Why Do We Condemn Some Men and Forget About Others?

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David Letterman and Al Franken. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

After two women accused Al Franken of sexual harassment, the Minnesota senator was cut from PBS’s upcoming special honoring David Letterman. This is, depending on how you look at it: (a) another meaningful sign that actions have consequences in a post-Weinstein world, or (b) a particularly striking of example of just how selective our cultural memory is when it comes to deciding which men are Bad.

David Letterman, as some may recall, is hardly unimpeachable when it comes to his own dealings with women. Back in 2009, as the result of an alleged extortion plot, Letterman (who was married at the time) acknowledged that he had engaged in sexual relations with a series of female employees, issuing a shaky mea culpa on live TV. While there were no public allegations of sexual harassment made at the time, it’s hard to imagine that a man of Letterman’s influence engaging in affairs with multiple female staffers didn’t involve a fraught and possibly exploitative power dynamic. As feminist blogger Melissa McEwen wrote at the time, “one of the richest, most powerful men in television making a habit of sleeping with female subordinates is not only a major ethical breach, but also raises (what ought to be) obvious questions about coercion. If there is an expectation, even an implicit or oblique expectation, that sleeping with the boss may be part of your job, whether there can be genuine and undiluted enthusiastic consent is a serious question.”

Similarly, in an op-ed for Vanity Fair that year, former Letterman writer Nell Scovell described the toxic work environment faced by women at Letterman’s Late Show, which ultimately led her to quit her dream job. “Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, let’s address the pertinent questions,” she wrote. “Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.”

And yet, as happens so often, Letterman’s treatment of women seems to have been all but erased from our cultural memory. Nobody seems to see the hypocrisy of punishing Franken and feting Letterman in the same uninterrupted breath. (Meanwhile, a tribute speech from Bill Murray, who was once accused of spousal abuse, is still airing as planned.) Sure, maybe this is a sign of meaningful progress. Perhaps if the Letterman scandal happened today, given what we now know about consent and power and coercion and how these dynamics play out in the workplace, we wouldn’t have given him such an easy pass. Things are different now, right? As journalist Lizzie O’Leary recently put it: “the things I shrugged off then horrify me now.”

But how different are they, really? Louis C.K’s career is disgraced, yet Woody Allen still has lines of stars vying for parts in his films. Charlie Rose is out of a job, yet Mel Gibson’s redemption tour has been so successful that he recently made a statement condemning Harvey Weinstein (the nerve!). Al Franken may lose his job — or at very least, his opportunity to sing the praises of his pal Dave for a televised audience — as Roy Moore runs for election. Our Bill Clinton reckoning is still forthcoming. Through it all, Donald Trump is still the president.

While it has been heartening in recent months to see a number of powerful men be held accountable for their actions, it has also been a glaring reminder that, when it comes to having their cultural legacies sullied by sexual misconduct, most powerful men are rubber, not glue. Even now, in our brave new era of accountability, there’s no telling what will stick.

Why We Condemn Some Men and Forget About Others