Jimmy Fallon and Billy Bush were Trump's willing enablers—until Fallon's ratings plummeted and Bush lost his job. Will their disingenuous apologies be rewarded with forgiveness?
When you’re a privileged white man, they let you go on redemption tours.
Within days of each other, two television stars—whose stock had fallen due to political scandals related to now-President Donald Trump—mounted separate but similar redemption campaigns to revive dipping careers. First came a May 17th New York Times profile of The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, whose ratings have declined ever since NBC aired his tone-deaf, obsequious September interview with Trump, in which he ruffled the GOP candidate’s mop. Then on May 21st, The Hollywood Reporter unveiled an exclusive story with former Today Show anchor Billy Bush, who lost his job after the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape was released. Each piece is written sympathetically, and it is clear that the ultimate aim for both men is to redirect their current career trajectories down toward much more fruitful paths. Fallon is photographed literally atop the iconic NBC studio in which he tapes his show, a symbolic gesture that signals Fallon’s ambitions to reclaim the #1 spot in the late-night TV hierarchy. Bush, on the other hand, is much more direct, asserting, “I plan to return to the job that I love.”
That’s all fine and well, from a theoretical point of view. People shouldn’t be punished for their mistakes forever if they exhibit a deeper understanding of where they went wrong and then actively take steps to correct the error of their ways. But there’s no real indication from either Fallon or Bush that they have gained meaningful insight from the poor decisions of their respective pasts. Fallon, who is described by The New York Times as “multitalented but apolitical,” claims that he has “absorbed at least of the portion of the anger” from public reaction, but that it has not “compel[led] him to make widespread changes at The Tonight Show.” Fallon went on to lament, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to have fun.” And therein lies the perpetual problem; intent does not negate impact, and Fallon will seemingly never learn the significance of this difference. The series of pictures in this profile only reinforce Fallon’s emotional stuntedness in this regard: every artfully framed shot of the comedian shows him looking away from the camera, not ready to truly face his critics.
The fact that in this interview he doesn’t even understand the crit, focuses entirely on his own feelings, is unsurprising but illuminating.
— emily nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) May 17, 2017
Bush, on the other hand, at least expressed some semblance of accountability in relation to his accomplice role in Trump’s bragging of sexually assaulting women, saying: “I completely have owned and accepted my part in all of this.” However, the lessons Bush “learned” appear to be all the wrong ones. He states THREE separate times during his interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he wishes he had just changed the topic on that fateful day, as if glossing over rape culture helps to eradicate it any more than laughing along with casual “jokes” does. Bush also describes how his middle child, Mary (then aged 15), called him crying and asked, “Why were you laughing at the things that [Trump] was saying on that bus, Dad? They weren’t funny.” Through his teenage daughter’s eyes, Bush claims that he has “come out of this with a deeper understanding of how women can connect to the feeling of having to fight extra hard for an even playing field” and then further asserts, “I am in the women-raising business, exclusively. I have three daughters—Mary, Lillie, Josie—and I care very much about the world and the people they encounter.” Tying the abuse of patriarchal power to one’s female kin precisely mirrors the way disingenuous Republicans—who had all amplified Trump’s deeply misogynistic campaign to victory—reacted when the Access Hollywood clip came out last October. Much like these GOP enablers, Bush can only see sexism as a force that might affect the women related to him, not as a larger societal problem for which he could be a part of the solution.
Before I was a son of a mother, a brother to sisters, a husband to a wife, and a father to a daughter, I was like: Women? What are those
— Chris Mohney (@chrismohney) October 8, 2016
At the heart of the issue with Bush and Fallon’s redemption tours, however, is the fact that society allows the most privileged of white men to stumble over and over again, despite the gravity of their errors and the continued ignorance of their ways. According to Rose McGee, a professional storyteller, white male entrepreneurs are allowed to fail at least 11 times in their careers, a rate that is much higher than any other group. That omnipresent feeling of safety and security, even amidst particularly rocky moments, comes through loud and clear in Fallon’s interview. When asked about his tumbling ratings, Fallon remarks, “I never, ever care. I’ll know when someone fires me.” Indeed, there’s no real fear of losing his job because Fallon knows there will likely be another one quickly lined up for him elsewhere. That’s because as a member of the most dominant group in society, his professional safety net has historically been the most reliable from which to bounce back.
We see this tendency to keep promoting white men based on “potential” in every sector, and especially in politics. While the first female presidential nominee of a major party—a former First Lady, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and winner of the popular vote by nearly 3 million—is told to go away, similarly or less accomplished men continue to prop themselves up without much significant objection from the peanut gallery. Former Vice-President Joe Biden, who himself has launched a couple of unsuccessful presidential bids, boasted recently, “I never thought [Hillary Clinton] was a great candidate. I thought I was a great candidate.” As writer Rebecca Traister noted in New York Magazine, Biden’s flaws are comparable to Clinton’s and yet don’t seem to drag him down as significantly (hmm, I wonder why). And then there’s Bernie Sanders, who lost by 4 million votes in the 2016 Democratic primary, has had limited success in endorsing down-ballot candidates or advancing his agenda legislatively, and continues to shadowbox as a leader of a party in which he is not a member. If Sanders were not a cisgender, heterosexual white man, would we put that person on such a high pedestal? I think not.
White male privilege is using the Democratic Party to run for POTUS, refusing to re-join it, and still getting to claim ownership over it. pic.twitter.com/ltluhBkUKs
— Sarah Lerner (@SarahLerner) May 23, 2017
All of this is to say that Bush’s and Fallon’s (likely-to-be successful) aims to hit the reset button on careers that are, at the moment, plateauing, is indicative of a larger societal pattern to forgive and elevate white men. Look no further than the very guy who played a role in each of their professional speed bumps; he was just elected president last November, after all. For men of this stature, setbacks are often temporary, with fresh opportunities always lingering on the horizon. That’s how privilege works.
If either Bush’s or Fallon’s redemption tour ultimately fails, it will be tough to determine if that result is an outlier or an indication that white male dominance is continuing to slowly chip away. All I know is that I won’t shed a tear for either man.
And as Amy Poehler once so famously told Fallon, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”
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