This is the third installment in a bi-monthly column that will explore some of the different cultural facets of popular feminism, the #MeToo movement, and the contemporary cultural awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and in daily life. These essays are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to point up the ways the current environment is responding to gender dynamics, sex, and power.
IN APRIL 2018, Vanity Fair published a story titled “Matt Lauer Is Planning His Comeback,” which hinted at the fact that the former Today Show anchor, who was fired after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment and assault, had “come out of hiding” and was planning his return to the public spotlight. This is part of a pattern. Over the last few months, it seems that #MeToo stories are slowly being supplanted by a new kind of narrative: the “comeback story” of the powerful male perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industries. Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Mario Batali, and others have reportedly been “testing the waters” about their “comebacks.” Perhaps most disturbingly, Charlie Rose is allegedly creating a “#MeToo atonement series,” in which Rose will interview other men who have been accused of sexual harassment.
What does it mean to come back? And where, or what, are these men coming back from? The concept of the “comeback” story has resonance in the United States as a cultural narrative: the gumption of the underdog; the myth of meritocracy, where the talented and gifted win in the end, if only they persevere; Horatio Alger’s “rags-to-riches” tales. But the whole world loves a comeback. Take sports, in which comebacks are the most popular and most bankable narratives, celebrating athletes who overcome hardships and recover from injury. Indeed, the comeback story is a commodity, one that finds a place within the comeback economy. And this economy now threatens to subsume the #MeToo movement.
In the world of media, power, and celebrity, comeback stories are not about physical resilience and grit, or even about the underdog. Rather, they are about reputational and crisis management, a matter of public relations. To be sure, the #MeToo movement has created a dilemma for celebrity publicists (and in many of the high-profile cases, such as those of Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., the publicity firms for the accused dropped them as clients; as Anne Cohen has pointed out, “[T]he business of crisis management itself is at a crossroads: pre-Weinstein and post-Weinstein.” At the emergence of #MeToo, when the stories from women seemed so relentless, it was no doubt difficult for publicists and agents to figure out what to do with their clients. If they weren’t dropped altogether, the publicists helped create woefully inadequate “sorry not sorry” public apologies, which were widely pilloried by the public.
But now, six months after the Weinstein story broke, the stories are no longer coming forth as relentlessly (or the media is no longer interested in covering them), and it seems that the months-long hiatus is working for publicists and agents. The “complicity machine,” made up of not only assistants but also publicists, seems to be hard at work on what Stassa Edwards calls the “redemption narrative” of the accused. The idea of the comeback is slowly creeping into the media spotlight — though not every man accused gets to “come back” equally. As I was writing this, the Bill Cosby guilty verdict came in, prompting the question of whether the comeback economy is open mostly to white men.
Publicists are very good at being patient, recognizing the short-term memory of the public (especially in the midst of the never-ending catastrophes of the Trump administration), waiting the scandal out. Even when Weinstein was in the thick of accusations, one of his few remaining investors, Paul Tudor Jones, wrote to him about what he would need to do to rehabilitate his image: “Focus on the future as America loves a great comeback story […] The good news is, this will go away sooner than you think and it will be forgotten!” What underlies this is the logic of public relations, the notion that a scandal is an opportunity, a minor setback that anticipates a great comeback.
But what if we focused on a different kind of scandal — not the kind that gives once (and still) powerful men an opportunity, based on wealth and visibility, to make a comeback? As feminist Jacqueline Rose wrote three years before #MeToo, in the midst of increasing sexual violence across the globe, “We need a scandalous feminism, one that embraces without inhibition the most painful, outrageous aspects of the human heart, giving them their place at the very core of the world that feminism wants to create.”
A scandalous feminism would challenge the accepted notion of the comeback story. What about comeback stories that begin with those who were victimized, not those who did the victimizing? We hear precious few redemption narratives of the survivors of sexual harassment and assault. There is a mediated space for the victim of #MeToo, but the comeback of that kind of victim is not as visible. Many, if not most, of the women who have been harassed and assaulted have no publicists to manage their reputations. Indeed, thousands of these women lack the economic security or visibility that would afford the luxury of coming forward, much less of coming back.
Surely the popular and spectacular feminisms that circulate in the media, such as #MeToo, affords an important kind of visibility. Yet even this visibility is often hemmed in by the economic imperatives of the entertainment industries. We are indeed in need of a more scandalous feminism — one that is bold, unapologetic, and leaves it all on the table. We need a feminism that makes people uncomfortable, that is painful, and perhaps even self-reflective (Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents Dinner speech comes to mind). The #MeToo movement has the potential to unleash this kind of scandalous feminism. The women coming forward with revelations of sexual harassment and assault have witnessed, for the most part, an embrace of these most “painful, outrageous aspects of the human heart.” The act of believing these women as they tell their painful stories is at the core of a feminist world. It is their kind of scandal I want to give my attention to, the feminist scandal that cannot be easily managed, that conflicts with what publicity agents seek to manage and control.
Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor and director of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Some of the themes captured in this column are explored further in a forthcoming book, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018).