To Matt Damon, who doesn’t dive deep
I just went on Twitter and found that you’ve been talking about sexual predators again, this time to Business Insider, in the context of promoting your new movie. That’s fine. Maybe I’ll deal with what you said today tomorrow or later this week. But right now, I want to amplify what Alyssa Milano said in her Friday Twitter thread in response to remarks you made in your interview with Peter Travers on ABC. Alyssa used the words “gaslight” and “cancer,” and I want to expand a little on what she meant.
First though, I want to explain some of what’s happening here. Because there’s a bunch of things going on, and I think it’s important to get some stuff out in the open while the internet itself is still open to everyone, rich and poor, famous and obscure, powerful and relatively helpless.
The first thing I want to say is that every utterance is also an action. I don’t know if movie actors talk about this, but classical actors and people who study drama do. They talk about what certain acts of speech reveal — not about the speaker’s motivation but about his character. When you gave that interview with Peter Travers, you showed everyone a couple of things about yourself. You said that you don’t “dive deep” and yet you made sweeping generalizations about something that a lot of people care a lot about. That made you seem smug and shallow.
You said you think these issues are important, but you demonstrated that you don’t think they’re important enough to think or speak carefully about or perhaps read up on. That showed everyone that you are merely posturing, just as, in an earlier interview, you were posturing when you invoked your daughters as a testament to how seriously you regard this issue.
One of the things that’s happening right now is that people are showing their true colors through speech-acts — men especially. And not just the men who stand accused of doing things that, as you keep pointing out, range from mashing to rape. A lot of people have said that, Matt. So when you offer that observation — repeatedly — with an air of discovery, you’re letting your contempt show.
You’re letting people know that you’re the sort of guy whose confidence in his own image is so unshakeable that you’d go cold into an interview where you knew the subject of sexual harassment was bound to be brought up. That’s how much of a star you think you are: that you didn’t even give this subject the kind of cursory read you’d give a script before going into a pitch meeting. Either that, or else you were just trying to minimize things that your own friends have been accused of. With some people that will work, but a lot of people aren’t that stupid. That’s a little secret that your PR person probably should have let you in on.
Mario Batali, the star chef, made that same mistake when he sent out an email to his fans and friends that began with a generic apology for having sexually assaulted co-workers and ended with a recipe. That was another speech-act that turned a few stomachs. It showed everyone — his friends and fans — that Batali doesn’t take what he did very seriously.
Suddenly men are giving themselves away through speech-acts all over the place, and women are watching with fascination. Morgan Spurlock gave himself away when he purported to be acknowledging that he is “part of the problem” with a “confession” that painted a former assistant as an extortionist and a former lover as a head-case. Another speech-act. See, he just couldn’t help himself. Just as Donald Trump couldn’t help calling Senator Gillibrand a whore when she said that the women who claim the President assaulted them should be heard.
What’s happening is that women are watching the rest of the world gradually wake up to the fact that a lot of men are a lot more devious, manipulative, and self-serving than the world thought they were and that women are a lot less crazy.
It’s interesting that Alyssa used the word “gaslight” in her tweet on Friday, because Friday was a big day in the history of “gaslighting.” The expression “to gaslight” comes from the title of an old movie in which Charles Boyer tries to convince Ingrid Bergman that she’s crazy. He does this by moving around pictures and changing the level of the lighting and then telling her that what she thinks she perceives isn’t happening. But Joseph Cotten comes along and figures it all out and, at the end of the movie, shows Bergman how it was done.
That’s what Peter Jackson did on Friday when he came out and admitted that, yes, there had been a plot to keep Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd from working in the film industry, and that Harvey Weinstein was behind it. Jackson was being their Joseph Cotten. He was saying: “Look, everybody! Look, Mira and Ashley! This is what he did, and here’s how it worked.” That’s really what the #metoo movement is about. It’s not so much about women saying, I’ve also been victimized or about solidarity as it is about women telling their stories so that other women can say, “I recognize that behavior! That happened to me, too. You’re not crazy, the lights did go down just then. You really did perceive that.” They’re being Joseph Cotten for each other.
The other person Peter Jackson was being on Friday — switching to another Ingrid Bergman movie now — was Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, in the scene at Rick’s where the Germans are singing their patriotic military song and Paul Henreid walks up to the band and says “Play ‘The Marseillaise.’” Because after Peter Jackson did what he did, another director came forward and said, Yes, he had had the same experience of being told not to hire Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, too.
You keep trying to minimize the significance of some of the acts coming to light with words like “conflate” and “spectrum.” Better words might be “discern” and “continuum.” Sexual harassment and misconduct exist on a continuum, and the thread that unifies all those different kinds of behavior, is misogyny. It’s stealth-misogyny, really. That’s the “cancer” that Alyssa Milano was talking about, and that’s a good image. Cancer has stages: it grows. It also metastasizes, moving from one system to another. Also it stays hidden, a lot of the time, until it’s already killing you.
What ties together all the acts of sexual misconduct and harassment coming to light — the groping, the mashing, the dirty jokes, the masturbating, the exhibitionism, the greater and lesser acts of assault, even the sleeping with subordinates — is that they’re all motivated by a desire to show women who’s boss.
You can look at what Louis CK did to the young women comedians who aspired to be like him and discern that it’s synonymous with what a little guy diddling himself in the park is doing when he stares at a little girl walking by. She looks at him because he’s looking at her, and then looks closer because he’s doing something with his hands. When he exposes himself and reveals what he’s doing, he’s saying, “You think you’re curious about the world, little girl? Think twice, because if you look closely you might find something you won’t like or understand!” That’s exactly what Louis CK was saying to the young women comedians. He was saying, “You think you want to be in this business? Think twice, because you may not like what I’ve decided to force you to witness.”
