It’s really the picture that does it. Even by the standards of the sexual harassment stories we’ve heard in recent months, there is something particularly revolting about the sight of Al Franken, now a Democratic senator from Minnesota, reaching for the breasts of a sleeping woman, a naughty grin on his face as he turns toward the photographer.
For Leeann Tweeden, the woman in the picture, the photo punctuated a bad 2006 USO trip. Tweeden says that though she was only supposed to present and act as a master of ceremonies for the show, Franken wrote a skit that gave him an opportunity to kiss her, and then pressured her to rehearse the scene and the kiss with him and harassed her afterward. Franken, in a statement addressing Tweeden’s allegations, said, “While I don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.”
As has so often been the case these past few months, Franken’s alleged behavior seems at odds with other parts of his record as both a comedian and a legislator. But we should know by now that these sorts of contradictions are commonplace. And we shouldn’t let the seeming tension between the good Franken has done and the hurt he’s alleged to have caused tangle us in knots or lead us to treat him as if he’s irreplaceable.
Never miss a local story.
Last year, when he picked his favorite “Saturday Night Live” political sketches for The Washington Post, Franken included one about Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in which he played then-Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., saying “the silliness of male senators asking Thomas for tips on picking up women struck at a deeper truth about an all-male Judiciary Committee grappling with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.” (The skit is astonishingly dark and very funny, but perhaps not for everyone at this particular moment.)
As a senator, Franken pushed to cut off government funding to defense contractors who require their employees to submit to mandatory binding arbitration in sexual assault cases. When a man who had interned for Franken raped two women, Franken took the case, and the experience of one of the man’s victims, Abby Honold, as inspiration for a bill that would provide federal funding to train police officers and first responders in best practices for interviewing sexual assault victims.
Like with plenty of men before him, these facts may prompt some Franken supporters to try to explain away Tweeden’s experience, or to hope other women don’t come forward with other allegations of misconduct by Franken. Harvey Weinstein championed great roles for women at the same time that women have said that he harassed and assaulted them. Louis C.K. spoke out about the harm men do to women, even as he was doing that harm. (He acknowledged the allegations of sexual misconduct against him are true.) Journalist Nina Burleigh infamously said during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that “I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”
These supposed dilemmas are driven by an assumption that’s powerful but also untrue. We must live with the conduct of men who behave badly toward women, the thinking goes, because their contributions count for so much. In some cases, their positions do feel unique: C.K.’s blunt treatment of misogyny was unusual in comedy. Weinstein was the rare producer who seemed to enjoy finding and promoting great roles for older actresses.
But a lot of the time, these cases create a sort of tunnel vision. The idea that Roy Moore’s supporters need to reconcile themselves even to the allegations that he abused a 14-year-old girl and harassed and assaulted other young girls and women, on the grounds that he’s the only person who can take their theological vision of the world to Congress, simply isn’t true.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get trapped by this false logic, not least because it prevents us from pushing other men to step up to the plate. Saying that Weinstein is the only person who could push roles for Meryl Streep or Judi Dench lets the rest of Hollywood off the hook for being stupid enough to waste the talents of a whole cohort of older actresses. Suggesting that only C.K. could tell the truth about misogyny is just an excuse for letting the rest of comedy stay mired in the piggish norms of an earlier era.
And if we were really in a situation where Franken was the only male senator willing to stand up for rape victims, then we would be in even deeper trouble than we are now.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.