“It certainly is not a good time for anyone to be accused of something like this,” Mr. Tritico, Mr. Feinberg’s lawyer, said.
Of all the coverage of men losing their jobs for sexually inappropriate conduct, this sentence is the most telling. The line comes from an article in the New York Times about Michael Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP Schools, losing his position for misconduct in 2007. But it could have come from anywhere.
“Men are living as Jews in Germany,” says one man from Hollywood (I assume with a straight face) quoted in The New Yorker in an article asking “Can Hollywood Change Its Ways?” I’m sorry to say that if this is the way men are thinking about living in the Me Too and Time’s Up era, the answer is more than likely no. Men are so obviously not being hunted that it feels embarrassing to type. Men, unlike Jews living in Germany, have not had their rights stripped. Nor have they had to ask themselves every day if an identity with which they were born will cause their demise. Though it has been said before, it is worth repeating: You have nothing to worry about if you did not use your position of power to harass, assault, or intimidate.
Evidently, this concept needs some parsing.
Last week, a lawsuit suing D.C. restaurateur Mike Isabella and some of his high ranking personnel was reported in The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and Eater. Chloe Caras, who has worked with MIC (Mike Isabella Concepts) since 2015, is suing for sexual harassment. In the suit, she also claims that Isabella and his partners have violated the DC Human Rights Act. For this, she is seeking compensation for “pain and suffering, damage to career, and loss of enjoyment of life” in addition to back pay and punitive damages. The articles outline the details, but because locker room talk was an excuse that worked once, it should be noted that “bro culture” plays a big part in this suit.
This could be read in the same way as any number of prior lawsuits that have been brought against men at the top. What is interesting about this case in particular is that MIC is using two important facts in his defense:
1. Caras was one of the higher ups at MIC.
According to the defense, the fact that 60 percent of the top management was women–and that Caras was replaced by a woman–makes it impossible that the bro culture that she calls out in her lawsuit could have created a hostile environment. Moreover, the suggestion here is that because she was part of the team, she supported the bro culture and the way the company was run.
Anyone who has ever been part of a culture in which not every citizen is equal (so, you), knows that some of the oppressed have to perpetuate the systems of the oppressors. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look at women in life real and fictionalized. The current president’s administration has clear implicit and explicit guidelines–even on presentation–for how women can be. (For more on how women maneuver within this administration and other retrograde ideas about women picking up followings, see here and here, among others.) The Handmaid’s Tale’s handling of this, both on screen and on paper, has been written about more than once.
So to suggest that a woman’s passive participation is the same as her active affirmation is foolish and lacking any understanding of how we survive each day.
According to the suit as reported in The Post, Caras was called a “dumb bitch” and “whore” at work whilst also enduring false rumors of her sexual history. MIC denies creating a hostile work environment that displays contempt for women. The articles I read, however, do not deny that she was called these things. In what work environment would it be appropriate for anyone to be called a bitch or whore? It is remarkable to me that any person thinks it is all in fun and games and healthy work environments to call women words that are never used in supportive ways. If colleagues called you these things, I can think of a few words besides “hostile” and “contempt” that I might use to describe the environment. None of them would be positive.
The earlier quoted New Yorker piece recounts a lawsuit that started in the Friends writer room. Whatever you think of the TV series, you likely do not think of it as a raunchy comedy obsessed with sex in the most base terms. The writers room, however, was full of talk of “pussies,” “schlongs,” and “fucking.” When a writer, Lyle, mentioned the environment in a lawsuit for wrongful discrimination, there was no denial:
The writers didn’t generally dispute the behavior Lyle had described; instead, they made a novel argument, on First Amendment grounds, that their behavior was a “creative necessity,” indispensable to the making of a show about a group of unmarried adult friends. The raunchy patter, so long as it wasn’t directed at Lyle, was part of their job.
I would not be surprised if MIC were to use a similar strategy, with a curve since their language was directed at Caras. Still, that the crude language and hypersexualization of even cocktails was integral to the success of MIC restaurants is something I cannot imagine being able to prove.
2) The second noteworthy part of this case comes from the MIC press release, which states, “These allegations, coming from this single disgruntled co-owner of the company, are supported only by several former employees, all of whom are also her friends.”
On this basis, they are suggesting, Caras’ allegations are not to be believed.
If you were being harassed by your boss/company owner, whom would you tell? Recent stories about women’s harassment, ranging from Babe.net (Yes.) to The American Life have used women telling friends about their experiences as corroboration. In a world where “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment means the offender being put on paid leave or being warned to not do it again, women generally have two options: tell friends and stay or leave. Growing weary of the former, of course, often leads to the latter.
The woman who filed the wrongful termination lawsuit from Friends no longer works in media. If Caras continues in food remains to be seen. We already know we are losing promising talent and divergent perspectives because men and harassers shut too many women down and out. Friends are often the only safe space a woman has to tell her side of the story without judgment and in a wholly honest way. It is certainly safer than telling about it on the internet for fear of receiving death threats and more or telling HR and being fired.
I want to say the culture is shifting. I want to say that dudes aren’t using “Not Harvey Weinstein” as a Tinder profile. I want to say that I didn’t see an Instagram story this weekend of a bro being referred to as Harvey Weinstein and responding, “I lost a lot of weight, haven’t changed behaviors” with a grin. I really do want to.
But while women are finding the strength and support for reporting bosses to HR, I sense that men are doubling down on locker room talk, bro culture, call it what you will. There is more work to be done to make those at the top recognize that one or two toppling down from on high does not undo the systems that built and sustain. See: Jenga.
I recently saw a notice for a screening of an upcoming feature film called Brian Banks:
In this inspirational drama based on a true story, Brian Banks, an All-American high school football star committed to USC by his junior year, finds his life upended in 2002 when he is falsely accused of rape. Fiercely maintaining his innocence and despite no evidence to support the accusation, Brian is nonetheless railroaded through the justice system and sentenced to a decade of prison and probation. Ultimately, with the help of Justin Brooks and the California Innocence Project, Bank’s conviction is overturned in 2012, his name is cleared, and he is finally free to pursue his NFL dreams.
This is the kind of movie that studios are spending money doing market research on and probably eventually spending money to promote. Only between two and 10 percent of rape accusations are false (and even fewer false allegations have serious consequences), yet here is a movie that people will see that will likely make it seem as if both are more common. With so many instances of women banding together to confront men who have acted without shame and without respect for so long coming down to he said she (and she and she and she) said, I have to wonder why this movie is receiving resources. To me, it reads as an undermining of rape survivors/victims in the cultural mind. A safeguard of sorts against a woman taking her experience seriously. Instead of giving attention to Me Too, studios are preemptively saying, “Not me.”
I am not suggesting that this movie should never see the light of day or the dark of a theater. But given the way that the world works right now, with studio execs, architects, journalists, dancers, actors, so many more being confronted with allegations of sexual harassment and assault that are real, I am saying that this is not a movie that we need.
If now is not a good time to be accused of something like this, it might be that some men and women who have remained in power are making sure that eventually, it will be.