In the movie They Live, this guy played by pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper finds a box full of sunglasses which reveal to the wearer that ghoulish monsters walk among us in disguise, occupying the upper echelons of society, spread throughout every corner of government, business and culture. This being a John Carpenter film, Piper’s solution is to shoot a bunch of people. As far as our thing goes, I don’t think any more shooting sprees are going to help.
I read the stories and I sit and I think really hard about the things that I said and did around women when I was between the age of 15 and 24. I remember a college video short I directed about the dangers of “bitch beer”, rape jokes, “make me a sandwich” jokes, lewd gestures and misogynistic comments that I either made myself or laughed at, and I shut my eyes and suck the air in through my teeth. The assumption I made, and that the guys around me laughing along made, was that everybody knew it was a joke. I didn’t get that they were jokes about a slow-motion eternal tragedy that affects more than half of all human beings, and that telling those jokes was like standing and roasting marshmallows while your neighbor's house burns to the ground. I tell myself I've grown up and waffle on the prospect of sending out a flurry of contrite Facebook messages.
If this sounds a lot like a chagrined, soul-searching apology statement, it’s not intentional. I’ve just been reading a lot of them recently and it’s been affecting my work.
I don’t remember my parents ever teaching me not to rape anybody. My dad never sat down on the edge of my bed, rested a hand on my shoulder and said, “Truman, you should never masturbate in front of a woman unless she’s explicitly asked you to.” Dropping me off for school, my mom never yelled after me, “…AND DON’T FORGET TO NOT GRAB GIRLS’ ASSES!” At home and at school I was taught to keep my hands to myself, and I’ve done a damn good job of it. The secret to my success is that it’s really fucking easy to not grope people, and until recently I didn’t realize how many people I looked up to couldn’t clear that low-ass bar.
This is why that picture of Al Franken hit me like a slap in the face. I’d heard the rumors about Louis CK, and it wasn’t an enormous paradigm shift to find out a man famous for calling himself a sex pervert was an actual real-life sex pervert. But Al Franken was someone I looked up to as a writer and as a leader, and there he is grinning like a kid at the fair while fondling a sleeping woman.
In the blog post revealing the assault, Franken’s victim Leeann Tweeden explains that while on a 2006 USO tour, Franken wrote a skit for them to perform that included a moment where he kissed her, and then used that as a pretext to force his tongue down her throat backstage in a “rehearsal,” despite her protests. She pushed him off, scolded him and spent the rest of the trip avoiding all contact with him. In response, she writes, “Franken repaid me with petty insults, including drawing devil horns on at least one of the headshots I was autographing for the troops.” On the plane ride home, after Tweeden fell asleep, Franken posed for the photo.
Franken has released an eloquent apology that’s getting some praise on Twitter – as though it’s some sort of surprise that a guy who made a living as a writer for 35 years can write a compelling statement after being caught on camera sexually assaulting a woman. He has a lot to say about the need to empower women and believe accusers, but he’s notably careful to apologize specifically for his actions in the photograph, which he passes off as a one-time moment of comic exuberance:
“I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter.”
Based on Tweeden’s account, I can take a guess as to what was in Franken’s head: He wanted to show dominance over a woman who had rejected him sexually, and he wanted her to know that he had done it afterwards.
I don’t know what it’s like to be sexually harassed and assaulted. I do know what it’s like to be bullied. Tweeden made it clear to Franken with words and actions that he had upset her, and instead of an apology his response was to spend the next two weeks tormenting her, capped off with that photo. Franken hasn’t apologized for his pattern of behavior – just the picture, which conveniently is the only thing that he can’t dispute.
The guys who bullied me were teenagers. Al Franken was 54 in 2006. None of my former bullies is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even after Roddy Piper takes off the sunglasses, he still remembers who the monsters are.
In response to the rest of her account, Franken 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." It sounds like Franken has his own version of this story. Take a look at the picture and tell me who you trust.