Since the New York Times published its investigation into Harvey Weinstein, dozens upon dozens of women (and several men) have come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against male celebrities, most of whom have seen their careers put on permanent ice as a result. In the intervening years, however, a handful of men (and a few women) who have faced such allegations have slowly attempted to reclaim the spotlight, regardless of whether the public is ready to embrace them or not.
Earlier this month, Aziz Ansari joined the fold with his Netflix comedy special, Right Now. Ansari faced sexual misconduct allegations in January 2018, as the result of an article published in the (now-defunct) women’s website Babe.net. According to the piece, Ansari went on a date with a young woman, then pressured her for sex to the degree that she was crying and distraught by the end of the date. Although the Babe.net piece was harshly criticized for failing to meet journalistic standards, the story kickstarted a conversation about the gray areas of sexual misconduct, and how men should be held accountable for behavior that’s unethical, if not necessarily criminal.
Through all the fallout, Ansari largely remained tight-lipped, until he decided to acknowledge the allegations in his Netflix special. “I’m sure there’s some of you that are curious how I feel about that whole situation,” he said on stage, averting his eyes and speaking in low, hushed tones distinct from his trademark manic delivery. “I felt so many things in the last year or so; There’s times I felt scared, there’s times I felt humiliated, there’s times I felt embarrassed, and ultimately I just felt terrible that this person felt this way.” He then segued into discussing how he was happy that the incident sparked a larger discussion about sex and power dynamics, and that many people had approached him saying his story made them reassess their own dating experiences.
The special was clearly intended to herald Ansari’s return to the public eye, and was interpreted as such — but critics’ reactions were mixed, to say the least. Among those who work in crisis management public relations, a specialized field of the public relations industry, Ansari’s special was nothing less than a template for how to effectively apologize for (and, ideally, rebound from) a sexual misconduct scandal. “He was brilliant,” says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a New York- and Los Angeles-based crisis management firm. Overall, Bernstein says the special embodied what he refers to as the “three Cs of crisis communications”: “compassion, confidence and competence.”
Others, however, pointed out that Ansari acknowledged, but didn’t directly apologize for, his alleged behavior on the date, while others, such as New Yorker cultural critic Doreen St. Felix, viewed the statement as a disingenuous attempt on Ansari’s part “to prove that he won’t be cowed by his public reckoning.” Lisa Bloom, an attorney and victims’ rights advocate, who has represented the accusers of Donald Trump, Jeffrey Epstein, and Bill O’Reilly, among others, agreed. “It seems to me it was carefully written and vetted by a team of pros. I am sympathetic to Aziz but I would have preferred something more real and honest, especially since that is his brand,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Saying that we all think more about dating [as a result of the Babe.net story] doesn’t really address the issue. Feels like a statement that was drafted and watered down by a committee.”
Generally speaking, this is precisely how celebrities felled by #MeToo scandals embark on the process of returning to the public eye: by consulting with a team of publicists, attorneys, and crisis managers as to the best (and most PR-friendly) way to approach the situation. The ability to rebound from such an allegation is largely dependent on multiple factors, such as the nature of the allegation (i.e. whether it’s criminal or not) or what Howard Bragman, a longtime celebrity crisis manager and owner of Labrea.media, refers to as a celebrity’s “reputational DNA.” “Some people can do certain things and some people can’t do certain things,” he says, adding there is no one template for a career rebound plan and comparing it to developing testing regimens for a new medication: “100 people can take this new drug, 50 people will be cured from it, and one person will drop dead.”
But provided the celebrity in question doesn’t go on the offensive and smear his accusers or have a televised breakdown during a Gayle King interview, those in the industry say image rehabilitation is essentially a waiting game. “Time is a great healer,” says Bragman. “I also think there’s a time when [the client] has to process it. That’s something that takes months, if not years. It’s not something that takes days.” In the interim, it’s not uncommon for a crisis manager to conduct secret private opinion surveys on the client’s behalf. Such surveys are not a perfect gauge of public sentiment, but they can help to indicate when, if ever, it’s appropriate for a celebrity to reemerge and “test the waters publicly,” says Bernstein.
