There is no template for how to be a good man in the #MeToo era.
The one that most men seemed to be working off of until recently was flawed—filled with misguided John Wayne stoicism and silence—and that’s part of the reason we’ve arrived where we are now. The new instruction manual for manhood is being written in real time, and it’s not just about how to behave with women, but also how to respond to how other men have behaved with women.
Lately, we’ve seen some eye-opening examples. Adam Horovitz publicly sided with the women accusing his father of sexual misconduct—a marked shift from the quiet loyalty most men have expressed when the sexual harassment reckoning has hit close to home. Last night, John Oliver provided an example of confronting a man with whom he had no connection to at all.
The interaction took place at an innocuous event, a 20th-anniversary screening for the political satire Wag the Dog. Oliver was moderating a panel that included the film’s co-star, Dustin Hoffman, who was recently accused by Anna Graham Hunter of groping and making inappropriate comments to her on the set of a film in the 1980s—when she was 17. About 20 minutes into the forum, Oliver started in on the blistering hot-button issue of sexual harassment in Hollywood. After getting a decent response from director Barry Levinson, Oliver moved on to Hoffman, who was geographically next in line. The Last Week Tonight host did not go easy on him.
What followed was 30 squirm-worthy minutes of grilling and deflection. Hoffman appeared taken aback that the topic had come up at all (even though the plot of Wag the Dog deals with a president caught hitting on an underage girl). Rather than engage with the broader issue, the actor became defensive, doubling down on the weak apology he offered when the accusation became public—making the apology itself feel like a formality conducted under duress, rather than the jump-off for some actual soul-searching.
“I still don’t know who this woman is,” Hoffman said at one point. “I never met her; if I met her, it was in concert with other people.”
Oliver pounced, refuting this statement by citing the part of Hoffman’s apology declaring the incident was “not reflective of who I am.”
“It’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off,” Oliver said. “It is reflective of who you were. If you’ve given no evidence to show it didn’t [happen] then there was a period of time for a while when you were a creeper around women. It feels like a cop-out to say ‘It wasn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”
The heated showdown, which is worth reading about or watching in its entirety, left the paying audience gasping multiple times, and Oliver expressing anxiety over what the film panel had evolved into. Oliver shouldn’t feel contrite about it, though; he should be applauded. He took a gutsy principled stance, and in the process created a blueprint for the next step of this reckoning: confrontation.
Hunter’s allegations against Hoffman don’t put him anywhere near the most offensive man whose actions have come to light over the past two months. The breadth of charges emerging each day has forced us into the grotesque task of assigning tiers of grossness to the men now incurring them, and Hoffman is relatively low on that list. However, there’s no need to limit our ire to the most malicious (alleged) serial predators like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. For those guys, the judicial system will hopefully decide their fate. Hoffman doesn’t deserve to go to jail with them, but he should indeed have to answer for his behavior 30 years ago and convince us he feels genuine remorse and wants to be part of the solution to sexual harassment.
This is what comes after accusation and apology. It may be the most uncomfortable part of the reckoning, but it’s most definitely a part of it. We need to get to the gritty, grimy heart of the matter; recognizing what was wrong with how men behaved in the past, and talking about how and why it will be different in the future. None of those things can happen if the accused merely apologize and then moonwalk away from the conversation. They need to be confronted—again and again and again until a real change in the culture feels possible.
Hoffman’s response to Oliver seemed to reveal a man who feels witch-hunted, rather than a person who has been rightly called out on his past shit. As my colleague Kate Davis has pointed out, an apology shouldn’t be meant to exonerate the perpetrator from the career repercussions of sexual harassment—but that’s the message Hoffman sent with his “what I might have done” sorry/not sorry statement.
Hoffman’s shock at being grilled at the Wag the Dog screening suggests that he assumed his apology would do the job of sweeping all the unpleasantness under the rug so he could get back to the business of being a rich and famous white guy who is still warmly received in movies. If we actually want to change the system that allowed men to behave like dirtbags for so long, though, we have to at least try to change those men’s minds–and the minds of most men. If that’s ever going to happen, there needs to be more post-apology confrontation.
Every man has a Dustin Hoffman in his life. Maybe it’s a guy who said something a little too creepy under the guise of—deepest possible sigh— “locker room talk,” or maybe it’s someone he witnessed hitting on an unreceptive woman a little too aggressively. Since these guys aren’t criminals (probably!) and because we generally like them, it’s deeply uncomfortable to do anything about it—even now, when everything in the culture suggests we should. Following John Oliver’s example, though, and putting those male friends and acquaintances on the spot may be the only way forward. It’s not snitching, it’s not breaking guy code; it’s just plain decency. It always should have been.
Oliver made the audience at the Wag the Dog event uncomfortable, but coming to terms with this issue was never going to be comfortable. Also, screw their comfort. Look where men being comfortable got us. Furthermore, it appears too many men like Hoffman have still, at this late date, not truly considered how uncomfortable it is to go through the kinds of experiences most women have endured and slowly learn that it’s just The Way It Is. Well, that’s not the way it is anymore. The sooner we all get used to it, the better.