If, hypothetically speaking, you are a man who won his first and, to date, only Oscar off a movie produced and championed by Harvey Weinstein and therefore are the inadvertent beneficiary of a serial sexual predator whose depths of depravity are still being revealed to the public; if the career, wealth, and fame you enjoy to this day are at least in part due to the aforementioned sex monster’s assistance, encouragement, and influence; if you are being interviewed about sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood amid a reckoning among sexual violence against women the likes of which our country has never seen — perhaps, if this is the space you occupy, you should proceed with humility and caution when discussing this #MeToo moment.
But in an interview with Peter Travers published this week, Matt Damon talked at length about sexual misconduct. And while he started out in a great place, speaking broadly about “this watershed moment” and how “wonderful” it is that “women are feeling empowered to tell their stories, and it’s totally necessary,” he almost immediately took a turn for the terrible.
First came a long, rambling riff on how not all sexual abuse is all that bad:
I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior, right? And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right? You know, we see somebody like Al Franken, right? — I personally would have preferred if they had an Ethics Committee investigation, you know what I mean? It’s like at what point — you know, we’re so energized to kind of get retribution, I think.
Damon went on to discuss “the Louis C.K. thing.” C.K. forced multiple women with whom he worked — and aspiring female comedians over whom he wielded power and influence — to watch him masturbate. According to Damon, C.K.’s statement (in which the comedian admitted that he was guilty of everything he’d been accused of) was proof that “That’s the sign of somebody who — well, we can work with that.”
“And we live in this culture of outrage and injury, and, you know, that we’re going to have to correct enough to kind of go, ‘Wait a minute. None of us came here perfect.’ You know what I mean?
This culture of outrage and injury? That’s one way to look at it. Another way could be “this culture of rampant sexual violence and actual injury for which widespread outrage is long overdue and is only just beginning to surface.”
Damon disclaimed his thoughts on C.K. with an admission: “I don’t know all the details.” And that’s fine! Not everyone knows all the details about everything. There have been more than 40 men in public life who have made headlines these past few months for this very issue — and that’s just the new allegations made since the New York Times broke the Weinstein story in early October. It is difficult to keep them all straight. That is, in and of itself, an awfully revealing fact about the frequency and ubiquity of sexual violence. But for all you would-be interview subjects out there: It is generally inadvisable to pontificate on a subject as nuanced and volatile as sexual misconduct when you, by your own admission, literally do not know what you are talking about.
Damon’s “fear,” he went on, is that “the clearer signal to men and to younger people is, deny it. Because if you take responsibility for what you did, your life’s going to get ruined.”
Again: That’s one way to look at it. To say their lives were “ruined,” though, seems like a bit of an overstatement, particularly compared to the lives of the people they assaulted, and/or for those like Matt Lauer, who, though he won’t be floating gently down from his perch at the Today show desk in the golden parachute of his dreams, at least already has a pile of $100 million to soften his landing.
Many of the men who have been accused of sexual assault or harassment deny all the charges against them. Some of these men — your R. Kellys, your Woody Allens — continue their careers apace. But some don’t.
Denial has not saved all or even most of the accused men from facing legal, professional, and personal consequences. Harvey Weinstein continues to deny that he has ever raped or sexually assaulted anyone. Just yesterday, he denied coercing Salma Hayek into performing a gratuitous lesbian sex scene in Frida. Bill Cosby denies every single one of the dozens of allegations made against him. Yet both of these men face criminal charges — Weinstein is the subject of police investigations in three separate cities; Cosby will be retried in the spring and, if convicted, could spend a decade in prison — and will see their names forever linked with “serial sexual predator.”
It remains to be seen what will become of men who have “accepted responsibility” for their actions; given the entertainment industry’s love of a comeback, it seems highly unlikely we’ll never hear from C.K. again, to cite one example. Either way, it seems like the “clearer signal to men and younger people” is that more girls and women than you ever imagined have experienced some form of sexual violence, and it is our collective responsibility to not just hold individual offenders accountable but to dismantle the structures that facilitated their abuse and allowed it to flourish.
But I’m interrupting — Damon has more to say.
“I mean, look, as I said, all of that behavior needs to be confronted, but there is a continuum. And on this end of the continuum where you have rape and child molestation or whatever, you know, that’s prison. Right? And that’s what needs to happen. OK? And then we can talk about rehabilitation and everything else. That’s criminal behavior, and it needs to be dealt with that way. The other stuff is just kind of shameful and gross, and I just think … I don’t know Louis C.K.. I’ve never met him. I’m a fan of his, but I don’t imagine he’s going to do those things again. You know what I mean? I imagine the price that he’s paid at this point is so beyond anything that he — I just think that we have to kind of start delineating between what these behaviors are.”
Yes, well, as long as you “don’t imagine” he’ll ever do it again, by all means, let’s get I Love You, Daddy that wide release it deserves!
Grabbing a woman’s ass is sexual assault. (Just ask Taylor Swift.) But Damon describes what Al Franken allegedly did — the accusations include groping, forcible kissing, and ass-grabbing — as “just like a terrible joke.” Damon thinks it’s “important” to distinguish between varying degrees of misconduct. But when talking about Weinstein, he maintains he did not know the extent of Weinstein’s violence — he knew only that Weinstein was “a bully” and “a womanizer” — which would suggest that perhaps it is all the more critical to see these supposedly softer forms of harassment as unacceptable. In dismissing that behavior when he first witnessed and heard about it, Damon was able to file Weinstein away in the “gross but not dangerous” category, which, as the world know nows, is not where he belonged.
Damon also contradicts himself when it comes to his stance on believing victims. In response to a question about what he would do with a “gray area” allegation regarding someone he knew personally, Damon says, “I guess it depends on the situation and the allegation and how believable I think it is.” He then laments that “with social media, these stories get — it’s like they get gasoline poured on them.” Should such a claim be made against him, he says, “I would be scorched earth… You are not taking my name and my reputation from me. I’ve worked too hard for it.”
But later on, he says, “I think that it’s important, especially in that, you know, we believe every woman who’s coming forward with one of these stories needs to be listened to and heard.” He also says that he’s been taken aback by revelations about women in his own life:
“I think one of the surprising things for me has been the extent to which my female friends, as, I think, of all the ones I’ve talked to in the last year since all this stuff started happening — I can’t think of any of them who don’t have a story at some point in their life. And most of them have more than one.”
So it’s not really clear what exactly qualifies as a “believable” claim in Damon’s estimation — or why, if he knows so many women who have been abused, he thinks it’s necessary to focus his fear on false allegations (of which there are few) and reputation-salvaging techniques for the guilty (who, just a thought, don’t deserve their sterling reputations).
Damon’s “optimistic spin” is that “this is like 1 percent of the guys who are losing their careers. It’s not everybody. It just feels like it. There’s so many great men and women in the movie business. So many great people. It’s such a wonderful collection of people overall. And these rotten horrible apples are getting weeded out right now.”
Not to “well, actually” this guy but, well, actually: Misogyny in Hollywood is a systemic issue, as it is throughout every industry in the United States, in every aspect of our society. This is not a situation in which just a few bad guys need to be taken out with the trash so business as usual can resume. Business as usual is the problem. Damon, who in his 20 years in Hollywood has never worked on a single film with a female director, should probably know that by now.