Behind a cut for #MeToo reasons.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I (she/her) work in a male-dominated creative industry. Over the course of my career, I have worked with several very famous people, including Famous Dude. Famous Dude is incredibly talented and very charismatic, and when I was still a student he really went out of his way to jump-start my career. Famous Dude is also a total jackass. As soon as I realized what was up, I began refusing to work with Famous Dude as much as I could, and in the intervening years I’ve done my best to distance myself from him.
At my current job, I have recently acquired a new officemate. Officemate is male and older than me, though we have similar job titles (and technically I’m senior to him). Our team went out for drinks two weeks ago, and Officemate asked me about Famous Dude. I gave my standard line, which is that I learned a lot from Famous Dude, but that we have very different personalities, and that I found a better fit elsewhere. Officemate continued asking me questions about Famous Dude, so I shared some stories from the public record. (For example: screaming obscenities at reporters, saying terrible stuff about LGBTQ people, saying terrible stuff about women.) (Thing I didn’t mention to Officemate: #metoo. All women in my industry that I’ve ever talked to about Famous Dude either already knew this about him or immediately got what I was talking about when I said something vague about me not wanting to work with him again or him having trouble forming long-term collaborations with women.)
Officemate and I then had what I thought was a great conversation about encouraging diversity in our industry, until it took a weird turn. Officemate started insisting I do a public take-down of Famous Dude (me: “uh, and tank my career? no thanks”) and wouldn’t stop talking about it. I finally had to directly say, “I’m done talking about this,” and really obnoxiously change the subject.
Now Officemate won’t stop bringing up Famous Dude. Totally out of the blue, no context at all, he’ll say things like, “you’re a really good writer, you should write a thing about [Famous Dude].” Me: “I’ve already said no. Stop saying this.” Or: “So you know that thing [Famous Dude] say about lesbians? Can you explain to me why that’s wrong?” Me: “No. I’m not your personal Google.” (I’m a woman married to a woman, which Officemate knows.)
Or: “You going to [event] tonight?” Me: “No.” Officemate: “That’s surprising.” Me: “Why?” Officemate: “[Person at event] used to work with [Famous Dude].” Me: “Yeah, I know. Why should I care?” Officemate: “Well, you have so many opinions about [Famous Dude]…” Me: “Yeah, I’m busy tonight; I’m not going.”
(Officemate also keeps referring to Famous Dude by title, which is really, really weird in my industry. I’ve directly called him out on it — “you know, you can refer to him as [Famous], or [Famous Dude], you don’t need to call him [Mr. Dude]” — but he didn’t stop. Indeed, he’s taken to elongating the vowels [“Mr. Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude”] in a cutesy tone, the way one might tease a child about a schoolyard crush. Wtf.)
Captain, how do I get him to stop? Is he trying to connect with me and just doing it really badly? (The way people sometimes say stupid things about your hometown when trying to make small-talk?) If I ignore all mentions of Famous Dude, will Officemate eventually get bored? Should I keep shutting him down, in hopes that I’ll eventually make my point? I don’t want to make this a bigger deal than it is, because this is honestly fairly innocuous. But. Officemate is a person that I need to work closely and even travel with for the next 7+ months, and I want him to stop being weird about this.
I don’t even know what this is
Dear I Don’t Even Know:
My sense of what might be going on with your coworker: He is/was a huge fan of Famous Dude and is trying to reconcile what he knows about him now with how he feels or felt about the work that shaped him creatively. He is trying to use your experiences and connection to Famous Dude as an outlet for processing all of this. To be clear, this is the most benign possible interpretation I can come up with, because all the other ones involve him trying to harass you by proxy by constantly reminding you of something that he knows pushes your buttons.
What he doesn’t get (and what a lot of dudes are not getting in the age of #MeToo) is that women – including the targets and collateral damage of Famous Dude Creeps & Assholes – are ALSO having to reconcile this same weird ball of feelings of being a fan of something and then having that come crashing down. You know who was probably a huge fan of Bill Cosby once upon a time? Literally everyone he drugged and raped. You know who really liked Louis C.K. and wanted to be friends with him? The women comedians he harassed. You know who was probably really psyched at one point to get their big break and work with Matt Lauer? The female tv producers and journalists who he locked into his office with his creepy under-the-desk door-locking mechanism. You know who really, really liked art house cinema in the 1990s? Women who created it, like Annabella Sciorra, Salma Hayek, Uma Thurman, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, etc. (and a young Captain Awkward who snuck out of her management consulting job to watch three movies in a row at the cluster of indie theaters that used to ring Dupont Circle before they all became People’s Drug or Restoration Hardware locations). I swear, not a day goes by when I don’t enjoy the work of a prominent male creative person and then think to myself “I would be so incredibly bummed out if I found out that person was creepy.” For example, when I saw Morgan Freeman’s name trending last week, I thought for a second that he’d died, but no, it was just more gross and inappropriate comments directed toward women who were probably initially very excited to meet Morgan Freeman.
