In a recent conversation with Dustin Hoffman, the talk show host demonstrated how men can hold their peers to account.
As more and more powerful men have become embroiled in sexual misconduct scandals over the last couple of months, conversation has turned frequently to the role that men should play in stamping out sexual harassment and assault. Of course, you could argue that men should simply refrain from intimidating and abusing others – but the issue is much more complex than that.
One of the problems, it seems, is that many men who do not personally mistreat women will nevertheless turn a blind eye to the alleged (or blatant) bad behaviour of others. Men who duck out of talking to other men about sexual harassment and assault are not necessarily malicious. But given that men who prey on women are unlikely to listen to the complaints of women, it is clear that non-abusive men have a vital role to play in holding others to account.
On Monday night, the English talk show host and comedian John Oliver provided men around the world with a crash course in how to challenge their peers on sexual harassment allegations. Oliver, who hosts HBO’s The Daily Show in the US, was chairing a Q&A panel discussion at an anniversary screening of 1997 film Wag the Dog.
One of the film’s stars, Dustin Hoffman, was recently accused of historic sexual harassment – and Oliver didn’t hold back from asking him about it.
“This is something we’re going to have to talk about because… it’s hanging in the air,” Oliver said, according to a report by the Washington Post.
He was referring to the allegation, made by writer Anna Graham Hunter, that Hoffman groped her and made lewd remarks when she was a 17-year-old intern on the set of the 1985 TV adaptation of Death of a Salesman.
Graham Hunter wrote an article in November in which she detailed her time working with Hoffman. Shortly afterwards, the actor released a statement saying he regretted “that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”
At the Q&A with Oliver, Hoffman appeared to roll back this apology.
“First of all, it didn’t happen the way she reported,” he said.
Hoffman also expressed scepticism that he had ever met Graham Hunter, perhaps unaware that her article includes a photo of the pair together.
“I still don’t know who this woman is,” he said. “I never met her; if I met her, it was in concert with other people.”
He added sarcastically to Oliver: “From a few things you’ve read, you’ve made an incredible assumption about me. You’ve made the case better than anyone else can. I’m guilty.”
In this scenario, it would have been all too easy for Oliver to let the issue slide. Hoffman has been a Hollywood icon since the Sixties, and the audience at the panel discussion was packed with his fans (some of whom shouted at Oliver to “move on” and “let it go”). Oliver could have told himself that he’d ‘done his bit’ by bringing up the sexual harassment allegations at all, and moved the conversation onto safer, less controversial ground.
But he didn’t. He kept going.
“I can’t leave certain things unaddressed,” Oliver said. “The easy way is not to bring anything up. Unfortunately that leaves me at home later at night hating myself. ‘Why … didn’t I say something? No one stands up to powerful men.’”
The TV personality also questioned Hoffman’s assertion, in his initial apology to Graham Hunter, that his behaviour on the set of Death of a Salesman “is not reflective of who I am”.
“It’s ‘not reflective of who I am’ – it’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off,” he 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,” Oliver continued. “It feels like a cop-out to say ‘It wasn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”
Oliver went on to say that he felt they had an obligation to discuss the allegations, particularly given that Wag the Dog – the film they were discussing – deals with the issue of a powerful man engaging in sexual misconduct with young women.
“This isn’t fun for me,” Oliver said. “[But] there’s an elephant in the room because, this particular incident, a conversation has not been had.”
By continuing to press Hoffman on the allegations against him, even as the atmosphere turned tense, Oliver has shown men around the world that it is possible to talk to other men about sexual harassment.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that the discussion will go well, or that men accused of misconduct will suddenly confess to everything and repent. In fact, it’s much more likely that they will respond angrily and defensively, as Hoffman did.
But men do not have to be able to extract confessions of guilt from one other in order for these conversations to be worthwhile. What makes these conversations worthwhile is the message they send about sexual harassment: that it will no longer be swept under the rug in polite society, and perpetrators will be held to account. Here’s hoping that Oliver inspires more men to follow his lead.
Images: Rex Features