America is entering the next phase in #MeToo: Where do the accused go from here?
Last week Shaun White won a historic third career gold medal in the snowboarding halfpipe at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The celebration was tempered by a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against him by a former bandmate, Lena Zawaideh, which was settled last year.
In USA Today, Christine Brennan wrote that White and other men at the Olympics have “flown under the radar of ‘Me Too,’ ” while Josh Levin at Slate scolded NBC for looking the other way.
When asked about the lawsuit after his win, White said, “I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not you know, not gossip” before apologizing for his phrasing a few days later.
Zawaideh’s attorney released a statement following White’s comments: “Hopefully, before our country declares someone ‘the best of the US,’ there will be investigation and due diligence.”
But Shaun White is “the best of the US” — at snowboarding, anyway. In cases like White’s, where an out-of-court settlement has been reached, it’s difficult to say what happens next to the accused. Where a court decision could close the case one way or another, a settlement leaves the accusation lingering in the public mind.
When Jeremy Piven was accused in November of groping a woman, he denied all charges and shot back that “lives are being put in jeopardy without a hearing, due process or evidence.” Perhaps not “lives” but certainly many careers of the accused are on hold, if not over entirely.
Can we root for Shaun White?
Is it OK to cook recipes from the Mario Batali cookbook you purchased before his behavior was exposed? Is it wrong to stay at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas even though Steve Wynn has stepped away from his role there? What about rewatching Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects” or viewing any number of films produced by Harvey Weinstein? Is all music on Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records label tainted by the allegations against him?
It’s a tough call. We’ve grappled with our moral obligation to separate the art from the artist and the businessman from his business, but the bigger question becomes: What happens to these celebrity men going forward? Watching reruns of Louis CK stand-up shows is one thing, but do the accused men get to keep creating things we enjoy now that we know another side of them?
Even asking the question is a minefield. We’re supposed to not care where they end up. But we’re a country that loves second chances and comeback stories, so it’d be wise to settle on some ground rules.
White is unusual in that he remains in the public sphere despite his settlement and it’s clear some find that untoward. Though he’s not on the same level as Weinstein — the accusations against White involve him showing porn to his bandmate, sending her gross texts and behaving in a lewd way — that may not matter for the other accused celebrities.
It’s one thing to write off Harvey Weinstein forever, but does someone like Aziz Ansari, whose awkward seduction routine was made public by a woman who didn’t enjoy it, get to work again? He skipped the SAG awards and received no applause when his name was called, and the awkward-but-innocent image around which his brand is built will take some rehabbing.
Some of the men of “Me Too” are returning to work, like Joel Achenbach at The Washington Post or Glenn Thrush at The New York Times. But most Americans couldn’t pick Achenbach or Thrush out in a crowd. Celebrity men, instantly recognizable, face a much harder challenge.
Weinstein, Simons, Spacey are all accused of actual assault and, in some cases, rape. Should they be mentioned alongside White or Louis CK, both of whom said or did dumb sexualized things that made women around them uncomfortable? They shouldn’t. The case of Batali, who is accused of groping or former Sen. Al Franken, who found his hand over and over to the backsides of women, will really be the test cases of what America can forgive.
In January, NPR’s “All Things Considered” explored the concept of “restorative justice” for the accused men, which would entail not just apologizing but doing a full accounting of their wrongdoing. That seems mostly impossible in a world of out-of-court settlements where both parties are instructed not to discuss the case.
It would be the right thing to do, however. If an offender hasn’t made any excuses for his behavior, if he’s contrite and apologetic, and if that behavior is more of the inappropriate come-on instead of assault, we should have a way back for them. It doesn’t mean giving the men a pass, but it does mean giving them a path toward redemption.