There’s a lot about this whole conversation that makes me enraged…and tired…and sad…but if I could make one tiny point today it is that women are also creators and fans of pop culture and have complicated feelings about the work and the people who make it. When we are harassed by creative dudes in our fields, it’s because we are doing the exact same work that they are! When someone who created something that we loved turns out to be an asshole, we also wonder if it’s okay to still be a fan of the work, and we also reckon with complex emotions about stories/music/movies that have been super-important to us! We don’t have time to process all of that and also soothe the feelings or be the personal Google for the nearest dude who feels awkward about having loved Annie Hall!
EVERYONE HAS A LOT OF FEELINGS RIGHT NOW, and that could be a healthy thing, probably, because a huge ugly boil is being lanced, but it’s also a messy thing, because processing the ugliness doesn’t mean things are getting better across the board. It doesn’t mean that the small ways that it is getting better are happening fast enough or deep enough or that they will ever be enough for all the people who were traumatized, harmed, and locked out of working. And it does mean that people who have found a way to make peace with working in the industry are having to be reminded every single day of the compromises they made & of the things they survived (for example, I’m sure you’re not the only person under pressure to write some tell-all piece that will bring you a lot of stress and bullshit). We are very, very bad at centering victims and taking care of victims, and our abilities in that regard are not catching up with the zeitgeist. And then there is a whole other conversation about making marginalized folks be cheerful ambassadors for diversity on top of all their other work…
Letter Writer, your Work Dude is trying to process his feelings about Famous Dude through you and your experience. He is demanding emotional labor from you around this topic, and you don’t owe him shit. I think you are handling this just fine, but here’s a script for the next time it comes up:
“Work Dude, we’ve talked about #FamousDude a couple of times now and I’ve said everything I have to say on the topic. I’ve also told you more than once ‘I’m done talking about this.’ So why do you keep mentioning him to me every chance you get?”
He’ll say something in return, so, listen to whatever that is and then tailor your response. One possible script could be:
“I made peace with where I got my start long ago, and one way I’ve been able to move on creatively and personally is to choose when and how much I engage with #FamousDude and his legacy. If you still follow his career and his mouth-droppings closely, that’s up to you, but you’re gonna have to find someone who is not me to chat about that stuff with, ok? Just because all this is new to you doesn’t mean it’s new to me, and I don’t share your fascination. The way you talk about him is starting to feel hostile and unfriendly. I’m sure you don’t mean it to be that way, so I really need you to stop being weird about this.”
Hopefully he will get the message. If not, the time after that he mentions #FamousDude, you could try:
- Totally ignore him as if he hasn’t said anything. Let the awkward silence build and cover the earth.
- Ask him “Why are you being so weird about this? Are you obsessed with #FamousDude or something?”
- “You keep bringing that up like I’m gonna talk about it more. Weird. So, about work topic…”
- Press a button on your phone that plays “Let It Go” from Frozen. Accompany it with an interpretive dance where your jazz hands morph into middle fingers.
- NEVER give him any more information about #FamousDude. One worry I’d have in your shoes would be that your coworker would say stuff on social media or write some kind of dumb post on Medium about it using your stories.
- “#FamousDude is gonna #FamousDude (i.e. Franzen gonna manzen). My problem right now is with you and the way you keep bringing it up even when you know I don’t want to talk about it.”
I’m glad you’re doing well in your chosen field, making awesome shit. Keep awesome-ing.
Edited to add: I just read this interview with Alia Shawkat, a follow up to that NY Times disaster interview where all the dudes on Arrested Development talked over Jessica Walter and pledged their eternal loyalty to harasser Jeffrey Tambor. It’s a great piece, you should read the whole thing, but I especially want to call attention to this (bolding mine):
In the wake of the interview’s publication, as social media outrage soared and apologies were published, Shawkat says she was bombarded with press inquiries. Similarly, in April, when she was doing press for her new film Duck Butter, Shawkat was regularly asked for comment on Tambor’s harassment allegations from “Transparent.“
She’s chosen to speak out now because she wants her voice to be heard in this conversation, as well as to make it clear that her life and her work are not to be defined forever in relation to a man she has worked with. “I don’t want to feel like I’m doing press for other movies, and trying to get stories about women and queer people and Arab-Americans—things that mean a lot to me that I could talk about forever—and yet I’m still being asked about this.”
“It makes me angry,” Shawkat said. “[Men implicated in #MeToo] need to be responsible for their own actions. Not me.”
I’ve seen so many red carpet interviews with female artists in the past year where they are promoting their show or big moment or just wearing a pretty dress to a thing and they get blindsided with “So, care to comment publicly on this horrible thing #FamousMan you’ve definitely met before did?” questions – questions that men, including the #FamousMan mentioned in the question do not get asked, even though they are RIGHT THERE at the SAME EVENT – and the implication that the women are somehow complicit or cowards or responsible if they don’t answer. I’m glad Alia Shawkat named this weird behavior and pushed back on it.