, with 23.3 percent of women among its published writers. (A former editor, Alexandra Schwartz, recalled on Twitter that “Vida statistics were seen as insulting the mission of the magazine, not as pointing out a major flaw in the magazine’s operation and editorial approach.”)
Witnessing Buruma defend his decision to publish Ghomeshi’s self-serving version of events is maddening because it’s clear that he doesn’t particularly care what Ghomeshi did. (“All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime. The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”) The point of the media redemption arc, whether it’s Ghomeshi’s or Hockenberry’s or Louis CK’s, is to blur the details and names and histories in service of re-anchoring these men to their deserved platforms. All that says to the women who work at, contribute to, and read your publication is that the material facts of their lives and careers simply don’t matter.