As the #MeToo movement took on hurricane strength five years ago, Al Franken was one of the first to get swept away. The U.S. senator for Minnesota resigned under pressure from Democratic colleagues in December 2017, after eight women said that he had inappropriately touched or kissed them.
Today, Franken is representative of the movement’s ambiguous and varied outcomes. Franken has said that he regrets resigning. Many of his supporters feel the same way.
And instead of sinking into ignominy, the veteran “Saturday Night Live” comedian and author has rebuilt much of his career. He’s not back in the Senate, but he’s hosting a popular podcast and filling theaters on a busy speaking schedule (marketed, in Franken’s style of humor, as the “Only Former U.S. Senator on Tour Tour”).
Some of the most galvanizing early #MeToo cases suggested that a thorough and eternal discrediting would be the fate of every accused man, such as the now-imprisoned producer Harvey Weinstein or former “Today” show host Matt Lauer, who has barely been seen in public since his 2017 firing. But others have reclaimed some of their careers and public esteem. And outside of a bad news cycle, others haven’t really been affected at all.
Attempts to catalogue the high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct or harassment have been exhaustive and exhausting. The New York Times counted 201 men by late 2018. Vox compiled a roster of 262 before it stopped updating the list in 2019.
Gretchen Carlson argues that the fascination with these men’s fates is misplaced.
“We talk all about rehabilitating the men,” the former Fox News host said in an interview, “but the real question is, ‘Where are all the women, and why aren’t they working again?’ ”
Carlson sued network chairman and co-founder Roger Ailes for sexual harassment in 2016. Fox settled her complaint for $20 million, but her broadcast roles have been few since then. Other women say their lives and careers were forever disrupted by workplace harassment.
But examining the disparate outcomes for accused men reveals certain patterns. The substance and number of accusations went a long way to determining whether they came back or not. So did the findings of subsequent investigations. The status and power of the accused, and of his accusers, are important factors, too. (Weinstein, for example, was less famous to average Americans than some of the actresses who said he harassed or assaulted them.)
And the amount of media attention certainly matters, too; accusations that drew little journalistic follow-up left some men positioned to avoid serious consequences. What’s more, the perceived sincerity of an apology — or lack thereof — could make a significant difference.
Politics may also play a role. In 2018, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Brett M. Kavanaugh pinned her on a bed and attempted to remove her clothes when they were both teenagers. He was confirmed to the Supreme Court on a near-party-line vote. Donald Trump withstood accusations of misconduct from several women and won the presidency in 2016; last week, though, a judge cleared the way for him to be deposed in a defamation lawsuit from a writer who says he raped her in the 1990s.
Timing, though, also may be crucial. The revelations about Weinstein triggered an outpouring of accusations against other men from victims who had kept their stories private for years or decades; the sheer pent-up volume kept the issue of harassment on a cultural front burner for months.
But with the passage of time, some of the heat surrounding #MeToo dissipated. Bill Murray, for example, reportedly settled an allegation of “inappropriate behavior” on a movie set in April by paying his accuser $100,000. Would the allegations have left a bigger mark on the news cycle, and Murray’s public image, at the height of #MeToo?
Weinstein, now in a New York state prison while facing another trial in California, is among a tiny number who went to prison following #MeToo allegations. The actor Danny Masterson is slated for a criminal trial on charges of rape in Los Angeles this month. R. Kelly — found not guilty of child pornography in 2008 after the alleged victim declined to testify — was prosecuted again in 2019 with the testimony of several women and men who said he sexually abused them; he is now serving time in New York while awaiting sentencing in Illinois. (Bill Cosby spent nearly three years behind bars before an appeals court overturned his conviction for sexually assaulting a woman — one of dozens who came forward with their stories about Cosby before the #MeToo movement picked up force.)
Many others, however, have suffered career death: former CBS boss Les Moonves, former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, the documentarian Morgan Spurlock. For some men in this category — notably TV hosts Lauer and Charlie Rose, as well as Oscar winner Kevin Spacey — a multitude of detailed and corroborated accusations permanently undermined the warm, avuncular images that had propelled them to the A-list. The mere appearance of Spacey in a low-budget movie trailer in spring caused film critics to shudder.
Even Spacey’s attempt at a minor comeback, though, appears to have been thwarted by criminal sexual assault charges filed against him in England shortly after that trailer made the rounds. Some of the early accusations against him in the United States came from men who were teenagers at the time of the alleged incidents. And although public opinion can quickly turn against anyone accused of sexual misconduct, it can be all that much more rapid when the claimant is a child or minor, said Dallas attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel.
“Sometimes adult survivors and adult women face more scrutiny. That is not warranted and not fair, but they do,” said Simpson Tuegel, who represented more than a dozen former U.S. gymnasts who were abused by team doctor Larry Nassar (who is also now imprisoned).
“There are questions that cannot be asked when it involves a child that will be asked when it involves an adult woman.”
Film director Bryan Singer was quickly excommunicated from his industry after he was accused in 2017 of raping a 17-year-old boy, as was James Levine, the formerly renowned Met Opera conductor accused by several men of sexually abusing them, some whom were teenagers at the time. (Levine has since died.) Moore’s Senate bid crashed after accusations that he had dated and sexually abused minors; his comeback attempt, in 2020, flopped with a fourth-place finish in a GOP primary.
In some cases, attempting to downplay allegations stokes more outrage. The celebrity chef Mario Batali, accused in December 2017 of harassing multiple women, responded at first by apologizing in an email newsletter for his “many mistakes,” tossing in a cinnamon-roll recipe for good measure. Fans saw it as callous; he eventually gave up ownership of all his restaurants and his share of the Italian food market Eataly.
