Politics

Fiction Can Help Us Sympathize With the Worst Men of #MeToo

Good.

Steve Carell above a diagonal white line. Harvey Weinstein below.
Steve Carell as Mitch Kessler in The Morning Show and Harvey Weinstein.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Apple TV+ and Stephanie Keith/Getty Images.

Here’s how we got here: A nationwide uprising started after investigative reporting into Harvey Weinstein’s behavior cracked open a much larger story about abusive dynamics. That reporting sparked an explosion of painful first-person accounts, many shared with the two simple words of me too. These proliferated as many women realized that misconduct they’d experienced as private, career-crushing humiliations wasn’t unique to them; it was part of a pattern with variations all over the country. If such a phenomenon can be said to have had a second wave, that wave went back to the journalists, who—having exposed Weinstein—started reporting out all these other stories. This necessarily filtered victims’ accounts through a different, less personal lens: Journalism is its own genre, and the corroboration and credibility reporters offered victims came at a price. Descriptions of assault were lawyered and rendered in rather clinical language; save for a few quoted words here and there, the first-person point of view got mostly stripped out.

Since then, America’s discussions about gender and workplace dynamics have gone through several other phases simultaneously, including a major and ongoing revanchist backlash. Notably absent is anything like a firm and widely shared consensus on a) acceptable protocols for fairly handling claims of harassment or assault; b) how (or whether) offenders can make amends; c) the function of apologies given the reality of public relations wars that prioritize reputations over repair; and especially d) the current situation re: legal outcomes. Nowhere is our confusion over all this more clear than in the distance between the narratives spun in Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s She Said and Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill—two books that offer spectacular accounts of what it took to take down Harvey Weinstein—and the actual legal consequences Weinstein has so far suffered. While the books celebrate Weinstein’s exposure, the man’s comeuppance, legally speaking, is far from guaranteed. A proposed settlement agreement, which would resolve most of the civil suits against him, “would not require the Hollywood producer to admit wrongdoing or pay anything to his accusers himself.” To the extent that Farrow, Twohey, and Kantor’s books function as victory laps, the catharsis they offer seems premature. Weinstein has been apprehended, a jury is deliberating on two allegations of rape against him, but he has not been formally pronounced guilty. That distinction matters. There’s a strong perception that if even he gets off, then the failure of Me Too to curb malfeasance of this kind will have been absolute.

The perception is understandable, but it’s not the only way to measure progress. Yes, we should keep tabs on what happens to Harvey Weinstein. But if we are striving for a better shared understanding of how power dynamics and norms brought us to this sorry point (or simply wondering whether Me Too has moved us closer together or further apart), there’s terrain outside the courtroom that’s worth exploring. The courtroom is an endpoint. It’s a truism to say our society doesn’t do well when faced with competing stories about what happened; that’s what “he said/she said” has become a shorthand for, our inability to resolve competing claims and our willingness to move on and let everyone concerned—accuser and accused alike—languish in an ambivalent state of presumed half-guilt. To overcome that reflex, to claw our way back toward something like clarity, we need something both personal and public—a shared set of facts that lets us hash out the basics at the start of these interactions, before the sadly administered outcomes and movement-measuring ends. We need to practice processing problems like these with a single narrative. We need to practice on something with lower stakes than the literal lives of accusers and accused. We need Me Too fiction and metatexts that help us understand this problem outside of a news cycle. And recently, we’ve been getting them.

In 2019, Apple TV launched its crown jewel, The Morning Show, which approached what we might call the anthropology of sexual misconduct via a fictional treatment that nonfictional accounts couldn’t fairly, or ethically, capture. The show focuses on the mess a predator leaves in his wake, particularly when the predator in question, Steve Carell’s Matt Lauer–like character, Mitch Kessler, is the kind of person the people around him don’t want to take down (and not just because he’s powerful). On the show, Mitch is defensive and vengeful, but he’s also charismatic and compelling. Exploring that full spectrum of qualities matters if we’re collectively striving for an understanding of toxic workplace dynamics that goes beyond “monsters create hostile work environments.”

First off, the “monsters” (more on this term shortly) have help. Amoral, selfish, careerist people tend to uncritically support people they see as useful to them, even if the latter are causing extraordinary harm. She Said and Catch and Kill aren’t just triumphalist accounts crowing over Weinstein’s exposure. They’re records of how complex and frightening it was to expose him thanks in no small part to his phalanx of defenders. And it’s not over: These books are just as much records of what hasn’t changed as they are records of what has. Both Andrew Lack and Noah Oppenheim worked to kill Farrow’s story and hobnobbed with Weinstein while their reporter tried to tell them what he’d done. They both still work at NBC News. Cy Vance—whose office decided not to prosecute Weinstein after hearing a chilling recording of him admitting to assaulting Ambra Gutierrez—is still working as Manhattan’s district attorney. Lisa Bloom, who promised to weaponize her knowledge of sexual assault victims to tactically smear Weinstein’s accusers, is working on her comeback.

