Powerful Men Can’t Plead Ignorance in the Wake of Misbehavior Revelations (Column)

Men in Power Sexual Harassment Mad Men
Courtesy of AMC


It’s the theme that ricochets through countless TV shows, especially in the past decade or two. Who has influence, how can mastery of other people or a profession be achieved, how can ambition be cemented into unassailable and fear-inspiring dominance?

Those kinds of themes have been so prevalent — through the Golden Age of the aughts and even now — that a critic can easily grow a little tired of them. Being a privileged white guy is hard. We get it.

And now we’re told a host of influential media industry men caught up in the current flood of harassment, abuse and assault stories just didn’t understand the power dynamics in their respective situations.

Nonsense. Of course they did.

Asserting power, in so many cases, was the point. And it still is, for many who’re working on back lots, in executive suites, in newsrooms and on sets today.

The use of the blanket term “sexual harassment,” as Constance Grady of Vox has pointed out, is extremely limiting and doesn’t truly describe the range of misbehavior that can occur in these situations. Intimidation, domination and the enforcement of hierarchies are huge parts of what’s going on when an abuser verbally or physically harasses someone else.

Given that most of the media businesses are run by men, and many of the low- to mid-level positions in the industry are filled by women, the pattern is infuriatingly repetitive: A man asserts his power over a woman’s space, her mind, her body — and she has nowhere to go.

He knows that. That’s part of the thrill.

These acts are not just about sexual gratification, nor are they about hands accidentally wandering where they shouldn’t. Time and again, these perpetrators use words, actions and physical contact to humiliate those below them in the pecking order. And they might as well be taking their cues from the stories they create or report on.

There’s Matthew Weiner allegedly telling “Mad Men” writer Kater Gordon she “owed it to him” to show him her naked body.

Weiner denies having said it. But I can picture almost any of the men on “Mad Men” saying that to Joan or Peggy. The pilot of “The Sopranos” — where Weiner worked for many years — had Tony lamenting, “Lately I’ve been gettin’ the feelin’ that I come in at the end.” He means the end of power, influence, primacy — i.e., the things that are implicitly owed to men.

These dynamics — these “debts” — play out everywhere, not just on-screen.

There’s the showrunner who asked a staff writer if she’s good in bed in front of his entire staff. There’s the showrunner who asked a new assistant to lie under him on the floor for “research.” There’s the male creative who grabbed a woman’s body after she had a successful pitch meeting. Why would he do that in that moment? Because she’d succeeded. She’d done well; she’d excelled. And he had to bring her down a few pegs. Maybe forever.

There’s agent Adam Venit grabbing the genitals of Terry Crews — publicly, openly, at an industry event. Venit’s actions are not just inexcusable, they’re an indicator of what he thought of as common, normal and accepted. Venit’s behavior is of a piece with a culture in which a certain kind of dominance is glorified into toxicity. His actions were the symptom of a much larger disease. And yet WME invited him back into the corporate fold after a monthlong leave of absence with little punishment save a demotion.

We’ve talked a lot about the epic falls of successful men in the past few months. But what about the silent, agonizing falls of people whose confidence is destroyed in those moments? Quietly, the survivors of these incidents trim their sails. They don’t pitch as much. They stop speaking up in meetings. They recalibrate how much space they should take up, how they dress.

My God, the stories I’ve heard about powerful men who want to control what the women around them wear! Women are told to dress sexier. Put on more makeup. So they dress down, stop drawing attention to themselves. Imagine, before even going to work, having to fight that malignant voice inside your head.

I can’t help sighing every time I read a statement from a man who “did not know” that toxic power dynamics were involved when he harassed or assaulted a struggling comic or a junior writer or an assistant or a script coordinator. One of the latest to be fired, Matt Lauer, will make it his “full-time job” to reflect on his actions. Perhaps he will meditate on that time he allegedly left an unconscious woman on his office floor and told an assistant to deal with her.

That’s power. That’s someone who enjoys using it in the cruelest, most heartless way possible. And that’s just one thing he allegedly did — in a laundry list of awful, awful actions. The secret button on his desk that allowed him to lock the door — what is that if not an assertion of complete and terrifying dominance?

So don’t tell me they don’t understand. Men at the top of their professions, especially in competitive fields like film, TV and the news business, don’t get where they are without obsessing about the nature and exercise of power almost every day of the week. It’s in their work. It’s in their actions. It’s in the air they breathe.

Power in and of itself doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Used wisely and well, it can change the world for the better. But what too many forget is Spider-Man’s mantra: With great power comes great responsibility.

“Maybe being a rebel in my family would have been selling patio furniture on Route 22,” Tony Soprano muses at one point.

Worth thinking about, Tony. That guy probably didn’t have a toxic sense of entitlement about his place in the world.