Last week, Louis C.K. caused an uproar when he showed up for a surprise set at the Comedy Cellar, sliding back into the spotlight, making jokes about such mundane topics as tipping culture. It was as if the allegations from late last year — that he’d forced female colleagues to watch him masturbate and intimidated them into silence — had never happened. C.K.’s return launched a debate about what exactly is supposed to happen next for the slew of bad men (and a few bad women) who were ousted from the public sphere as a result of the #MeToo movement’s revelations, with some fellow comedians and fans arguing that C.K. should be allowed this second chance, and others retorting that he’s done nothing to earn it.
Then on Monday, news broke that Robin Wright was talking “second chances” for her disgraced House of Cards co-star Kevin Spacey. In an interview with Net-a-Porter, Wright didn’t actually say she thinks Spacey deserves a second chance, but that she believes that “every human being has the ability to reform.” Of course, the Internet seized on her carefully hedged statement — after all, the world is eager to figure out what the next stage of #MeToo will look like, and whether the bad men we’ve shunned will ever be let back into society’s good graces.
Are comebacks possible for these men, and should they even try? Should they disappear forever, or make amends? And what would those amends look like? We know it’s confusing, so we made this handy guide for famous men who have been outed as sexual predators by the #MeToo movement, to determine what to do next.
Determine where you fit in on the #MeToo spectrum
First, take a close look at what type of offender you are. Part of the reason this conversation around comebacks is so fraught is that there’s no one-size-fits all path to redemption, just as there’s no one-size-fits-all path to engaging in sexual misconduct. Detractors of the #MeToo movement like to claim that the whole movement is irrelevant and overreaching because it doesn’t distinguish between simple inappropriate behavior and outright violent rape. But just because the #MeToo movement’s success requires consequences for every kind of sexual abuse, that doesn’t mean those consequences will be the same across the board.
So, to figure out where you fall on the scale of bad men to monsters and what your options are for redemption, start with these key questions: Did you end up getting called out for being a creep even though you’d believed the encounter was consensual, like Aziz Ansari is accused of doing? Did you force yourself on coworkers or up-and-comers in your industry, as Spacey allegedly did? Finally, did you rape multiple people and actively use your power to silence and threaten your victims, a la the allegations against Harvey Weinstein?
Redemption is not available for everyone. If you answered yes to all three questions above, then, as the kids say, you’re canceled. The only positive thing you could do at this point would be to plead guilty to criminal charges and save your victims the ordeal of a trial. Do your time in jail, and never be heard from again.
If there are ongoing criminal investigations into your actions, as there are with Spacey, you might still have a chance of being ready for redemption someday, but you’re not yet — no matter how supportive your former co-stars may be, no matter your ability to reform. So you can go ahead and sit out the rest of these steps until those matters have been cleared up.
Take time to reflect on what you’ve done
If there are no criminal charges or accusations of rape pending against you, and you’ve taken some time away from the public sphere and want to work toward forgiveness, start by demonstrating that you actually understand what you did wrong — not just parroting back what you think people want to hear, but demonstrating that you’ve educated yourself about consent and boundaries, and how power structures contribute to an environment that allows sexual abuse to go unchecked. (This is what you should have been doing during your time out of the spotlight! Like you probably said you would in your public apology, right?)
The next step is to make actual, tangible amends to your victims. Start by apologizing to them privately, not just for public adulation and without making any excuses or justifications for your actions. Then, if you at any point used your power to silence victims within your industry, retract any damaging statements you made that may have stifled (or ended) their careers. Use any remaining industry connections you have to advance the careers of the women you shut out.
As one famous man after another was being toppled in the first wave of #MeToo, fans mourned the loss of their work and asked what we would do without them. But what about the work that we never got to see by the women who were forced out of their industries by abusive men, either because they chose to leave rather than tolerate their behavior, or because they stood up for themselves and were blacklisted? If you’re a bad man worried about making amends to your victims, your industry, and your fans, make a path for the women who never got a chance to shine in an environment ruled by the male libido and abuse of power.
Apologize for real — then live with it every day, the same way your victims have
For a positive example, look to Dan Harmon. When the Rick and Morty creator was called out for harassing writer Megan Ganz on his show Community, he went on his podcast and explained, in detail, what he had done, going into a seven-minute apology in which he did not make excuses or let himself off the hook for his behavior. He acknowledged that he’d acted “flirty [and] creepy” and that he would not have treated her that way if she were a man. In a rare #MeToo moment, Ganz publicly accepted his apology.
This is where C.K. got it wrong. If you do manage to make meaningful amends and earn back the spotlight, don’t just pretend nothing happened — like C.K. including a joke about rape whistles in his Comedy Cellar set, but no direct mention of his misconduct, his victims or what he’s learned. The idea isn’t to take a time out and then come back as if everything is normal, but to show that you’ve changed and grown. So use your platform to talk about what you did and why it was wrong. Help the people that admire you understand the issues, and become a champion for equity in the workplace and respectful sexual boundaries. Incorporate what you’ve learned into your work, let this experience truly change who you are privately and publicly, rather than just waiting for it to go away.
If C.K. had gotten up on that stage and talked about what he’d done, and what he’d learned from experiencing the backlash, the public reception to his return might have been very different. As Wright said, we can believe in second chances. But it doesn’t mean people are entitled to one if they can’t figure out why they were wrong in the first place.