Recent decisions made to decrease the visibility of accused Hollywood abusers feel more like calculated PR moves than a real reckoning.
On Thursday, news broke that last year’s best actor, Casey Affleck, would not be attending the 2018 Academy Awards. Traditionally, the reigning Best Actor presents the Best Actress award. There had been pressure on the Academy to bar Affleck from his presenting duties—most notably a petition that garnered almost 20,000 signatures—but it’s important to note that Affleck came to this decision himself. While a representative for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said that the awards-granting body “appreciate[s] the decision to keep the focus on the show and on the great work of this year,” Affleck did have the option of showing up. Instead, the actor rationally surmised that attending the Oscars mid-#MeToo would only garner negative press (not to mention uncomfortable side-eyes and dirty looks from fellow attendees).
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Affleck was accused by two female colleagues of harassment and sexual misconduct while working on 2010’s I’m Still Here. Allegations that Affleck made his set inhospitable to these women became well-known in the months before the ceremony. But they barely detracted from the actor’s campaign, and few people were shocked when he won his Oscar for Manchester by the Sea. In the midst of a thorough recalibration of power dynamics in Hollywood and beyond, the fact that, only one year ago, a man accused of sexual misconduct took home one of the Academy’s most prestigious awards is fairly mind-boggling. It’s also embarrassing—not just for Affleck and his Hollywood supporters, but for the Academy, its voters, and, more largely, an industry that’s proven itself far too hospitable to shitty men.
In addition to Affleck’s Oscars ghost story, Thursday also shed light on the virtual scrubbing of accused actor/known creep James Franco. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Franco was a last-minute subtraction from Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood cover. Reportedly, “James Franco sat for a photo shoot and interview and was to be featured in the magazine's Annie Leibovitz-shot portfolio. He was removed from the cover digitally, however, due to allegations of sexual misconduct that surfaced in the wake of his Golden Globe win for The Disaster Artist.” A Vanity Fair spokesperson confirmed, “We made a decision not to include James Franco on the Hollywood cover once we learned of the misconduct allegations against him.”
While we’d all like to Photoshop skeevy dudes out of our movies, TV shows, awards ceremonies and magazine covers once and for all, a little bit of whiteout doesn’t go a long way.
If anything, these scrambled efforts at erasure turn the spotlight onto the people and institutions who decided to include these men in the first place. Before the Los Angeles Times wrote a long exposé about Franco’s inappropriate behavior, he was still the guy who propositioned a 17-year-old fan on Instagram. Even so, he was still afforded a spot on Vanity Fair's cover and became a presumed Oscar shoo-in. For his performance in The Disaster Artist, Franco has already received a Gotham Award, a Critics’ Choice Award and a Golden Globe. Scrubbing him from a magazine cover feels like a hollow victory, skipping past the real reckoning—the part where Franco stops getting all the roles, and alleged abusers don’t win awards. Men should face repercussions for abusing their power that go deeper than sitting out a ceremony or a photoshoot while they wait for the negative press to blow over.
On Thursday’s edition of the podcast Still Processing, New York Times writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris explored the disconnect between substantive reform and image control. Their conversation centered around a different sort of exclusion—the snubbing of Ed Sheeran from the Grammys’ top categories. Wortham and Morris surmised, as others have suspected, that the Recording Academy didn’t want to risk backlash if Sheeran, a white man, won over artists like Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar. The hosts pointed out flaws in this possible plot, with Wortham remarking, “I don’t want people like Ed Sheeran kept out to deal with the academy’s image problem, I want them to deal with their systemic problem.” Morris agreed, “I’m the kind of person who wants to know where my racism is.” He continued, “I don’t want you telling me that by cutting Ed Sheeran out of your little Grammy game, that you’ve solved Grammy racism. So that—you’re gonna do this next year?…You’re gonna do this again when Adele puts out another record the same year as Beyoncé?”
The Oscars and Grammys are two separate conversations, but they both point to an alarming trend of avoidance over accountability. The Grammys dodge does us a whole host of disservices—not just by avoiding potential backlash and, by extension, a potentially productive conversation, but by refusing to publicly reckon with institutional failure. If voters were handed a diverse ballot and overwhelmingly favored Sheeran—which is likely, given the Grammy’s extremely white track record—then we could continue the debate about the racist awards show. Instead, we’ve been given the big question mark of this Sheeran snub, and it feels like both a lie and a side-step.
In a world of Time’s Up pins, black dresses, and white roses, it’s hard to differentiate between important acts of visibility and efforts that begin and end at good optics. Gestures like Hollywood men deliberately wearing black tuxedoes are only useful when they draw out hypocrisy—the rich discomfort of the A-list dude who’s gotten away with too much for too long, forced by convention to say Time’s Up. But making certain men feel uncomfortable, while fun, isn’t enough. Instead, let’s keep having the hard conversations and the awkward interactions that Affleck was clearly terrified of. Let’s use bullshit awards shows to wrestle with the fact that the entertainment industry is still more or less run by and enamored with white men.
The newly widespread obsession with appearing woke threatens to disguise the way that things are. If the bad, or merely complicit men know just what they should be saying and when they should hide, it’s our job to point out that a last-minute Photoshop or nixed awards show appearance doesn’t equate to an abdication of power.
A victory isn’t Casey Affleck being shamed out of showing up—it’s forcing the continued career success of men like Casey Affleck out of the shadows, so we can have a frank conversation (and, ideally, a Frances McDormand-style confrontation) about how the industry and its institutions are complicit in allowing accused abusers to keep getting roles and winning awards for them. The dream isn’t of a world where Vanity Fair feels pressured to erase a leading man from its cover—it’s one where behind-the-scenes systems and powerful institutions begin the deeper work of becoming hostile to abuse and abusers—where bad men don’t win Oscars and sexual abuse and harassment are clear disqualifiers, not dirty secrets.