“I don’t blame people for wanting to [resume their career], especially when they’re famous and they’re noted in their field,” says Thom Fladung, managing partner at Hennes Communications, which helps organizations tend to their reputations after scandals. But a key to “outrage management” is not to tell people when to get over it, he adds. “You don’t own the right to tell people, ‘It’s time to move on.’ ”
Others of the #MeToo accused have managed to maintain a presence in their professional fields — but under a cloud. Garrison Keillor, who never apologized and gave shifting explanations for accusations from employees that caused Minnesota Public Radio to cut ties with him, is still touring but playing much smaller rooms. Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder remains in control of his team despite accusations from two women — which he denies — and a finding by the NFL that the franchise’s business operations were rife with harassment, leading to a $10 million fine.
Then again, Snyder himself holds the final word when it comes to disciplinary action at the team he owns, unless his fellow NFL owners force him to sell it — an exceedingly rare occurrence in American professional sports.
There are also the #MeToo cases you never even heard about — the ones that were quietly settled under the cloak of nondisclosure agreements.
Carlson and another woman who sued Fox — political commentator Julie Roginsky — launched a campaign against these “NDAs” and the mandatory arbitration clauses imposed in many employee contract. They argue that such provisions enable companies to keep harassment and discrimination complaints secret, discouraging reporting and enabling harassers. Their group notched a success with the enactment in March of a federal law banning forced arbitration — “my greatest life achievement other than my children,” Carlson says.
But what about the comebacks from #MeToo? Some have been successful, Fladung posits, because they were followed by an immediate apology. Louis C.K., accused in 2017 by five women who said he masturbated in front of them, responded the day after the initial allegations with a lengthy apology that admitted wrongdoing. (“I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position.”)
“The way you survive a crisis is you tell the truth. You tell it fast,” Fladung says, “and you tell it to as many people as possible.”
C.K. was out of the public eye for only a short time. A film he wrote and directed lost its distribution slot in 2017, but he began performing again the next year. He continues to tour internationally and won a Grammy in 2021 for best comedy album. If his climb back seemed short, his particular profession probably helped: Stand-up comedians aren’t dependent on networks, production companies or publishers to reach audiences, and they are able to rely largely on the goodwill of comedy-club bookers and fans.
Actor and comedian Aziz Ansari took a similarly candid approach after an unnamed woman told a journalist in January 2018 that he had tried to pressure her into sexual acts after a date. He acknowledged that the incident had taken place but that he believed it was consensual until she told him otherwise. “I was surprised and concerned,” he wrote. “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.”
After a few quiet months, Ansari returned to stand-up comedy later in 2018 and essentially resumed his career afterward — helped, arguably, by the blurriness of the offense (his accuser acknowledged that miscommunication may have played a role) and the fact that no other such stories emerged about him.
There was seemingly more downtime, though, for Dustin Hoffman, who was accused of sexual misconduct by five women in 2017, including two who said they were minors at the time. The two-time Oscar winner issued an apology (“I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am”), but after decades of steady work, mostly disappeared for a while. At 85, though, he now has two small film projects set for release this year and two more in preproduction.
For others plotting comebacks, the verdict is still out. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who resigned as New York’s governor last year amid a ballooning sexual harassment scandal, is reportedly strategizing a future return to public life. After a few quiet years following accusations by five women, actor James Franco recently signed on to play Fidel Castro in the upcoming film “Alina of Cuba.” Others have not returned to their old fields but seem to be angling for some redemption: Russell Simmons relocated to Bali and recently became a big-name investor in a tech start-up. Former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, accused in 2018 of choking, hitting or slapping four women, sat for an extensive interview with BuzzFeed this year to discuss his attempts to understand the harm he had caused.
And, of course, there are the accused men who — well, everyone seemed to quickly forget they had been accused.
Eight women accused Morgan Freeman of sexual harassment in 2018, some citing incidents on film sets of inappropriate touching and comments about women’s clothing and bodies. The actor downplayed the allegations: “It is not right to equate horrific incidents of sexual assault with misplaced compliments or humor.” And his illustrious career has carried on mostly uninterrupted, with roles in several feature films, including the 2021 Eddie Murphy project “Coming 2 America.”
It may have helped Freeman that his alleged offenses seemed less severe than other newsworthy allegations that surfaced around the same time. Similarly for Ryan Seacrest, who was accused by a former E! Network stylist in 2017 of showing “unwanted sexual aggression” toward her for years. Seacrest denied the allegations entirely — and seemed to suggest that he had been unfairly swept up in a snowballing, media-driven #MeToo moment.
“I knew, regardless of the confidence I had that there was no merit to the allegations, my name would likely soon appear on the lists of those suspected of despicable words and deeds,” he wrote in a statement. “The pressures of our overflowing newsfeeds would insist on it.” He continues to co-host “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “American Idol” and executive-produce “The Kardashians,” among other projects.
The recent case of Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShaun Watson has been puzzling to many. Starting in 2021, he was accused of sexual misconduct during massages by dozens of women and eventually settled more than 20 lawsuits. Though Watson lost sponsorships, he ultimately was fined $5 million and missed just one season of pro football and the first 11 games of the current season.
To Simpson Tuegel, the Dallas attorney, Watson’s apparently triumphant upcoming return is an example of one of the most difficult #MeToo outcomes to accept.
“A lot of these victims of powerful abusers,” she says, “are then stuck with the trauma from the abuse and the knowledge that what they did in coming forward was not valued — and not really heard.”
A previous version of this article misstated the network that fired Garrison Keillor. It was Minnesota Public Radio, not Minneapolis. This version has been corrected.
Analysis | Five years on, what happened to the men of #MeToo? – The Washington Post