Playwright//Performance Poet//Storyworld Creator for Legal Education

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Occasional blog posts and articles. Feminism, the law, theatre, etc. 

Sexually inappropriate comments: ‘As the critic said to the playwright ...’

One of the post-Weinstein twitter exchanges that struck me the most last week and got me thinking was started by a tweet from a female playwright. She wrote: “I remember a theatre critic grabbing 19yo me to point out another woman and tell me I wasn't the one everyone wanted to fuck anymore.”

Cue many people, including several men in theatre, saying how appalled they were to hear that. Quite rightly. It wasn’t just crass ill-judged innuendo or sexual banter but a put-down intended to demean. The man involved then openly outed himself, tweeting: “Well, apparently this was me. Of course I was drunk. Of course I don’t remember. And *of course* that’s no excuse. I’m utterly ashamed.”  In a second follow-up tweet he wrote: “For what it’s worth, I’ve been sober since 23rd Feb 2015, I take this fucking seriously, and it won’t ever be happening again."

That second tweet was favourited by many but responded to by very few, either directly in reply or elsewhere. A day or two passes. The playwright then tweeted: “I’ve got respect for *the critic* for owning up, but a lot of the ‘deeply offended’ pple have stfu now they realise it’s their mate… and if that doesn’t illustrate the whole problem pretty clearly, I dunno what does…” 

Well, yes. Would people have stayed silent if it had been a critic whose professional opinion they disrespected? Or someone who wasn’t a liberal ‘ally’ and who didn't write about the woeful lack of representation of women and people of colour in the theatre? (Which the critic was doing even before he stopped drinking in fact). How about if it wasn’t a man they knew personally? If, say, it had been someone with whom they hadn’t shared drunken opinions about the fuckability of teenage female playwrights?

But aside from friendship, complicity and fear of professional repercussions, many people didn’t say anything because they felt the critic had done the decent thing by owning up and apologising and stopping drinking. Some were of the view it was ‘just’ a comment not an action and an ‘isolated incident’. Except unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Turns out that rather than being a solo sexist drunken aberration, the critic’s put-down to the playwright was symptomatic of his behaviour towards young women at the time. (I say at the time – I’m sure now he’s no longer drinking his attitudes towards women have changed dramatically.) Several other women in theatre have now come forward publicly – and I’ve spoken to a handful privately, all of whom didn’t know each other – to tell of times the critic’s inappropriate sexual comments and behaviour had made them feel very uncomfortable. The stories are depressingly similar: this was a thirtysomething professional man who purposefully sought out young impressionable women studying or starting out in theatre, many of whom were still at university. A man who stood too close, lingered too long, pestered too much and who told them he had the power to advance their careers … providing they had sex with him. 

It’s a shame then that the critic hasn’t said sorry to these other women. He could have easily taken the opportunity to tweet a prophylactic collective apology to all the people he’d offended when drunk. For it logically follows that if he couldn’t remember what he’d said to the playwright and had to be told it was him after she’d tweeted, there may well be other inappropriate comments to other people which he can’t remember. And it’s a shame that his male mates, knowing that this whole sexism thing is Quite A Big Deal at the moment, didn’t use the opportunity to publicly acknowledge that even men they respected got it terribly wrong at times.

Does that make the critic as bad as Weinstein? Of course not. But it’s worth discussing because what he did was the type of inappropriate sexual behaviour that’s the easiest to get away with; immoral but not necessarily illegal. And because this is a theatre professional, not a Tory bastard working in the City. Well I worked for years with Tory bastards in the City, and the sexual harassment I experienced and saw happen to colleagues and my employment law clients in that sector was no worse.  In fact, I’d wager that female actors in particular are likely to have a much harder time of it. (Perhaps there needs to be a special Sexual Harassment at Work Per Industry Index invented to help young women make informed career choices. I’m only half joking.)

Men in positions of authority offering to give young women a career leg up in exchange for being allowed to get their leg over is a tired trope. Where it can creep into less mundane territory, though, as we painfully heard with the Weinstein police recording, is when it becomes coercion; when the subtext of threat and punishment for failure to comply underlies the promises and so-called playful pleading. 

The abuse of a disparity in authority is the crux of all the recent revelations. And yes, women can abuse power too … it’s just that it doesn’t happen to anywhere near the same extent, if only because women are less likely to hold a higher position of authority in the first place. Instead, they - and/or people of colour, the disabled, the young and those from deprived social and economic backgrounds - are statistically more likely to be at the sharp end of a power imbalance. 

I’ve been reminded a lot the past week of something I was told by a tabloid journalist nearly twenty years ago, before social media and online news.  I was a paralegal at a defamation law firm at the time. The journalist said that male celebrities who had extra-marital one night stands would choose the people they had these with very carefully, usually picking “working class, uneducated and unknown young women” who were often “foreign”. That way, if the women - or in some cases, gay men - went to the newspapers with a kiss-and-tell, the papers would be less likely to run the story; because should the celebrity sue for libel, a judge and jury were likely to find the woman "not very credible." A celebrity suing was always a risk, they’d try it on, but with a “credible girl” - educated, middle class and from a ‘good’ professional family perhaps - the paper would hold its ground. Because there was the assumption that women like that wouldn’t lie, unlike women who had money or fame to gain by doing so. It was a situation I then saw play out time after time. These weren’t occasions where people used their status to enforce sex. But they were examples of people relying on their status to enforce silence. Not just the woman’s but that of others who were complicit in keeping a secret, willingly or not. 

But now it’s finally – finally! – easier to speak up than ever before. There’s a chorus of female voices sounding out – but they need to be supported by a male bassline. Thousands and thousands of women have had the bravery to publicly admit they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. It would be good if in turn, many men could find the courage to call themselves and each other out on sexist and sexually demeaning behaviour and recognise it for what it often is: misogyny.

In this post-Weinstein world, complicit silence speaks volumes. 

Ness Lyons