We Need Male Allies, Not Male Heroes.


In the darkness, you take heroes where you can find them.

Thus, this week, the Internet found one in John Oliver. During a panel discussion on the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, Oliver pressed Dustin Hoffman on allegations that he’d sexually harassed a 17-year-old intern on the set of Death of a Salesman.

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The accusations came to light in The Hollywood Reporter, where Anna Graham Hunter alleges that Hoffman shared graphic sexual anecdotes on set and groped her. Once, she claims, Hoffman asked her for her “soft-boiled clitoris.” Hunter further alleges that she was told she’d be fired if she resisted him too forcefully and writes that one female producer told her to “try to have a sense of humor and just giggle and slap his hands or something.”

Letters to her sister, published with her piece, include such vomitous allegations as: “Dustin entertained me, Elizabeth, John Malkovich, Stephen Lang and Arthur Miller with an enlightening discussion on breasts,” and, “[W]hen I was walking Dustin to his limo, he felt my ass four times. I hit him each time, hard… would [the producer] have fired me if he’d seen me hit Dustin?”

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This isn’t misbehavior that should be allowed to pass without comment. And this week, Oliver did not let it pass. At the panel, he called out Hoffman for his attempt to apologize, in which Hoffman claimed that the incident was “not reflective of who I am.” (In a statement, Hoffman did not admit to the behavior that was alleged, but said: “[I] feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put [Hunter] in an uncomfortable situation.”)

“It is reflective of who you were,” Oliver said, and, well, it all devolved from there.

Hoffman accused Oliver of believing his guilt without evidence. Then he tried to use his role in Tootsie to bolster his feminist credentials: “How could I have made that movie if I didn’t have incredible respect for women?” Hoffman wanted to know. (No, I have no idea how this is relevant, either.) Then there was this exchange:

HOFFMAN: Do you believe this stuff that you read?

OLIVER: I believe what she wrote, yes.

HOFFMAN: Why?

OLIVER: Because there’s no point in her lying.

HOFFMAN: Well, there’s a point in her not bringing this up for 40 years.

At this point, the audience—and Oliver—groan. Oliver adds, “Ohhhhhhh, Dustin,” and literally face-palms. I think the face-palm sums it up.

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Video of the panel, circulated by the Washington Post, soon ricocheted around the Internet. Within hours, just about every feminist in my social-media feed was debating the same question: Was John Oliver a feminist hero, standing up for women in a way too few men were willing to do?

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Or were Oliver’s fans just handing him a medal for conducting a reasonably tough interview and not giving sexual harassment a pass—in other words, for doing his job?

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I like and respect people on both sides of the debate, and each has valid points. It’s not hard to understand why some women would be eager to find and validate male allies now. After all, Oliver may be the first famous man since October to have his name trend on Twitter for a good reason. We’re all trapped in this maze full of boners together, and though plenty of women harbor deep anger toward men, most of us can’t or don’t want to eliminate them from our lives. It hurts to feel betrayed and unsupported all the time, and in a moment when it seems that every powerful or famous man is hiding a history of corrosive misogyny, it’s nice to believe that Oliver has our backs.

Of course, these past few months have also borne out just how dangerous it is to place that kind of trust in any one man, particularly a celebrity. Oliver, like most talk-show hosts, has a predominantly white and male writing staff (though blind-hiring measures were reportedly taken to prevent it from becoming entirely so). As Aminatou Sow pointed out on Twitter, Oliver was quoted in 2010 dismissing Irin Carmon’s feminist critique of The Daily Show, in which Carmon spoke to numerous former female staffers who said they found the environment “frustrating and alienating.”

“I don’t even feel I should have to justify how half-assed the stuff is,” Oliver said at the time. “It’s such a shame it got the traction it did. And I don’t know why it did, other than it became a he said, she said.”

Misrepresenting a serious dispute as a mere “he said, she said” is, of course, just the tactic people like to use to trivialize allegations of harassment. Though the John Oliver of 2017 may be willing to challenge the silence that allows abusers to skate up the power ladder, the John Oliver of 2010 was condemning women for daring to speak out against his powerful and famous boss. In the seven intervening years, it’s possible he grew as a person and it’s possible that, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, he’s decided that “calling out sexual harassment” is good personal branding.

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But whatever his motivations, the John Oliver of 2017 is still someone we need. Re-watch that conversation: It is a profoundly volatile situation. The air crackles. Hoffman is clearly furious. The audience picks up on the energy and gets restless, sometimes booing Hoffman, sometimes shouting down Oliver. You get the sense that if Hoffman had felt even a little bit more emboldened or if the audience were just a little more biased toward Hoffman, the discussion would have turned even uglier. The audience’s aggression would have increased tenfold, and maybe even made the conversation itself impossible. But Oliver is a white man, and so he’s afforded an automatic level of respect.

As unfair as it is, men are in a better position than women to call out other abusive men. A woman who’d tried to pull what Oliver did would have been called unprofessional, militant, difficult, hypersensitive, a bitch. Megyn Kelly is racist and anti-feminist in many ways, but it’s worth noting that even Megyn Kelly couldn’t bring up Trump’s sexism at a debate without becoming a target for months on end, subjected to professional reprisal by her colleagues at Fox News, and threatened with death by Internet randos. But maybe there’s no need to compare the fates of men and women in these situations—most of the time, a woman wouldn’t even be in the position to do this in the first place.

Of course, Oliver has been shaped by his own privilege, and the sexist system that elevates men like him; he shares its flaws and has at times been complicit in its sins. The very success of John Oliver, Celebrity (as opposed to John Oliver, Extremely British Guy Working Behind The Counter Of This Barnes & Noble) suggests how the deck is stacked. With the exception of Oliver’s Daily Show colleague Samantha Bee, the people getting prestigious late-night comedy hosting gigs are all male.

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Simply because he is white, male, and in possession of a nice British accent, Oliver resembles what our culture considers to be “authoritative.”

Yes, it is infuriating that Oliver has lapped up all this praise just because our culture is more willing and able to hear his voice. Women put themselves on the line when they speak, where Oliver is just putting in what should be an unremarkable amount of effort. It’s sad that, in 2017, “don’t talk to 17-year-old girls about their genitalia” is considered a “brave” stand for someone to take. When we lionize men who are publicly horrified by sexual harassment and assault, we make it seem like a radical, courageous act. It shouldn’t be. Everyone should be horrified by harassment.

We’re not there yet. Sexual assault, harassment and misogyny are still incredibly pervasive. Simply because he is white, male, and in possession of a nice British accent, Oliver resembles what our culture considers to be “authoritative.” The exchange with Hoffman could happen and be widely reported in a way that was sympathetic to Oliver, because onlookers didn’t dismiss Oliver as “hysterical,” someone who “caused a scene” at a professional event with his “obsessive” concerns about sexual harassment.

That Oliver used his considerable male, white privilege to hold a predator to account is worthwhile, if only because it spares women some of the work. Moreover, we need all the voices we can get. We need men to disrupt male spaces, make their abusive friends and colleagues uncomfortable, and force concerns about harassment and misogyny into the public discourse, in a way that no one can ignore or attribute to wacko female emotions. If enough men start speaking up and taking care of their trash dudes before some woman has to, then John Oliver really won’t be special after all.



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