About a year ago, when the #MeToo movement was kicking ass and taking careers, my partner and I posed a question to each other. Who would you be most disappointed to find out was a sexual predator? Which three famous guys would be your Most Heart-Breaking™?
My partner offered Tom Hanks, John Oliver, and Barack Obama. I countered with Dev Patel, John Krasinski, and Aziz Ansari. This was just before the story broke about Ansari coercing a woman into sexual activity she wasn’t fully on board with—a story that led some people to wonder if the #MeToo movement had gone too far. Some argued that because his story was not “as bad” as that of Harvey Weinstein and the like, the movement was wrong to go after him.
When I read the Ansari story, I was angry. I was angry that someone had scored major career benefits by calling himself a feminist, while not understanding the nuance of power, coercion, and enthusiastic consent. This was a person who’d gone on the Late Show with David Letterman and described what being a feminist meant—a clip that got splashed all over Upworthy, and which your cousin probably shared on Facebook, saying, “when HE explains it I get it.”
This was a person who included feminist humour (where the sexist person is the butt of the joke) in his stand-up routines, and in his critically acclaimed Netflix show Master of None. So, to quote Samantha Bee: “If you say you’re a feminist, then fuck like a feminist. And if you don’t want to do that, take off your fucking [Times Up] pin, because we are not your accessories.”
The Ansari story got under my skin more than some of the others because he was a hero of mine. I loved his stand-up and his Netflix show. I even bought his book. And it’s not to say I’ll never watch any of his content again—I probably will, and I’ll probably enjoy it. But only if he proves himself worthy of redemption.
People have been chattering lately about the path to redemption for the (mostly) men taken down by #MeToo. And while there are some people who should never work again (Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey being chief among them, imo), there will be others who will likely go on to future projects with some success.
Recently, Louis C.K. attempted to jumpstart his path to redemption by ambushing an audience at the Comedy Cellar in New York.
To recap: Just nine months ago, C.K. confirmed rumours he had denied for years were in fact true—he had masturbated in front of several women without their explicit consent, causing a number of them to leave the industry for not feeling safe. In the aftermath of the revelations, his film I Love You, Daddy was pulled from distribution and Netflix announced they wouldn’t go forward with any future C.K comedy specials. C.K. apologised for the incidents in a rambling statement, ending with “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” Apparently a nine month vacation is long enough. How much listening he did, however, is difficult to gauge. By making his return appearance a surprise, C.K. denied the audience the ability to decide if they wanted to be there. Ironic, given what took him down in the first place. It doesn’t sound like he has listened much at all. The Comedy Cellar received one official complaint from an audience member, who stated they “should have at least been given a heads up”. Allow me to reiterate – at least.
Since then, two women have come forward to describe how C.K.’s presence divided the room. "It felt like there were a lot of aggressive men in the audience and very quiet women," one woman told Vulture. "It’s the kind of vibe that doesn’t allow for a dissenting voice. You’re just expected to be a good audience member. You’re considered a bad sport if you speak out."
There are a lot of people for whom C.K. was a hero. Although he wasn’t one for me, I did enjoy some of his work. And it isn’t my belief that all of these people should fall off the face of the earth forever (even if there are some who should).
When a person who works in the entertainment industry is accused of (and admits to) sexual misconduct, the circumstances are different from those of an ordinary Joe working in an office. These people can’t just start a new job where no one knows about their shameful past. These people are asking to be embraced by an audience who know exactly what they have done.
And there will be audiences who are willing to do that. There are folks who have long called the #MeToo movement a witch hunt. There are folks who are willing to ignore sexual misconduct because they just like the dude. Those defending Ansari and giving C.K. a standing ovation are those people. And the pair could spend the rest of their careers talking only to such audiences.
But if they want to be embraced by a thoughtful and critical audience once more, they need to show they have actually been redeemed; they need to show true contrition. Ansari needs to show that he has learned about the nuances of coercion and power. C.K. needs to wield his considerable power to boost the careers of female comedians—if possible the ones he scared out of the industry.
Fallen heroes were once heroes for a reason—and there may still be a chance for some of them to have a future in the entertainment industry. But in order to have a future, they must demonstrate that they’ve learned from their pasts.