These works of journalism explore how the protective conspiracy of silence was cracked just enough to let some sunlight in. But floating below these outliers who actively colluded with Weinstein is a far more interesting collection of actors whose semiheroic sacrifices have gone mostly unsung. I’m talking about the enablers: the co-workers and subordinates who absorbed the “company culture” at Miramax, who understood that the workplace vibe was sleazy and maybe even wrong but went along to get along, but who—when the journalists came calling—took the enormous risk of corroborating what the victims said. However unflattering it was for them to admit, and despite knowing the damage their careers might suffer. This group, so easily despised by both sides, is the demographic on which future exposures depend. And while Catch and Kill and She Said document their assistance with appropriate reserve, it takes something different to really make visible what it is like to a) live and work in an environment that demands hellish compromises and then b) be asked to recognize, name, and take action against conduct that you might be said to have passively condoned.

This isn’t territory journalism usually gets into. There’s a necessary flatness to the way these actors are represented in books like She Said; the enabling class (for lack of a better phrase) has a function for this kind of reporting, and it’s to corroborate and confirm what the offender has done and what the accuser alleged. What they tolerated (or excused) isn’t the story; neither are the reasons why they tolerated it. But any hope of understanding Me Too in a more structural, less scattershot way resides in seeing these players as the complex people they are—and the set of incentives they’re rationally responding to.

This is exactly what The Morning Show attempts. In flashbacks to the network as it existed when the predator, Mitch Kessler, was still beloved and still anchoring, two things are made clear: first, how much fun everyone insisted was being had. In one flashback, it’s Mitch’s birthday, the network goes overboard with a surprise party to celebrate him, and he’s charismatic and easy to delight and making the show lots of money. The second thing is how coercive this “we’re all having fun here” dynamic is: Any individual reactions that conflict with that idea are suppressed. In the show, one female assistant’s expression reveals her disappointment when a bunch of scantily dressed dancers show up and Martin Short makes dirty jokes. But she puts on her game face. She knows her job is to assent to the fun that’s being had. Such an atmosphere makes it a little easier to understand how men like Mitch (or Weinstein) might have genuinely believed that at least some of what they did was consensual. Everyone is strongly encouraged to act like what the Big Man wants delights them too.

What I’m obliquely describing is The Morning Show’s boldest move: It presents an environment so poisoned by pandering to a powerful man that the predator might not even fully realize he’s predating. This is Weinstein’s argument: He says he understood all of his actions to be consensual. He thought they were wanted and welcomed—not in the sense that he believed these women actively wanted his body, but in the sense that they understood that if they slept with him, they would also be rewarded by him, professionally. There might be a few cases where some version of this might be technically true. When the world organizes itself around one man’s desires and moods, there are likely to be perspectival differences in situations like these. This is useful to understand (without downplaying the severity of what was done) if we’re more interested in changing the whole system than we are in punishing stray offenders.

The Morning Show doesn’t fully sympathize with Mitch, the perpetrator. But fiction might be the only genre that can freely experiment with treating an acknowledged sexual assailant even somewhat sympathetically. There is actually a point to attempting this: Delving into the experience of perpetrators and enablers might be the only way to recognize and refute the collective psychology that preserved these patterns for so long.

Here’s why we desperately need to understand that, and why a little fictional sympathy might go a long way: Our legal system goes absolutely haywire when it tries to deal with sexual assault. It has a longtime, documented disinclination to hold rapists accountable, despite the system’s extreme antipathy toward rapists in the abstract. This is, I suspect, because our consensus position forbids any human feeling at all toward proven rapists. My hypothesis is that people—including judges and lawyers—aren’t quite willing to treat men who rape as rapists precisely because the stigma of the label is so strong. Abnormalities in criminal justice tend to reveal interesting places where public policy is in some not-quite-legible way at odds with private feeling.

