There’s a reason that one of the most evocative details of the story of Matt Lauer’s sexual harassment was the button on his desk that allowed him to close the door to his office without standing up. Although “the button” was first understood as a contraption that facilitated the former Today show co-host’s supervillainous entrapment of colleagues he wanted to have sex with, NBC would later clarify that, in fact, it was “a commonly available feature in executive offices” throughout the network’s facilities. And that was exactly why it was so chilling. Because the mechanism that permitted a powerful executive to close an office door at will wasn’t extraordinary; it was one of the everyday talismans of dominance that exist within all kinds of offices: the ability to seal in various forms of misconduct and preclude the possibility of eyewitnesses. The offices of New York City, designed around hierarchies of corners and windows, big desks and tiny cubicles, have been prime sites for power abuses, predation, and discrimination.
Offices are spaces where a range of professionals — from top dogs to middle management to clerical and janitorial staff — come together in person, sharing rooms and food and bathrooms and elevators, in ways that intensify certain physical and psychological vulnerabilities. There are those closed doors, yes, but also the open floor plans, which permit public humiliations and exclusions; there are the phones and staplers to throw, the files to slam on desks, the ability to dress down employees in front of their peers.
In 9 to 5, 1980’s classic cinematic encapsulation of the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigotry endemic to office life, Dabney Coleman’s boss, the apex of authoritative mediocrity, arranges a leather desk blotter against a pencil holder at the edge of his desk so that when secretary Dolly Parton takes dictation, he can nudge the pencils off and get her to bend down to retrieve them, offering him a view of her cleavage. The office is a place where a writing implement can be transformed into a weapon of objectification and diminution, where every basic human interaction can be reimagined as power theater.
The Hollywood Reporter said recently that producer Scott Rudin once smashed an Apple computer monitor against an assistant’s hand, sending him to the emergency room. Another producer, Bob Weinstein, is alleged, in a moment of ire at an employee, to have taken one pencil after another, broken them, and thrown them on the floor to express his displeasure. According to Gawker, the former ad executive Peter Arnell used to make employees wait at the door to his office before entering a meeting so he could direct “each person where to sit by hierarchy.” I once had a boss who would, upon entering our high-rise office building in midtown, refuse to push the elevator button; she would just stand there waiting until one of the rest of us did this small, quotidian thing. It was a minuscule but somehow deeply demoralizing reminder of her might.
All of this — these little (and big), petty (and damaging) performances of authority and disregard, the pruning and careful fertilizing of public authority — takes place in New York’s offices every day. It is behavior made possible by the daily trudge of people, affiliated by profession and thrown into proximity by twists of hiring fate, who have been asked to show up at the same space, over and over again, for years. In those rooms, where many New Yorkers, until recently, clocked as many hours as they did in their apartments, workers are arranged by pecking order, forced into relationships of dependency and potential abuse in exchange for economic and professional stability.