Louis CK may be the same as the pathetic little man in the park. Al Franken, though, is different from former President George H.W. Bush, who gropes women from his wheelchair and jests and cackles about it. What Bush does is actually less harmful because it’s blatant, even if he’s taking greater “liberties.” He may be assaulting his guests and friends, but he’s a clown — literally. He’s Harpo Marx chasing blondes in uniforms up and down staircases.
What Franken is doing is much more insidious and akin to the subway masher who tries to gaslight little girls by touching their bottoms and looking away when they look up at him. The subway masher probably does what he does because he feels powerless himself and little girls on the subway are the only people he can exert power over — like the little man in the park.
What you should be focusing on, Matt, isn’t the difference in scale between what Franken does and what Roy Moore or Matt Lauer did. You should be focusing on what they have in common. You should be asking yourself why Franken (and maybe some of your friends) have the need to grope women on the sly. Because they aren’t powerless at all. Just as Harvey Weinstein wasn’t powerless and Matt Lauer wasn’t powerless.
Matt Lauer is an interesting case, because he spans the whole continuum of sexual misconduct allegations, and we didn’t know that until a woman came forward to tell her story about an illicit affair she’d had with him as his subordinate. People who want to dismiss all this will look at that as an isolated incident and say, “So he had a consensual relationship with a subordinate. So what?” The point is that it’s an example of one individual spanning the whole continuum of sexual misconduct. See, this is all a huge puzzle that we’re all putting together in concert, as a society, because these matters have been kept secret for so long — mostly by non-disclosure agreements that should probably never have been allowed to be part of sexual harassment and misconduct settlements in the first place.
You know who else may span the whole continuum of sexual misconduct, Matt? Donald Trump, who stands accused of everything from forced kisses through “pussy-grabbing” to rape.
One reason all this is happening just now is that we have a sociopath in the White House, a man who presents a portrait not just of misogyny but also of pathological narcissism on an epic scale, who in fact embodies many of the traits that women recognize in their abusers and harassers. And the reason for the rage and the emotion, the “culture of outrage” Alyssa Milano referred to, is all the people who are still lying, the people like Donald Trump’s lawyers and Roy Moore’s defenders and Al Franken’s apologists and everyone who voted for Trump despite what they knew of him. The people who keep trying to pretend that this stuff isn’t happening, who keep insisting that it’s not all that common, who keep trying to gaslight us. We call those people enablers. People like Rupert Murdoch. And like you, Matt.
What’s wrong with what you said in your interview last week isn’t that all this is complicated. It is complicated. The trouble is that you were really saying, “It’s complicated, so I don’t think about it, and I’m not going to.” And that just isn’t the way to go here.
But now you’re doing in again, apparently.
“We’re in this watershed moment, and it’s great, but I think one thing that’s not being talked about is there are a whole s — -load of guys — the preponderance of men I’ve worked with — who don’t do this kind of thing and whose lives aren’t going to be affected,” Damon told Business Insider while promoting his new movie, “Downsizing,” opening in theaters Friday.
A watershed moment? This is a Casablanca moment. What you want to be saying is, “This is complicated, but I think we’re discovering that there’s more here than meets the eye.” That would garner a different sort of attention. That would make you more like one of the people at Rick’s who join in singing “The Marseillaise.”
If the idea of doing that doesn’t sit well with you, then you should probably ask yourself why and what you think you’d be giving up if men didn’t think it was okay to do and say whatever they felt like doing and saying about women.
Because I guarantee you that a day will come when one of those daughters you’ve been using as a moral prop is going to be minding her own business, walking along or making movies or drawing or painting or writing or competing at swimming or horseback-riding, and she’s going to come within range of some guy who doesn’t like that he isn’t on her radar. She won’t make the right sort of eye contact or she won’t make eye-contact at all, because she’s focused on what she’s doing, on what she loves, what she’s always dreamed of doing. And this guy is not going to like that because for some reason, he thinks he should be the focus of her attention. And then he’s going to show her who’s boss.
And it’s not going to matter that she’s your daughter or that she’s rich or well-loved or well-educated or that she has powerful friends — because all of those things were true of Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, and they were good at what they did. Damn good. And their youth’s gone.
In fact, it’s quite possible that the fact that she is your daughter is what will make one of your daughters a target — the target of some guy who perhaps thinks he should have gotten what you have or thinks your confidence in your own self-image is too unshakeable, and who will get some crazy charge out of punishing you by taking her down a peg, before he moves on to the next one.
Because there’s no rationale to the things men do to women, men all over, in all walks of life, and yes also in Hollywood, guys with nothing in the world to complain about. And if you don’t believe me, I’ll prove it to you. I’m going to give you a seven-minute homework assignment, and then I’m going to go do something else because I’m super tired and heartsick and this is agonizing to talk and think and write about.
Check out this video. It’s Woody Allen at the AFI tribute to Diane Keaton last spring. Pay attention to the very end, to the last few words Allen used before he said “Diane Keaton, the winner of the 45th AFI Lifetime Achievement Award” and everyone started clapping. It happened, and no one talked about it because no one could have talked about it. Not back then, before all this had happened. But it’s a textbook example of stealth-misogyny, right there out in the open for everyone to see: an act of gratuitous aggression in which Woody Allen made all of Hollywood complicit. He got everyone to applaud him for demeaning Keaton when they should have been applauding her strength, dignity and accomplishments. Take a look, and if I can find the energy I’ll check back with you in a while and explain why he got away with it.