This gap between declared intention and actual practice is so abnormal it’s actually informative. Any story a civilization tells itself is somehow distributing sympathy and blame. There may be no real mystery here: Human beings do not like affixing dehumanizing labels to people whose humanity we too readily see. While rapists are obviously bad, individual men can so easily be framed as sympathetic characters who misread a situation—as ordinary men who don’t deserve such a horrifying label, even if they made mistakes. You see this in the backlash to Me Too. Any observer of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings knows that men accused of assault often receive enormous sympathy (usually expressed as fury) in the public sphere. When Kobe Bryant died late last month, his fans found it monstrously unfair to bring up the fact that he once left a 19-year-old’s neck bruised and her genitals multiply lacerated—after all, he played some very good basketball, loved his daughters, bought his wife a ring, and even apologized to the woman in question (even if, as rumored, she demanded that apology in order to drop the criminal case).

If the radically different responses to Bryant show us anything, it’s that we’re not much better at taking the good with the bad than we were before. We’re still stuck in a pretty binary mode: bad or good. It’s one thing to argue, as many have, that we should look at the whole person. It’s more challenging, it turns out, to actually do so. Because basketball means nothing at all to me, for instance, I really don’t care about Bryant’s successes on the court. Because the alleged victim stopped cooperating with the criminal case once Bryant agreed to issue an apology, the case was dropped and his rape wasn’t proven; his fans are therefore willing to overlook it. We choose to hold on to either “basketball god” or “rapist” based more on what matters to us, and whichever choice we make is likely enabled by the way so many of us view Bryant not as multifaceted human but as abstract celebrity.

Real life cases are volatile by definition, in other words. This is why fiction is useful terrain to work some of this stuff out. The Morning Show’s most valuable insight concerns the person of Mitch Kessler, the assailant. Carell starts off playing this disgraced personage just as we’d expect: angry, unsympathetic, entitled. By the end, however, it’s easy to understand why Alex Levy—his co-host, played by Jennifer Aniston, whose whole professional life has been upended, and who must now publicly condemn him—misses him enough to break into his house in the middle of the night. The show’s riskiest innovation is showing Mitch as flawed, sleazy, calculating, vindictive, but charming and slightly depressed in ways the viewer finds sympathetic too. He’s not just a powerful goon browbeating and terrifying people into submission. Carell is charming. The actor’s familiarity to viewers as The Office’s Michael Scott—a boss whose sexual harassment so many Americans learned to merrily overlook and find lovable—only helps clarify how Mitch’s subordinates might have loved and not just tolerated him. The hole Mitch Kessler left at the network is real. He would be missed. (This is a bigger narrative experiment than it might seem: BoJack Horseman is another show that makes a disgraced star riskily sympathetic without denying either his humanity or his responsibility.) That Mitch is charming is no excuse; the point is that it serves a repressive function: The fact that people like and respect him makes him that much harder for his victims to confront.

There’s one other thing a fictional treatment like The Morning Show can do that first-person accounts and journalism can’t: provide a shared text on a potentially borderline situation that gives every member of the public the exact same information. This is a surprisingly useful thing to have when a society is deliberating the limits and possibilities of consent. The first time I remember it happening, it was accidental: You might recall a Game of Thrones controversy that erupted back in 2014 after a scene depicted Jaime Lannister forcing his sister, Cersei, to have sex with him over her objections (near their son’s corpse). Fans were shocked by the rape. The stakes were high: Jaime suddenly becoming a rapist would forever transform the character. Curiously, the director, Alex Graves, denied that the scene he’d directed was a rape at all: The sex “becomes consensual by the end,” he argued, “because anything for [Cersei and Jaime] ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” Graves’ take is haunting for reasons I hope are obvious; his view makes Cersei finally giving in indistinguishable from consent and renders all of Cersei’s preceding “noes” technical, meaningless. Almost everyone disagreed; the conversation converged into a surprisingly useful consensus about behavior in an intimate context. I argued back then that this fictional scene was accidentally advancing vexed conversations about consent by letting us do something pretty unprecedented—namely, discuss whether something is rape or not in a context where everyone has the exact same information. There was no “he said/she said” to deflect with, no way to insist on indeterminacy. Everyone saw the same thing and had to label the scene rape or not rape accordingly.

