One of the questions emerging from this post-#MeToo reckoning is whether abusive behavior that lacks a sexual component belongs in the ongoing discussion of gender equity in the workplace. Many feel strongly that it shouldn’t. Sexual harassment is bad, but who hasn’t exploded at a co-worker or associate or student? the riposte goes. This is how X industry works; toughen up or get out.
The distinction between sexual and verbal abuse should be preserved, but the force with which we minimize the latter is more than curious to those of us who manage not to scream at our colleagues. Still, this view is popular, so much so that Jeffrey Tambor, in denying the allegations that he sexually harassed Transparent actor Trace Lysette and his former assistant Van Barnes, admitted that though he had never been a “predator,” he could be “volatile and ill-tempered.” It’s a statement whose apparent candor works as a partial defense by framing explosive rage and cruelty as comparatively minor defects.
This defense is conspicuous insofar as it’s the job of public relations professionals to help clients like Tambor navigate prevailing social mores. It’s a measure of ours that the team advising Tambor determined that screaming at subordinates and superiors alike would be seen as unremarkable. And it almost worked. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Tambor admitted that he had been “mean” to a female executive producer of Transparent and creator Jill Soloway (who later told him Soloway was afraid of him), and to Arrested Development colleague Jessica Walter, who felt the humiliation so keenly she broke down in tears years later. It’s not a pretty record. But Tambor volunteered these incidents in the light of sexual misconduct allegations, essentially offering himself up for a “lesser charge.”
That approach might have kept succeeding if Tambor’s Arrested Development pals hadn’t gotten greedy and gone for a full exoneration. In the now-notorious New York Times interview with the cast, his male co-stars suggest that, viewed in context, even the lesser charge of verbal abuse shouldn’t be seen as an infraction. Screaming at your colleagues is what “families” do, Jason Bateman repeatedly insists (I recommend Anne Helen Petersen’s analysis of who that “family” analogy serves). This is how artists work, Bateman adds. It’s the process. It’s the industry. As Bateman’s dogged, reasonable justifications for Tambor stack up, so do the supportive echoes from his fellow male castmates.
The result was so startling that they accidentally achieved the improbable: By downplaying the seriousness of verbal abuse, they revealed it to be a more serious (and more gendered) obstacle to workplace equality than previously acknowledged.
My fear, reading that interview and the subsequent reaction, was that the takeaway would be simply that these men are just assholes. But the point I want to argue—because fine distinctions do matter during discussions like these—is that they are not. I don’t mean that Bateman, David Cross, Tony Hale, and Tambor weren’t jerks in that interview. They were. I mean that their behavior is utterly ordinary. They didn’t notice what they had done—and what everyone could see they’d done—until it was pointed out to them. To label them assholes is to single them out from the crowd, but they are the crowd. That they ignored the colleague weeping before them, comforting instead the man who’d verbally abused her, isn’t remarkable. In fact, it was such a natural thing for them to do that they did it in front of a journalist they were trying to impress.
If one is feeling charitable, their intentions can even be seen—from a certain standpoint—as good. Three of the four have already apologized for their part in this sorry affair, and that’s noteworthy because (besides the fact that apologies were appropriate and owed) it shows they get how completely they torpedoed a crucial PR opportunity. Their goal was so clearly to please the mainstream audience they ended up horrifying.
And the reason they failed spectacularly is because the dynamic Bateman kept describing as a “family” is actually a boys’ club. I suspect this is what Jessica Walter was trying to say when she asked the Times’ Sopan Deb to describe the “testosterone in this room.”* A boys’ club is buoyant and profane and totally fun for those inside. It does feel like a certain kind of family—to men! (Of course Bateman has “zero complaints.” He’s in.) I don’t doubt that Bateman, Hale, and Cross consider themselves to be good and decent men and even good allies to their female co-stars. That’s what is instructive about this case: These guys truly believed they were fixing the problem.
The trouble is that it was the wrong problem. These men thought the mission was How to Help Their Friend Jeffrey Tambor. And that this was so obviously their default assumption says all you need to know about how a boys’ club blinds its members to anything on the outside (women). Their fellow boys are what matters. Their concerns matter more, their humor matters more, their pain matters more, their talent matters more. Tambor’s behavior didn’t damage their workplace and threaten its reputation; the women talking about it did. The Arrested Development men were standing up for a buddy in need.
And here’s where that distinction between sexual and verbal abuse starts to get a little shaky—and why a happy work environment for someone within the club can feel hostile to someone outside. It’s not a coincidence that, of all the people Tambor is accused of mistreating (and he himself admits to being mean to), none are men.
David Cross himself hints at this division in his interview with Gothamist: “I don’t know whether or not Jeffrey would have done that to the male members of the cast. He didn’t have that relationship that he has with Jessica that he has with the male members of the cast, so that’s perhaps part of the difference.” Meanwhile, Walter’s statement that she has to “get over” what Tambor did to her and be his friend suggests, among other things, that even when a woman is not a part of the in-group, she is keenly aware of the warmth from which she has been excluded.
The reason this story resonated as much as it did—as Linda Holmes points out—is that this dynamic felt immediately recognizable, not foreign. Workplaces all over America are plagued with iterations of this hard-to-describe double standard. Holmes writes that the male actors’ “disrespect felt so benign in the delivery and so destructive in the effect. How can you have ‘zero complaints’ about a workplace someone else remembers as containing the worst verbal abuse of her career? Is that not, itself, a complaint?” The men perform for each other and joke and make each other feel good. They won’t be stopped—not by Alia Shawkat, who admonishes them, or by the weeping colleague trying to answer the question they hadn’t even let the reporter finish asking.
If we’re going to talk about equality in the workplace, we’re going to have to recognize that sexual misconduct can’t be where the conversation ends. The boys’ club—its so-constant-you-can’t-hear-it-anymore patter of mutual reassurance—can render women even in its midst all but invisible. That power can dictate who gets defended and celebrated, and who gets screamed at.
The New York Times interview is cruel. But nothing in it is exceptional.
Correction, May 27, 2018: This article originally misquoted Jessica Walter as having asked the New York Times’ Sopan Deb to describe the “testosterone in the room.” She asked him to describe the “testosterone in this room.”