The world is not short on stories from abusive men. This fact was brought to our attention most recently by rumors that Charlie Rose would be getting a new TV show. Rose, if you’ve forgotten, was accused by eight women of sexual harassment that ran the gamut from obscene phone calls to making his female subordinates watch him walk around in the nude; in the rumored show, he would use this experience to “interview other high-profile men who have also been toppled by #MeToo scandals.” The rumor was started by former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, who told Page Six that she’d been approached to produce the series. Understandably, she declined.
The theme of the series, as per Brown and/or the gossip column, was to be “atonement.” But let’s be real: No one has ever “atoned” for sexual assault or harassment by speaking to someone who was not his victim, or by saying anything other than “I’m sorry” and “tell me what you want me to do.” In particular, it’s unlikely that men who — allegedly! — used their fame to get away with sexual misconduct would be able to “atone” in front of a bank of TV cameras.
What these men would be doing, presumably, would be reasserting their own control of their damaged narratives. By giving them an hour and a friendly interviewer, Rose presumably would offer accused men a chance to spin a story of their crimes in which they appeared as sympathetic characters, worthy of support and absolution.
The social media backlash was instant and overwhelming. We may never know if Rose was actually working on the show — I pity the network executive who would greenlight that sucker now — but the disgust spoke to where we stand in the #MeToo saga. Over the past six months, we’ve heard a nonstop torrent of abusive men’s apologies, excuses, and rationalizations, to the point that even the most naive and wide-eyed Pollyanna among us can identify the distinct whiff of bullshit emanating therefrom. To recap a few of the major points:
- I have no idea what I did. (James Franco)
- But she seemed fine with it. (Aziz Ansari)
- It didn’t actually happen, but I feel bad about it. (Matt Lauer)
- I “remember it differently,” but I’m sorry she’s mad about it. (Al Franken)
- “I don’t remember it, but I absolutely apologized for it.” (Ben Affleck)
- Anyway, she’s just mad that I dumped her. (Woody Allen)
- She’s just working for my political opponent. (Roy Moore)
- “Anyone who says that, I just want to spit in his or her fucking face.” (James Toback)
- I have always prided myself on being an advocate for women. (Charlie Rose)
- Anyway, I’m gay. (Kevin Spacey)
- And I lived through the sixties! (Harvey Weinstein)
- I was only asking them to look at my dick. (Louis C.K.)
- “I will convert the center for yogic science into a not-for-profit center of learning and healing.” (Russell Simmons)
- Here are some cinnamon rolls. (Mario Batali)
These voices are not underrepresented in our culture. Until quite recently, these voices were our culture. It’s why I spent my college years worrying that I would seem like an enemy of Literature for pointing out that Norman Mailer stabbed his wife; it’s why I knew about Soon-yi but still felt that adult sophistication required owning a copy of Manhattan (you know, the one where Woody dates a high school student) on VHS. For most of history, men’s justifications for mistreating women have comprised pop culture, high culture, and every point of reference in between, with nary a counterpoint in sight.
That counterpoint is emerging now. Or, at least, it’s trying to. Feminists have been trying for decades to generate that other conversation — the one where survivors, who are mostly (though not always) women, get to talk about what male sexual violence has done to their minds, their careers, their families, and their lives. There are occasional breakthrough points, like #MeToo, where so many women come forward at once that the culture is temporarily too stunned to punish them. But invariably, people get sick of the story and silence takes over once more. Still: If that other conversation is having any impact at all, it’s the fact that accused harassers’ excuses and rationalizations have come to sound increasingly pathetic and unbelievable.
As they should.
In fact, abusive men accounting their abuses are rarely clever, or revelatory, or unique. Their defense mechanisms and rhetorical strategies are so predictable that therapists are able to fit them into a script:
- Deny: It didn’t happen/I don’t remember that/you aren’t remembering it correctly.
- Minimize: It happened, but it wasn’t a big deal — it was just a bad date/just a miscommunication/just a joke/just a friendly request to look at my penis, which happened to already be out of my pants while I was blocking the door.
- Blame: This wouldn’t have happened if not for the victim pissing me off/the victim leading me on/the victim wanting money or fame or vengeance/the entire decade of the 1960s (note: this last one is unique to Harvey Weinstein).
The question is not why people are suddenly unwilling to hear all this, but why they were willing to listen to it for so long; why defenses and rationalizations this paper-thin and easily identified were mistaken for compelling and morally urgent arguments. If the rumors are true, Rose — who was once a hell of an interviewer, when he wasn’t (allegedly) forcing his female employees to watch him shower — still thinks hearing from these abusive men is worthwhile. That’s sad, not only for the defensiveness it reveals on his part, but also because it reveals Rose may have been slipping off his journalistic game well before #MeToo came along.
The unspoken assumption here is that these men deserve a platform because they’ve been “silenced” by #MeToo. But there’s a difference between being censored and simply not being interesting. Like Kevin Williamson, the notorious advocate for imprisoning and/or killing abortion patients who has taken to several major papers recently to complain about the “silencing” he’s experienced, these men’s arguments just plain fail to meet the level of intellectual seriousness or interest necessary for publication in a major outlet. Thousands of arguments fail to meet that standard every day; it’s why not every post on your Facebook wall is commissioned as an op-ed column. But rather than accept that they’ve failed to merit a wider platform, these men riot, because the culture has taught them that their voices must always matter, to everyone, no matter what.
The fauxpologies and self-justifications of accused harassers are being gently ushered off stage, not because we live in some harsh matriarchal dystopia that gags disobedient men (one look at who the current president is should be enough to dispel that idea), but because we all have better things to talk about. We could, for example, be talking about how sexual harassment is one of the major drivers of the gender wage gap; how many survivors report that their abuser’s worst offense was to wreck their professional reputations; how our reluctance to hear or believe women has created a world where a predator like Bill Cosby has to be reported by 60 women just to get one rape conviction.
Those stories are urgent and enlightening, and more to the point, we haven’t really heard them before. We haven’t heard them for very long, either — believe it or not, it was only six months ago that the Harvey Weinstein allegations came to light. We deserve more time to dig into survivors’ stories; not months, but years, decades, centuries, even, because that’s how long predators maintained their monopoly on the narrative before feminism was able to turn the tables. Moving high-profile predators out of the media spotlight is not only a remarkably gentle way to deal with them — like Rose, who was recently spotted partying with Woody Allen and having dinner with Sean Penn, most seem to be enjoying a happy and well-funded retirement — it gives us room to focus on those newer voices.
Harassers aren’t being silenced. It’s just that they have nothing new to say — except, perhaps, to each other. If Rose is dead set on producing his series, I can actually think of a very useful purpose for it. Let him make the show — at least 12 to 24 hour-long episodes, potentially more, each one filled with an hour’s worth of an abusive man telling us that it didn’t happen, but he’s sorry/it wasn’t a big deal, but he’s a feminist/it was her fault, but here are the cinnamon rolls. And then, each time a new man is credibly accused of sexual assault or harassment, let’s ship him the tapes.
I mean it. Let us, in the name of justice, duct-tape Matt Lauer or Mario Batali or Louis C.K. or whoever the next one is to his own couch and physically force him to watch Charlie Rose’s show: hours and hours on end of men like him, and their identical excuses, and their endless rationalizations, and their transparently fake contrition. Let’s Clockwork Orange these guys with their own PR. After a while, these men might actually hear how they sound to everyone else. Maybe then they’ll be as sick of their own excuses as we are. Hell, maybe then they’ll actually be sorry.