Men like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Louis C.K. are constantly given second chances while women barely get a first one.
Like zombies risen from the dead, some of the men banished from public life by the #MeToo movement are reportedly preparing for their return. According to the gossip rags, Matt Lauer and Mario Batali are testing the comeback waters. Garrison Keillor is back on tour. The Hollywood Reporter profiled Charlie Rose, and suggested Louis C.K. might be able to make his return via comedy clubs. Bill O’Reilly is back on Fox, if not quite in his past role.
All of which leaves women asking: Do we really need to see you again?
Men—and especially white men— it seems, get a million chances to fail, while women are always walking on the knife-edge of permanent excommunication. We see this across nearly every realm. Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary but remains politically sought-after, and many of his fans hope he’ll run for president again; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election because of antiquated Electoral College rules, and she’s more or less told to hide in a shroud of darkness and never show her face again. Sanders fans claim he lost because the system was rigged, while Clinton lost because she was a bad candidate who should have never run in the first place and now remains wholly responsible for the political tragicomedy that is Donald Trump.
Kathy Griffin made a tasteless joke about the president and had to offer a series of apologies before disappearing for a year, while serial racist Ted Nugent is frequently invited to the White House. Chris Brown beat his girlfriend and still makes hits; Anne Hathaway is one of America’s most-hated celebrities because she’s too eager to be liked. When a woman fails at something, she ends up an avatar for Women In X Industry: Margaret Thatcher was a mean-spirited conservative leader, therefore we don’t need to focus so much on women in politics (never mind that the overwhelming majority of mean-spirited conservative leaders the world over have been men); Marissa Mayer cut a work from home policy that benefited moms, which is evidence that women in leadership positions are not a panacea (an argument no one made in the first place). Women are held to a higher standard, the prominent among us carry the weight of representing all women, we are punished more swiftly if we mess up, and we are given fewer chances for recovery.
Defenders of the bad-man comeback are quick to argue that everyone deserves a second chance (and apparently a 302nd), and besides [insert man’s name here] is a specific kind of genius. No one does comedy like Louis C.K., or tells stories like Garrison Keillor, or interviews like Charlie Rose, or cooks like Mario Batali, or, I don’t know, does vaguely humiliating early-morning suburban slapstick like Matt Lauer. You hear this especially when folks are grappling with, say, enjoying the cinematic work of Roman Polanski, a man who anally raped a child, or Woody Allen, a man accused of molesting his child: Yes he did a terrible thing, but what would we do without him?
It’s tough to say, but maybe we would be enjoying films, food, interviews, comedy, and all sorts of other art and creation and contribution by the great many women who throughout history have been wholly unrecognized because men suck up all the air in the room. Talent does not simply become recognized where it exists in greatest quantities; those who hold some talent see it honed, developed, encouraged, funded, and otherwise supported and drawn into the public square, often by people who are moneyed, connected and powerful than the talented individual. That a hugely disproportionate number of people who have benefited from this mentorship and patronage system are men is not an outcome of men holding most of the talent, but men holding most of the money, connections and power. The question shouldn’t be whose talents we lose when we collectively decide that men who abuse or harass or assault women are unworthy of our collective support; the question should be whose talents we have been missing out on all along.
What to do, though, about the reality of badly behaved men in light of the feminist and progressive consensus that radical transformation is possible—that it must be possible if we are to continue our work? Why be a person who pushes for progress at all if we don’t believe that people do indeed change and progress? This goes double for those of us who are dedicated to criminal justice reform, and who want to see a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and reentry into the community, and less of a focus on punitive punishment, incarceration as a deterrent, and long prison sentences. As a foundational and deeply held value, I do believe in second chances—and third and fourth chances. I believe in these even for some of the worst criminals, to the point of opposing sex-offender registries and many other post-incarceration punishments.
If I can offer a second chance to a pedophile, why not someone like Louis C.K., whose seemingly compulsive habit of masturbating in front of women is equal parts predatory and pathetic? The answer comes in how we define a “second chance,” and what personal transformation looks like. What it doesn’t resemble: the hollow, PR-penned quasi-apologies too many celebrities offer up.
I have written elsewhere about what it means to extend grace to those who have done wrong, and what it means for the wrong-doers to be truly accountable. It is only from there—the taking responsibility for one’s actions—that transformation can follow. The men in question here used their fame to facilitate their transgressions. The fact of those transgressions does not mean they can never live a good life, or that they must stay hidden in the shadows forever. But true accountability does require recognizing that the fame itself must be forfeited.
Fame, after all, is not just about being particularly excellent at creating art, or cooking food, or engaging others in conversation. It is about being recognized and applauded for those things—headlining the tour, having your own TV show, putting your face on a cookbook. The “comebacks” these men may or may not make—it is, after all, largely gossip—is not about a quiet return to their personal talents, which could feed their souls, but a very loud return to their positions as publicly recognized and acclaimed talents. It is this same need for power and the prerogatives it offers that arguably enabled these same men’s bad actions toward women in the first place. That they want to recoup not the ability to enjoy their talents but the chance to again be widely applauded for those talents and the power brought by celebrity suggests they haven’t done much looking inward at all. It’s not about coming back to their gifts as such, but coming back to their previously held status.
Which suggests that they haven’t actually changed much at all.
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