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The #MeToo Mudslide

Murmurings about possible comebacks for figures like Louis C.K. and Mario Batali run the risk of reversing a historic moment. How should the world cover the return of some of these men?

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On Tuesday — the very morning after the journalists whose reporting ignited the #MeToo movement won a Pulitzer Prize — The Hollywood Reporter ran a story headlined, “Louis C.K.’s Path to a Comeback Likely Runs Through Comedy Clubs.” Its writer, Stuart Miller, charted what the disgraced comedian has been up to in the five months since five different women had said he’d committed sexual misconduct against them — which he admitted to shortly after. In the days after a November 9 New York Times article broke the scandal, C.K.’s career halted on a dime. He abruptly canceled a scheduled appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert; his troublingly autobiographical-seeming film I Love You, Daddy was dropped by its distribution company and never released. And yet, as Miller wrote in a factually questionable and grammatically convoluted sentence in his Hollywood Reporter piece, “[N]o quote has ever been proven false more often than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s declaration that there are no second acts in American lives, so the question is not really whether C.K. will eventually come back but when, where and how.”

I was appalled by this article and its casual, lightly exonerating tone, but I can’t say it surprised me. It foreshadowed a moment I’ve been dreading for months — a dread that has calcified into a physical sensation I’ve carried around with me like a kidney stone: When will we let the first bad man back in? Who will he be?

Miller’s C.K. story — not to mention another one published the same day in Vanity Fair noting that Matt Lauer was rumored to be “planning his comeback” — felt especially inevitable because of a few related, tonally gentle articles that have laid the foundation in recent weeks. On April 2, The New York Times published a piece titled, “Disgraced by Scandal, Mario Batali Is Eyeing His Second Act.” In December, four separate women described sexual misconduct by Batali “in a pattern of behavior that spans at least two decades.” And yet, not even a half a year had passed before the Times deemed it time to run this piece, in which writer Kim Severson reported that Batali, 57, is “actively exploring when or whether he should begin his [comeback]. Friends and associates say he is floating ideas, pondering timelines and examining whether there is a way for him to step back into his career, at least in some fashion.”

The piece at least contained one voice of reason, Batali’s former pal Anthony Bourdain, who has been a vocal proponent of the #MeToo movement since his girlfriend Asia Argento spoke out against Harvey Weinstein. “Retire and count yourself lucky,” Bourdain advised. “I say that without malice, or without much malice. I am not forgiving. I can’t get past it.”

But in what felt like some sort of quota for needlessly sympathetic stories about odious men, the very same issue of The Hollywood Reporter in which Miller’s C.K. story was published also contained a lengthy, much-criticized feature that asks, in the gently curious tone usually used when one wonders where a beloved child star is now, “What Happened to Charlie Rose?” (What happened to Charlie Rose, you’ll remember, was that 17 women said he’d committed sexual harassment and misconduct, including groping, making unwanted sexual advances, and “walking around naked in front of colleagues who were required to work at one of his New York homes.”) In the months since the accounts, if you were wondering, Rose has mostly spent his time reading and ordering takeout in Bellport, Long Island, where he owns a waterfront home valued somewhere between $4 million and $6 million. In case you would like more information about the other multimillion-dollar homes the accused sexual predator owns, in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina, The Hollywood Reporter printed fawningly descriptive blurbs about each of them at the end of the story.

“Several powerful men, in several industries, have had their worlds kicked out from under them as the #MeToo movement has gathered momentum,” Severson wrote in her Times piece about Batali. “As many have removed themselves from public sight, forfeited business interests or sought treatment, a question lingers: Is a comeback from such disgrace possible?”

It is a question I certainly wish we were not being asked by major publications so soon, but it was bound to come up eventually. And so in this time when the first post-#MeToo redemption tour appears to be looming — and when some journalists may be angling to score the first “post-scandal” interviews with these men — it’s worth noting the toxic ripple effect of these kinds of stories and resisting the dangerous narratives of “forgiveness” and “comebacks” that they normalize.

The #MeToo movement gathered momentum via a snowball effect. Survivors were emboldened to come forward because other survivors were coming forward: They knew, finally, that they were not alone. The months after the Weinstein story broke marked a rare moment when people in unprecedentedly mainstream spaces were observing and discussing the ways in which injustices — and different “degrees” of bad behavior — are interconnected. Men were being held accountable for their actions, even being fired from their jobs, after so many years of getting away with actions that had derailed their victims’ careers and personal lives. Secrets shared in whisper networks were at last being shouted out loud. It felt, upon waking up each morning from late October until about January, that every day was Opposite Day.

And so, like Cinderella anxious about the approach of midnight, I have been worried about the moment in which all of this reverses — when the diamond-tough carriage that served as a safe haven for women speaking out turns back into a rotting, overgrown pumpkin. I do believe — I need to — that certain structural changes will stick, and that it will be more difficult for men in professional spheres to get away with predatory behavior in the future. But I am also worried about the snowball effect of these so-called “redemptions,” “comebacks,” and “second acts.” Just as the deluge of survivors speaking out allowed more to come forward, speculating about when and how these men will “return” — and treating their returns as inevitable — forges a path that ends in forgiving them, one by one, for greater and greater crimes. A raindrop can so easily turn into a mudslide.

“The consensus is that while his behavior was clearly wrong it was not at the level of a Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, or Bill Cosby,” Miller wrote in his piece about Louis C.K., before quoting a flippant and painfully unfunny joke that the comic Gilbert Gottfried made about the “different levels of misbehavior” enacted by these men. Sure. I am not denying that there are different levels of sexual misconduct — and, like the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, I am sick of people assuming that feminists are inherently denying or unable to see that. As Tolentino wrote in January in an excellent piece about the inevitability of the #MeToo backlash, it is incredibly frustrating when people are more willing to see nuance on the side of the accused than the vocally critical. And yet it is crucial that we also see the way that the forgiveness of a “lesser” predator paves the way for one “at the level” of Weinstein, Toback, or Cosby to be redeemed. To welcome someone like C.K. or Batali back into the fold not six months after these accusations broke is to intimidate other victims from speaking out, because it will make them think their stories don’t matter, or that the power granted to them by the #MeToo movement was just a temporary spell. To write about them sympathetically, to give them more ink than the names and achievements of their accusers, to run headlines suggesting a “likely” comeback, is to participate in the very culture that allowed these men to behave badly in the first place. It is a failure to imagine a different story, a better world.

C.K., Batali, Lauer, and Rose are all rich, having profited for years off a system that protected them from accusations leveled by people with less money and power. They don’t need to rush back to work. They can afford early retirement or lengthy public hiatuses ensconced in one of their multiple properties. And fans who miss their work and are eager for a “comeback” can buck up and let themselves be sated by many alternatives: In the streaming age, women who create the kind of dark, self-loathing, confessional comedy preferred by C.K. are currently thriving; lord knows people can find other recipes for marinara sauce or cinnamon rolls. But to demand that these men return to the spotlight too early, or in some cases at all, is to risk a cascading effect that will undo the necessary work of the #MeToo movement and to intimidate victims back into silence. Be warned: After Louis, le déluge.