After actors at the Golden Globes committed to raising awareness about sexual misconduct and inequality – including wearing Time’s Up pins on their somber outfits – the entertainment industry is again reeling from new allegations. In the last week alone, Aziz Ansari, James Franco and showrunner Dan Harmon, among others, have all faced allegations that have expanded the boundaries of what the #MeToo movement can be. We’re no longer dealing only with serial predators like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey – it’s finally time to confront the more nuanced, hazy experiences that are much more common. As these allegations have come to light, several commentators known for Nineties-era anti-feminist writing reappeared to wail about witch hunts and due process, to condemn women for taking things too far. Women in earlier generations survived harassment and assault, they argued, and knew how to say no in difficult situations. So why are younger women no longer willing to grit their teeth and deal with it now? Why, they ask, will they take no responsibility in these interactions?
Those critics are missing something crucial about the current #MeToo moment: This is not one united cry for all powerful men to face ruin as soon as their names appear on a list of bad actors. This isn’t even about making sure that serial sexual abusers are held criminally responsible – which obviously they should be. What this newest round of allegations suggests is that this is about advancing a conversation about the pervasive misogyny that lurks beneath most industries, but especially Hollywood, and about naming this all-too-common behavior as what it is: coercion and abuse of power.
Take the story about Aziz Ansari, reported this weekend by babe.net. A young woman, whom the website calls “Grace,” alleges she was repeatedly pressured into unwanted sexual activity while on a date with the comedian, repeatedly pushing him away and asking for him to slow down. The following day, Grace texted him about how upset she was at his actions, telling him, “I want to make sure you’re aware so maybe the next girl doesn’t have to cry on the ride home.” In a statement, Ansari said he was unaware she’d been uncomfortable, but he “took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.” If he were to take the time to grapple with the chasm between his experience and Grace’s, he might even find a way to create something meaningful that speaks to other men. But according to writers at the Atlantic and the New York Times, incalculable damage has already been done to Ansari’s professional reputation, and this imperfectly reported story of a distressing encounter is proof that young women are too weak or stupid to escape a bad situation, brushing off how this man a decade her senior allegedly thought nothing of ignoring his date’s verbal and nonverbal cues.
James Franco has been accused of similarly inappropriate and exploitative behavior. According to five women interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Franco used his power as an acting teacher and mentor to manipulate them in ways that left them feeling uncomfortable. One woman accused him of trying to pressure her into oral sex while they were dating, and others spoke of being pressured to undress for film shoots. As one of the women who spoke out about Franco told the paper, while he apologized to her for making her uncomfortable during an orgy scene, “I felt that he was still not really taking accountability for the environment on the sets.” The allegations against Franco are nowhere near as severe as those against other Hollywood legends – there was no casting couch, no groping, and actors sign releases for just this reason – but #MeToo and #TimesUp has proven that there is a systemic problem in Hollywood. A work environment can be toxic without obvious and persistent sexual degradation and harassment.
Then there’s Dan Harmon, who was perhaps the most egregious of these new harassers, though he probably had the most appropriate response. When comedy writer Megyn Ganz confronted Community and Rick and Morty creator Harmon about the harassment he subjected her to after she rejected his romantic advances while she was part of his staff, he owned up to everything on his podcast. He also offered advice to anyone who might be worried that they’re about to be called out. “If you don’t think about it, you’re gonna get away with not thinking about it, and you’re gonna cause a lot of damage that’s technically legal and hurts everybody,” he said. “We’re living in a good time right now because we’re not gonna get away with it anymore. If we make it a normal part of our culture that we think about it and talk about it, maybe we can get to a better place where this doesn’t happen.”
Ganz accepted his apology, [and went so far as to] single it out as a “masterclass” in how to make amends. There were no pitchforks, no torches, no organized boycotts of Harmon’s work. (There was a bigger internet firestorm over McDonalds’ Szechuan sauce, than over this very public conversation about a legitimately hostile work environment.)
What connects all three of the latest entertainment industry reports, to each other and to the long list of other men who have faced allegations, is that it’s not enough to call to punish illegal behavior if those in power don’t understand how their actions hurt people. Abuse of power happens on a continuum; not everything that is wrong is illegal, and we still don’t have a wide enough vocabulary to explain that. And it’s possible to have questions about how specific stories were reported, as smart writers have raised about the Ansari report, while still believing in the larger goal of a safer, more equitable society.
What’s shocking about the current moment and its potential isn’t that men’s careers could be ruined without due process or that the human race will stop procreating because there is no more “romance.” It’s that even the tiniest bit of female anger is suddenly too dangerous to allow out in public, and that the systems in place to deal with assault, harassment, coercion and illegal retaliation are woefully inept to handle everything that modern workplaces subject us to. No one gets a fair shake when the bosses and the boards have all the power; increasing diversity, replacing some of those male CEOs and studio executives, could actually help protect everyone, not just the hordes of hysterical women writers like Katie Roiphe are so afraid of.
If fairness were really the goal of critics of #MeToo, they’d focus their ire at worthier targets than struggling actresses and photographers – they’d be furious at the powerful people and companies that have ignored the safety and well being of those who admire and rely on them. “This fallacy that the courts or the public is requiring that anyone who has made a stream of remarks should be fired, that’s a very unhelpful road to go down,” says Sunu Chandy, Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Center. The current movement to hold men accountable for crossing lines, both personal and professional, shouldn’t live or die based on any one story. As long as activists, advocates and survivors stay focused on how many different options for justice exist, it doesn’t have to.