Source: Parks and Recreation, NBC, screenshot, fair use
Public Debate over Sexual Harassment by Celebrities
The latest news headlines speak of celebrities, from actors to directors to comedians and more, who are now being publicly accused of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not new, nor are human foibles.
In my experience, it’s not about the newness of a topic that sparks a public dialogue. Somehow a head-turning event happens that captures the public interest. As with the recent conversation about male celebrities sexually harassing female co-workers, when one person’s story is revealed, that can spark other reveations of similar scandals.
Loving from Afar
What many of are talking about right now, whether across the table at a cafe or on social media, boils down to dealing with what to do when someone you love does something you hate. Before we get to that topic, I want to back up and talk about the first part…the “someone you love.”
I have done research on the attachment we have to popular culture figures such as television actors and the characters they play. Before you respond by saying, “Oh, yeah, those weirdos who stalk stars!” or “Oh, yeah, those weirdos who think Star Trek is real,” give me just a minute. If you want to know more of the details, I refer you to some of my work1,2,3.
For the purposes of this blog, suffice it to say that it is natural for people to form attachments to actors and roles. For the most part, the people who can do this are actually more healthy than those who don’t. Loving a story where the people involved face conflicts and obstacles and deal with them with authentic humanity is a good thing. Research has shown that people who watch complex drama are more empathic. According to multiple studies, really liking a story world is related to greater well-being.
When the camera is trained on an attractive and talented person telling a compelling story, naturally we feel the attraction. In our current media environment, we can watch a celebrity act on a favorite show, watch them be interviewed on a talk show, follow their social media posts, and read about them in blogs. No, it’s not “the same” as getting to know someone face-to-face, but it’s not entirely different either.
Who Do You Love?
Whether you know someone because you see them at the office or the PTA meeting, or you know someone because you’ve seen them act out stories on the silver screen, we humans are designed to watch people and to try to make sense of them. Human beings have two evolutionary imperatives: Survival and reproduction. We are majorly motivated to do our best at both of these. The thing is, other people are key to our survival and reproduction (we can’t do them alone, after all).
So, one of the reasons we’re drawn to film and television is that they help us practice understanding how human social life works. Fiction has been called a social simulation. Shows and films open our imaginations. We can ask ourselves “what if” questions, such as: What if a comet were heading toward Earth to kill us all? What if my spouse died? What if I were suddenly thrust into a leadership position. Stories help us work this out.
Louis C.K. has helped me think about what it’s like to be a nerdy guy who wants to ask out a woman who’s smart, funny and pretty. This was a situation on Parks and Recreation where Louis C.K. played the love interest of Amy Poehler’s character, Leslie Nope. Watch this clip from Parks and Recreation where we see Louis’ character falling for Amy’s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxGhpM7PguU
In that clip, it’s easy to empathize with Louis’ character. He seems sweet and authentic and harmless. If you watch him do that on the screen, the tendency is to think that he “has it in him” to be like that in real life. Or, more likely, we just decide that he is like that in real life. Why? Because we’ve seen him act that way and it’s natural to judge that he acts that way because he IS that way.
In the clip, Louis talks about his sexual attraction to a woman. It’s actually a bit unnerving to watch now, in light of the revelations of him doing lude sexual behaviors with female comedians.
“It’s the Same as in Real Life,” is a Safe Bet
If you’re trying to figure out the psychology of our relationships with celebrities and the characters they portray, the best answer to some key questions is often that how we feel about characters and actors is basically the same way that we feel about people in real life. There’s not an off/on or real/unreal switch in our brains.
So, how do we feel about celebrities who we thought were great guys, but who we now know did something terrible? Well, we feel and act pretty much the same way as we do towards real people we know who let us down.
That means that a person we love doing something we hate makes us feel cogitive dissonance. We have two thoughts that don’t clash:
1) I love Louis C.K.
2) Louis C.K. is a sexual abuser.
How do we reduce dissonance? There are several ways. One way is to change the first statement: I hate Louis C.K., or, at least, I don’t like him any more.
Another way is to change the second thought. In other words, we cope with the bad feelings these two thoughts generate by deciding that he really is not a sexual abuser. This can mean deciding that he really didn’t do what people say he did.
Just this week I saw a news interview with a woman who knew Alabama politician Roy Moore, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. The woman said that she knows Roy Moore and what he stands for and he is a good man. Either she is denying thought #2, or she’s adding the thought that he’s done a lot of good in his life, thus reducing the importance of his sexual misconduct.
Another way we try to work this out is to think about how much bad behavior you can tolerate in someone and still believe they are a good person. Or, you might add a religious or philosophical bent on the issue and say that we are all sinners. Of course, there are a million variations on this theme.
My point is, that we’re doing these psychological calculations on everyone from Louis C.K, to Roy Moore to Kevin Spacey. If the accused were your next door neighbor or your boss, you’d go through a similar thought process.
Is There Hope?
For me, it’s less important whether we decide to love or hate Louis C.K., than it is that we decide to no longer tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace. The fact that we’re going through these thoughts collectively also gives me the chance to draw attention to how we think about our public figures, which is a chance to teach about what I study. So, bad news gives me a chance to talk to people about psychology and also about the treatment of women. For those things, I’m grateful.
For example, let me draw your attention to the interview with comedian Jon Stewart where he talks about his friend Louis C.K., his shock at the revelations, and his honest treatment of sexual harassment by men. Watch the video here: http://ift.tt/2z2TCSQ
For me, one great thing about what Stewart says is that men are used to being in charge. Certainly power can be misused. Admitting that and working to reduce risk for women in the workplace is a worthy goal. We can take our anger and distress and use it to propel action. We can take the opportunity this distressing time affords us and let it spur us into real action.
I admire Jon Stewart’s honesty and his ability to take responsibilitiy for his own actions. Watching him process this helps me process it. And that is another good thing that can come out of a bad situation. My relationship with Jon Stewart helps me cope. I’ve never met him (though I’ve written about him in multiple books!), but still, through our public conversation, he makes a difference to me.
I hope that these thoughts have now come full circle…that we understand how the public figures we know play a real role in our lives. Fans are subject to shaming. It’s one of my missions to turn that shaming around.
If Jon Stewart or any other celebrity that I admire, does something that’s bad enough and/or does it consistently enough, then I may decide he isn’t a great role model. If he does bad things, I will want to make it less likely for those things to happen. On the other hand, making mistakes THAT ARE WITHIN REASON doesn’t make someone less attractive as a role model, but more attractive. When it comes to ethical questions, the math works the same for Jon Stewart and Louis C.K. as it does for me or for you.