Despite the criticism surrounding Ansari’s statement in the Netflix special, the fact that he even had a Netflix special to begin with is a pretty clear indicator of whether he’ll be able to sufficiently rebound from the Babe.net story. “He got his big studio deal, in terms of the Netflix special,” Bragman says. “So I think it’s pretty clear Netflix was comfortable enough [with his current reputation] to do that.”
Despite widespread concern among detractors of the #MeToo movement that it would prompt a deluge of false allegations that could ruin innocent men’s careers, many prominent men’s careers have been barely affected by sexual misconduct allegations. Former American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, for instance, was accused of groping and sexual harassment in 2018; his network stood behind him, and E! even hired him to host the red carpet for the Oscars that year.
Ansari and Seacrest are not the first celebrities to emerge from the #MeToo movement relatively unscathed — and it almost certainly won’t make them the last. In the weeks since Ansari’s special premiered, disgraced former Democratic Senator Al Franken similarly tiptoed back into the spotlight. In 2017, radio host Leeann Tweeden accused Franken of aggressively kissing her while rehearsing a scene for a USO show, an allegation that was bolstered by a photo that appeared to show Franken groping her breasts as she slept. Following Tweeden’s allegations, seven women came forward accusing Franken of unwanted touching or groping, prompting him to resign from his seat in the Senate. A year and a half after Franken retreated from the spotlight, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker wrote a sympathetic profile of Franken, which reassessed many of the allegations against him, in part by attempting to discredit Tweeden and painting her as a pawn of the right with a demonstrated history of fudging facts (one example Mayer cites is Tweeden’s claim during a Howard Stern interview that she could’ve gotten into Harvard).
The piece prompted heated debate on social media, with some suggesting that Mayer’s piece undermined the seriousness of the allegations against Franken that prompted him to issue his resignation in the first place, and perpetuated the tradition of blaming women for men’s bad behavior. On Twitter, writer Amanda Marcotte particularly took aim at Mayer’s treatment of Franken’s seven other accusers, arguing that Mayer diminished the seriousness of the allegations against him and participated in the tradition of painting female accusers as hysterical, irrational, and inherently dishonest.
The response to the Franken profile, along with Ansari’s comeback special, shows a substantive shift in the discussion surrounding #MeToo: What had started out as a critique of the system that allowed powerful men to victimize women with impunity, is now arguably a critique of the #MeToo movement itself, not to mention the accusers who were instrumental in moving it forward.
For his part, Bernstein is skeptical that the New Yorker profile will fully restore Franken’s tarnished image, and that his return to public life will still be an uphill climb. “I would advise him to continue to express appreciation for new facts coming out, but to retain a personal goal of maybe flying below the radar for a bit,” he says. But as men like Franken and Ansari take their first few steps back into the spotlight, it’s worth keeping in mind, as Anna North of Vox pointed out in her own critique of Ansari’s special, that we’ve heard relatively little from those the #MeToo movement was supposed to benefit: The victims.
“I credit #MeToo with a nice raise in consciousness which helps our cases, but of course, we still have a long, long way to go,” says Bloom. “Every day women call me in tears, having been sexually harassed or assaulted by a powerful guy….the fight goes on, and it will for a long, long time.”
History has long been on the side of the accused, particularly if they had enough wealth, privilege, and power to hire someone like Bragman to put forth the story of their own pain. #MeToo has been invaluable in not just educating the public on the complex dynamics of sex, power, and consent; but also leveling the playing field by giving victims and accusers more of a space to share their stories, ensuring their voices won’t be drowned out by lawyer-approved narratives and anodyne public statements. And as men like Ansari and Franken make their return to the spotlight, the conversation has radically shifted from the wrongdoing they are alleged to have done; to the wrongdoing that has been done to them.