Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
In two different stories from the entertainment world this week, women explicitly confronted male coworkers about their behavior and explained how to correct it: “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star Stephanie Beatriz recalled her conversation with an older male guest star who insisted on calling her by pet names, and “Arrested Development” star Jessica Walter, who was verbally harassed by co-star Jeffrey Tambor, discussed her dealings with him in a group interview with The New York Times.
In both cases, the men didn’t get it — even when their alleged victims either told them how they wanted to be treated or reacted in ways that showed exactly how they felt about the situation. This tone-deaf — if not actually just deaf — behavior highlights a disconnect that’s long lurked beneath the surface since the earliest days of the #MeToo movement: What about all the men who don’t hurt women — or those who don’t think they have?
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Guys, listen. Just listen.
Reported pieces in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and others revolved around anecdotal incidents framing the vague worry that men no longer felt comfortable interacting with women in professional settings. They were concerned that their past behaviors and actions would come back to bite them in a newly heightened atmosphere. Men feared being unable to properly gauge how their behavior will be interpreted by female co-workers: What will set them off? What will offend? What can men do to not be labeled a harasser, a predator, or something worse?
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Beatriz’s story is sadly relatable: An older male star insisted on calling various women on set by pet names like “honey,” “babe,” and “baby.” When he did it to her, she clearly stated how she wanted to be treated. “Sure enough, once we hit set, he did speak to me that way, and I said, ‘I’d really prefer it if you called me by my name,'” she told Vulture in a recent interview. “And he was like, ‘All right, sweetie.’ And then I stopped and said, ‘No. I am actually serious. I am not sweetie. My name is Stephanie, and I’d like you to call me by my actual name.’”
Beatriz got lucky, and found herself surrounded by a supportive cast and crew. “Everyone around me, the director that day, the crew, our creators, rallied around me and said, ‘Yeah. You did the right thing. Thank you for speaking up and making sure that you felt comfortable in your work environment,'” she said. Some online commenters — including some on IndieWire — didn’t understand why pet names would bother Beatriz (a familiar refrain was, “Well, I like pet names!”) and denounced her for “criminalizing niceness,” which speaks to the crushing lack of respect that lies at the root of the problem.
How to cultivate a safe, professional environment? By listening. How to avoid “challenges” in the workplace? By respecting your colleagues. What one person likes might not be what another likes; when people say how they feel, they are owed a respectful response. What’s so hard about that?
While Beatriz had the support of her colleagues, “Arrested Development” star Walter did not — and was then forced to re-live the experience in front of a New York Times reporter. While her co-star Jeffrey Tambor was fired from his other lauded series, “Transparent,” after facing accusations of on-set sexual harassment, the Emmy-winning actor was welcomed back to the fifth season of the Netflix comedy. Tambor has not been accused of sexual misconduct on the “Arrested Development” set, but he has admitted to verbally harassing Walter. The experience is still raw for her.
In a recent roundtable with The New York Times, the cast of “Arrested Development” addressed the allegations against Tambor, including his treatment of Walter. “He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize,” Walter said. “I have to let it go. And I have to give you a chance to, you know, for us to be friends again.”
Even recalling the harassment is emotional for Walter (the NYT piece notes that she was crying throughout the interview), a veteran actress who has worked in entertainment for over six decades. It’s difficult to imagine how professionals from any industry wouldn’t understand that screaming and verbally abusing anyone in any professional environment is wrong. However, on “Arrested Development” (no pun intended), that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Walter continued, “But it’s hard because honestly — Jason [Bateman] says this happens all the time,” she said. “In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set. And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.” Bateman then added insult to injury by defending Tambor and his actions, chalking it up to an example of a “difficult” performer who did something “we’ve all done.”
Even as Walter sat within feet of him, recalling the incident and crying, Bateman remained fixated on sticking up for Tambor. The actor couldn’t even be bothered to comfort a shook Walter.
Ultimately, these are not complicated situations. What’s complicated is understanding how, if a co-worker is upset about the obviously unprofessional behavior of another co-worker, it’s a good idea to stick up for the perpetrator.
The only person who chimed in to support Walter was co-star Alia Shawkat, who interjected to Bateman’s claim that this was all part of Tambor’s “process”: “But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently.”
Things are changing, but who is actually willing to keep up with them? Who is actually willing to practice respect in the face of the most clear-cut problems?
Based on listening to the NYT interview and hearing people’s thoughts online, I realize that I was wrong here. I sound like I’m condoning yelling at work. I do not. It sounds like I’m excusing Jeffery. I do not. It sounds like I’m insensitive to Jessica. I am not. In fact, I’m horrified that I wasn’t more aware of how this incident affected her …There’s never any excuse for abuse, in any form, from any gender. And, the victim’s voice needs to be heard and respected. Period.
However sincere, Bateman’s statement doesn’t make a lot of sense. He may have been “horrified” that he wasn’t “more aware” of how Walter was feeling — but how much more work does a victim need to do after aleady being subjected to clearly unprofessional behavior, and then crying about it in a public setting in front of a journalist?
The victim’s voice “needs to be heard and respected,” but the first requirement of being heard is that there be someone else there to listen. It’s not the only answer to the problem, but it’s the very first one. It’s also the easiest one. Now who is going to open their ears?