During the first wave of high-profile harassment allegations last fall, a common fear was that good men would be swept up with bad. That all accusations, regardless of scope and degree, would be given equal weight. That all accused would be given maximum punishment. That society would lose any sense of nuance and proportion.
In the particular showbiz niche where Chris Hardwick is a sovereign, his case was a test for this fear. In June, the ubiquitous pop-culture pundit — host of a show devoted to dissecting “The Walking Dead” and kingpin of a network of fanboy podcasts — was accused of sexual and emotional abuse by a former girlfriend, and promptly suspended by AMC.
But after what the cable channel called a “careful review,” he was restored to the airwaves Sunday, where he tearfully thanked his public “for all your support.” The show, he declared, was “a vital part of my life.”
His reinstatement was controversial: One female co-executive producer and a handful of other staffers quit in protest. But it was also a bellwether for how #MeToo is evolving — fumbling toward operating principles that might be messy but are hardly the bludgeon many critics had feared.
Take Ryan Lizza. The political journalist was fired from The New Yorker in December after an allegation of sexual misconduct that was never publicly detailed and which he denied. Six months later, though, Esquire hired him to do the same job. CNN, which had suspended him last winter while it investigated The New Yorker allegation, put Lizza back on air after six weeks.
Or take superstar television host Ryan Seacrest of “American Idol” and “Live With Kelly and Ryan” fame, accused in February of inappropriate behavior by a former stylist. He denied the allegations, which he called “gut-wrenching” in an essay that asked for “a way to ensure that everyone — the public, private and public institutions, accusers and alleged accused — is given the opportunity for a swift and fair review.”
By the Oscars in March, Seacrest was again presiding over the red carpet for E! News. There’d been rumors that Hollywood publicists would steer A-list clients away, but he landed face time with Allison Janney, Tiffany Haddish and Taraji Henson. If this was a shunning, it was the mildest possible version.
Was the review of Seacrest’s actions swift enough and fair enough? Was his career unduly harmed by the fact that he didn’t interview Sandra Bullock and Greta Gerwig?
It’s hard to agree on punishments when, in some of these cases, we still disagree on crimes. Was actor-comedian Aziz Ansari, whose aggressive romantic moves were condemned by a woman he once dated in an essay she wrote for the web magazine Babe, guilty of sexual misconduct — or guilty of being a horny buffoon who misread signals? Smart minds debated this. Pundits pondered if he’d ever work again, just as they later wondered about Hardwick.
But by summer, around the time that Harvey Weinstein was escorted into a New York courtroom to face charges on rape, Netflix was offering public support to Ansari. “We would be happy to make another season of ‘Master of None’ when Aziz is ready,” the chief programming officer told a roomful of television critics at the organization’s annual press tour.
For all the fear about #MeToo’s after effects — for all the predictions that merely dodgy or merely clueless men would be put in the same pen as felonious men — the difference between Weinstein’s outcome and Ansari’s or Hardwick’s outcome illustrates that we’re not treating them all the same. We’re not treating them the same legally, or institutionally, or culturally. We are, in fact, doing the hard, unpleasant work of figuring out who belongs in jail pens and who belongs in pig pens. (And who shouldn’t be penned up at all.)
For the worst offenders, we have court dates. For the others, we have periods of public embarrassment, followed, potentially, by cautious paths to redemption.
I imagine that men on the redemptive path might not agree that their own treatment has been fair. Lizza, for example, called his New Yorker firing “a terrible mistake”; Hardwick said he was “devastated” and “blindsided” by his former girlfriend’s accusations.
It must be astronomically uncomfortable to have one’s private behaviors dissected in public. It’s uncomfortable for everyone; we are in an era of flailing discomfort and there’s an argument to be made that the court of public opinions is a bad venue. Nobody should fear a high-profile false accusation more than #MeToo’s most ardent supporters, for what those claims could do to individual men’s lives and for what they could do to the credibility of all accusers.
But part of what led us to this point was that, for decades, when private behaviors were dissected strictly in private, misdeeds were swept under the rug. It wasn’t until Anthony Rapp went public with allegations against Kevin Spacey last October, for example, that scores of other alleged victims also came forward. The Old Vic, a theater Spacey had long been affiliated with, was compelled to perform its own investigation, and came up with 20 accusers.
So no, Spacey doesn’t get to come back.
And neither does Weinstein, or Charlie Rose, or Bill Cosby.
And, it bears noting, neither do many of the women whose careers became untenable because they either rejected or withstood advances of harassers.
But Hardwick apparently does come back. His case won’t be the last, and it won’t be the messiest. But it should work as an assurance that we’ll be dealing with them individually, not with a bludgeon but a scalpel.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post.