If The Morning Show sympathized with a sexual assailant enough to show why others might have sympathized with him too—and helped him, or protected him, or enabled him—it also escalated this idea of presenting a scene for viewers to judge. In a hard-to-watch flashback, the show depicts an encounter between Mitch Kessler and a junior booker named Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The power imbalance between the two is clear from the start. Hannah is only there because Mitch brought her; he singled her out in apparent acknowledgment of her good work. When he finds her walking the streets in tears that night, overwhelmed by the violence they’re reporting on, he comforts her in a mentor-y, friendly mode, and eventually invites her upstairs to watch a comedy. She agrees, but it’s clear she can’t focus; tears roll down her cheeks as the movie plays. She gets up to leave, and Mitch hugs her. Up until this point, the viewer might almost be impressed by Mitch’s generosity: He’s treated her with the same camaraderie he might have offered a promising young man. You share Hannah’s excitement and hope. Then he starts smelling her and feeling her up, and Hannah freezes. What follows is hard to describe: Hannah doesn’t fight Mitch as he takes her clothes off and lays her down. She never says no. She just lies there. One measure of what Me Too has achieved is this: Most commenters in TV forums about the show were calling that scene a sexual assault. That would not have been the case five years ago.

That it was not an assault in Mitch’s view matters too, insofar as the show remains committed to advancing our understanding of why so much misconduct was tolerated. We eventually learn that Mitch sincerely considers himself to have been Hannah’s victim, because she got a promotion when she tried to tell the head of the network what happened. He really believes that she was using him. He believes it enough that he tries to get Hannah to talk to a reporter on his behalf. It’s deeply unpleasant to have to spend time in Mitch’s psyche when we’ve seen what the encounter cost Hannah: her belief in her ability, her confidence in her work, her sense of her own integrity. But it matters, because Mitch’s denials ring true. This is actually how many men regard the women they’ve victimized. Some might even feel, as Mitch does, mildly humiliated by the idea that they were “used.” Put differently, we have all too often assumed that a “he said/she said” dichotomy maps onto mutually exclusive accounts of the same event. Much more likely is what happens in this show: that the he said and the she said are both, in specific and limited ways, true. Mitch might have thought he was doing no harm, just acting on an impulse. Brock Turner might have thought raping an unconscious woman didn’t matter; after all, she was unconscious. That doesn’t make that thinking OK. That Turner’s father called rape “20 minutes of action” reveals more than his perfidy; it shows something important about how many men have been taught to think—and not think—about human beings in sexual contexts.

To understand this is not to excuse it. We have a lot of experience doing the latter: The male bumbler has long been a stock figure in American mythology, the guy who’s baffled at the difference between a handshake and a grope and never meant anything by the latter. I’ve written before about how large this figure has loomed in Me Too conversations and how men with a pattern of predation have hidden behind this convenient archetype (and used it to frighten men from working with women lest some innocent gesture be reframed as a crime). The bumbler isn’t real, but The Morning Show offers an alternative that’s much more believable: It’s the guy who understands there’s a sordid side to what he’s doing, but he thinks it’s transactional and that his grimy terms are being reciprocated. That Mitch crushed Hannah professionally the moment he came on to her—revealing his high opinion of her work to have been nothing but a bargaining chip—doesn’t occur to him. Nor does the idea that she has integrity. An obscenely wealthy star is beyond that; he may be beyond any idea of meritocracy. To a person in his position, work isn’t meaningful; it’s just a series of dirty moves and countermoves. By provisionally sympathizing with Mitch, The Morning Show reveals the extent to which power impairs the perceptions of folks who have it. Mitch was protected from knowing how much people were sacrificing for him while pretending they were sharing his good time. I don’t know how we “solve” Me Too, but it’s a lot easier to point to a few “monsters” who somehow didn’t get the memo about how men ought to behave than it is to accept that society has been sending them a pretty different set of memos the whole time. (Those memos said: You get to do whatever you want to whoever you want as long as you keep making us money.)

If there’s a tendency to sympathize with and protect men accused of rape while reviling the theoretical category of the rapist, there’s a countervailing tendency when it comes to victims. People of course sympathize enormously with rape victims. In theory. In practice, they frequently regard them with suspicion (as Netflix’s Unbelievable, a television adaptation of a true story, showed in unrelenting detail). If the victim is anonymous, as Kobe Bryant’s accuser was, or not famous, as Bill Cosby’s victims were, they have none of the charismatic baggage their alleged assailant has working for them. No one respects the accuser’s basketball skills. And if the victim remains anonymous for her own safety, that anonymity has a downside in a culture that takes sides based on how much they value a specific person’s story.

The bookend to Me Too metatexts like The Morning Show—fictional treatments that can provisionally sympathize with rapists in order to illustrate how predators keep getting away with it—is Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, a memoir in which a rape victim gives up her anonymity to insist on her own full personhood. Miller, it should be said, was already the recipient of considerable sympathy, but that wasn’t due to the reporting on her case. We sympathized with her because the impact statement she wrote humanized her, even if Americans didn’t know her name. Because a journalist, Katie Baker, decided to let the victim’s statement stand on its own, unadorned and unlawyered.

