The host’s downfall came after The New York Times tallied up that he’d cost his employer a cool $13 million in sexual harassment settlements over the course of his career. In response, dozens of sponsors pulled ads from his primetime Fox News program. Apparently, the only thing that talks more loudly than Bill O’Reilly is money.
As a woman, I find the latest developments in the O’Reilly saga both confusing and encouraging. Encouraging because I’m sure there are plenty of men there capable of hosting a cable news program who are able to resist the urge to sexually demean women over whom they have power. Confusing because it’s hard to keep track of whether “woman” is a generally tolerated class or a generally disdained one. It seems to flip flop from day to day. But I’m feeling pretty encouraged by this O’Reilly business.
On one hand, I’ve learned from advertisements that were definitely not cynical attempts at virality put forth by a male-dominated ad industry that I should have self esteem, because that’s the same thing as empowerment. I am beautiful, no matter what they say. Words can’t bring me down. Oscars acceptance speeches, fancy conferences, books with headshots of their very successful female authors on the cover; they all think I’m just great, or I could be if I believed in myself. At the very least, Dove soap thinks I’m beautiful. That’s all I want from a soap.
On the other hand, I’ve learned that despite all the capitalist and corporatist lip service women have been getting since even before my mother was a little girl, many people do not give a flying fuck about women. Three-plus decades of observing and existing inside this reality have left me with little doubt that men can do basically anything they want to a woman and face few repercussions—even fewer if the women to whom the things are done are poorer than me, or browner than me, or if the man in question is particularly talented at making movies or jokes or playing a sport that involves balls or fists. Sean Penn, Mike Tyson, Ben Roethlisberger, R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen, among many, many others, have garnered sympathy and even forgiveness among certain facets of the population after sexual misconduct allegationshave surfaced.
After Donald Trump’s electoral victory last November, I questioned the way people thought about women, wondered who among the people I knew were able to willfully overlook bragging about sexual assault in the name of trusting a man like Donald Trump to lead this country. Was it a demonstration of the power of confirmation bias among a portion of the population wanted so very badly for Hillary Clinton to be the worse choice that they tried to will it so in the voting booth? The power of confirmation bias to overcome obvious ineptitude, a complete lack of experience, and a baseball team’s worth of sexual assault accusers in the name of wanting his promises to be real? Was grabbing women by the pussy forgivable? Was sexual assault ignorable?
In the weeks after the election, many hands were wrung over the way voters overlooked Trump’s alleged misdeeds. And rightfully so. But, post-O’Reilly, it’s time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture here. Sure, Woody Allen carries on apace (kind of), but Bill Cosby’s career is in shambles. Mike Tyson may be making hilarious cameos in bro buddy comedies, but War Machine is a pariah. Sean Penn might still be getting the chance to right embarrassing 10,000 words about El Chapo for a major publication, but Casey Affleck’s Oscar win was tainted by misconduct allegations from the moment the presenters called his name. He won, but we were mad about it! Charlie Sheen is a laughingstock. The career of James Deen, the biggest porn star of his generation, has gone flaccid.
Not all DIY justice leads to a neat and tidy outcome. Over the last few years, perhaps emboldened by the courage of Bill Cosby’s accusers, women in comedy communities across the US have banded together to push alleged sexual abusers out. In one case in particular, a well-known chain of improvisation schools was ensnared in accusations against a male comic who performed at one of their facilities. In another case, a well-known radio host was ousted from his post for behavior that hardly met the legal definition of sexual misconduct. And, after years of utterly failing sexual assault survivors, college campuses across the country now face pressure to more zealously pursue actions that deny due process to those accused.
Until very recently, if they were big enough, it was pretty much impossible to bring an abusive male celebrity down. And, to be sure, not every sexual misconduct allegation against a famous man leads to the end of his career, nor should it.
Six years ago, Anna Holmes wrote a column for the New York Times called The Disposable Woman, about how the public was able to overlook the crimes of Charlie Sheen because greed and moralizing tolerate abuse from a man like Charlie Sheen toward women like those who accused him of misdeeds.
“CBS executives, not to mention the millions of viewers of his ‘family’ sitcom ‘Two and a Half Men,’ have consistently turned a blind eye toward Mr. Sheen’s history of abusing women,” Holmes wrote. “Part of this, of course, is about money. The actor’s F-18 of an id—to borrow a metaphor from Mr. Sheen himself—had long provided the show a steady stream of free publicity. It also helped make Mr. Sheen the highest-paid actor on television, at $1.2 million an episode.”
Like Sheen, Bill O’Reilly was a money maker for his corporate home. But one obvious difference between then and now is that then, advertisers shrugged. Not so today. Then, the audience was able to let it slide. Now, not so much. Not even the people who watch Fox News—or at least the companies advertising to them—are willing to let it go. The Sheen story was only six years ago.
The way we, the public, handle well-founded sexual misconduct allegations is changing. A cynic would say that O’Reilly’s ouster, so closely following the ouster of his brother-in-arms Roger Ailes from the same channel may be a couple of flukish victories for a cause that will always be a Sisyphean task for people who believe women should be taken seriously and sexual abuse should not be tolerated. But a big-picture realist would say it shows that right now, we may be nearing the crest of a cultural sea change.
Maybe Trump was the exception, and O’Reilly—who the President praised as “a good person” just two weeks before Fox let him go in response to the outrage over him being such a bad one—is the new rule.