In no way do I mean to undersell the contributions of journalists when it comes to telling this ongoing story. They matter enormously. But they also can’t help but diminish the magnitude of each specific story. They can’t do everyone narrative justice; that’s simply not their job. Nor is it their job to tell readers about the non-newsworthy aspects of the average victim’s experience. What Miller does, by contrast, is document the aftermath. She does so in stunning, sometimes hyperliterary terms, revealing the awful paradox of writing a “memoir” about something she has no memory of. The book also covers her experience being dissected and analyzed by a culture that didn’t yet know who (or what, besides Brock Turner’s victim) she was. The public doesn’t understand each violation a rape victim must undergo after she reports: the evidence collection, the repeated recitations, the indifference or kindness of practitioners, the cruel skepticism or sympathy of police and even family. The minute scrutiny of genitals, the invasive exams, how little say the person in question has in what’s being done to them (again). No one knows this strange side of things except survivors; it’s a particular and unreportable form of loneliness.

It doesn’t help that the survivor’s account has become a sort of genre too. We have ideas about the sorts of stories they should offer and the feelings they should have. We want them to make us cry for them.

Chanel Miller doesn’t do that in Know My Name. Not directly, anyway. What she describes is minutely detailed in ways meant to re-create in the reader the sense of sheer confusion she felt before she felt anything else at all: the experience of waking up to police officers and medical personnel staring at you, reaching up and finding pine needles in your hair, being told to leave them there, that they—and you—are evidence. That something terrible may have happened. That you don’t know what. Not knowing what this will mean for you; not even knowing how to feel.

When experiences like these stack up into something like a movement, they lose specificity. To be “one of Harvey’s victims” is—has to be—the opposite of individuating. Even his trial makes that clear. When you have not one but six accusers testifying, the point becomes that there is a pattern; each individual who suffered an insult gets worn down to a data point.

To a survivor, that might be strange. Your experience was, after all, yours alone, but you are being read into a massive phenomenon the whole of which you can’t really access, and of which your suffering forms only a very small part. Know My Name succeeds because of how strongly it refuses to melt Miller’s experience into the general pattern it’s so tempting to narrate, even as it gratefully acknowledges other women who have testified to what they’ve gone through too. And it reminds us, after marinating in sympathy for rapists, who has been most harmed.

The Brock Turner story may have been our first truly collective exercise in trying to retrain sympathetic muscles from the rapist to the victim. This is largely Miller’s doing: her storytelling, her humanization of herself. It also seems important, in any assessment of how the story of Me Too is being told, to emphasize that Miller herself does not celebrate the journalists who reported on her story. She dreaded them. This helps underscore something that should have been obvious: Journalism was never going to be enough to change the United States’ public understanding of its problems.

We, the public, are critical to this story because we are part of it. We all have the potential to be any one of the characters in this story (victim, perpetrator, enabler, interjector), and therefore, we need to understand it better. We’re in a remedial stage when it comes to this stuff. Weinstein isn’t a monster; he’s an entirely predictable product of the culture we share with him. We were taught for so long that egregious misconduct was normal that we have no tools with which to really process the fact that it isn’t and wasn’t, and that society’s failure to recognize that is a failure we might share. How much have we excused and enabled? How much have we flinched at but hand-waved away as “company culture”? These aren’t easy questions! What we need right now, above all, is practice: practice talking and thinking through these problems together without troubling actual human beings with our messy, intemperate, and uninformed verdicts. Practice labeling things correctly and absorbing the real limits of those labels. Practice loving a celebrity (or a protagonist, or a boss) and then learning that they’ve done undeniably bad things and then figuring out what to do and feel about it. Practice thinking about what a survivor’s life is actually like—in all its dimensions, not just along the axis of their abuse. As novices in all this, we shouldn’t always be cutting our teeth on actual people. What Miller’s memoir emphasized—in ways journalism can’t—is the important ways in which a process that should have brought her justice ended up shaming her. But she also writes about the people who restored to her the sense that the culture she belonged to did indeed believe what it professed to. Miller remembers, whenever she thought about the assault, that “there was a third element, the Swedes [the bystanders who stopped the rape and brought her to safety]. They represented the seers, the doers, who chose to act and change the story.” This is the most common example of what we can be. And as Miller concludes, “What we needed to raise in others was this instinct. The ability to recognize, in an instant, right from wrong.” Practice will help.