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The men of ‘Arrested Development’ and the middle ground myth

Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, and the problem with "agreeing with everybody."

Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor attend the Netflix Arrested Development Season 5 Premiere in Los Angeles, California, on May 17, 2018. CREDIT: LISA O'CONNOR/AFP/Getty Images
Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor attend the Netflix Arrested Development Season 5 Premiere in Los Angeles, California, on May 17, 2018. CREDIT: LISA O'CONNOR/AFP/Getty Images

Jeffrey Tambor has said that he verbally harassed Jessica Walter on the set of Arrested Development. Walter has confirmed it. None of their castmates have disputed this.

And yet: When the subject came up in a cast roundtable with The New York Times, her male castmates gave a master class in how not to talk to a colleague who is describing such harassment, its severity, and its impact. The headline here goes to Jason Bateman, whose repeated efforts to diminish and dismiss Walter’s experience were so appalling that he issued a lengthy apology via Twitter early Thursday morning.

During the roundtable interview, the New York Times’ Sopan Deb brought up a recent Hollywood Reporter piece on Tambor, in which Tambor first admitted that he’d had what he referred to as a “blow up” on the Arrested Development set with Walter. (At the time, Walter told THR through her representative that she “d[id] not wish to talk about Jeffrey Tambor.”) Here’s what happened when the Times referenced Tambor “lashing out” at Walter:

BATEMAN: Which we’ve all done, by the way.

WALTER: Oh! You’ve never yelled at me.

BATEMAN: Not to belittle what happened.

WALTER: You’ve never yelled at me like that.

BATEMAN: But this is a family and families, you know, have love, laughter, arguments — again, not to belittle it, but a lot of stuff happens in 15 years. I know nothing about “Transparent” but I do know a lot about “Arrested Development.” And I can say that no matter what anybody in this room has ever done — and we’ve all done a lot, with each other, for each other, against each other — I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I have zero complaints.

It is very good to know that Bateman, who was not, in fact, the target of Tambor’s vitriol, has zero complaints!

Later on in the interview, Bateman said, “Again, not to belittle it or excuse it or anything, but in the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, ‘difficult.'” Walter had this to say:

WALTER [THROUGH TEARS]: Let me just say one thing that I just realized in this conversation. I have to let go of being angry at him. He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go. [Turns to Tambor.] And I have to give you a chance to, you know, for us to be friends again.

TAMBOR: Absolutely.

WALTER: But it’s hard because honestly — Jason says this happens all the time. In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set. And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now. I just let it go right here, for The New York Times.

BATEMAN: She didn’t give it up for anybody else.

[TONY] HALE: But I will say, to Jason’s point, we can be honest about the fact that — and not to build a thing — we’ve all had moments.

WALTER: But not like that, not like that. That was bad.

Walter, who has been a working actress since 1962 — which is to say, seven years before Bateman was born — could not be clearer here about her uniquely disturbing experience with Tambor: “I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set.” But Bateman proceeds to spend the duration of the interview undermining Walter and scrambling to defend Tambor, even though, it bears repeating, it was Tambor, not Walter, who first spoke about this incident publicly. (For her part, Walter said she was only talking about it because Tambor discussed it with THR. “I never would have brought it up.”)

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It’s not just Bateman who fails his female colleague. Tony Hale, too, pitched in on the effort to minimize Tambor’s verbal abuse by bringing the experience Walter described “through tears,” as the Times reports, down to “we’ve all had moments.” And after Walter spoke about being yelled at by Tambor, Will Arnett jumped in with a joke about keying Bateman’s car. Instead of allowing the space for Walter’s actual experience — or showing any support for her by listening and validating what she said — Arnett went with a cheap crack to take the spotlight off Tambor’s misconduct, for the sake of putting Tambor and Bateman at ease.

Alia Shawkat was the only other female member of the cast present for this interview and, in a shocking twist, was also the only person to stand up for Walter and against Tambor’s harassment. “But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” she said, responding to Bateman’s assertion that Tambor’s behavior isn’t uncommon among actors. “And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently.”

To which Bateman later replied:

“What we do for a living is not normal, and therefore the process is not normal sometimes, and to expect it to be normal is to not understand what happens on set. Again, not to excuse it, Alia, but to be surprised by people having a wobbly route to their goal, their process — it’s very rarely predictable. All I can say, personally, is I have never learned more from an actor that I’ve worked with than Jeffrey Tambor. And I consider him one of my favorite, most valued people in my life.”

The word “normalize” is right up there with “resistance” and “feminism” as being so overused in this Current Political Moment™ that it runs the risk of losing all meaning. But the gentlemen of Arrested Development are offering up quite the object lesson in how normalization works. What does it look like to normalize harassment? It looks a lot like this: Taking what a person describes as a superlatively dark experience in a 60-year career and repackaging it as “moments.” Saying “not to belittle it or excuse it” before going on to belittle and excuse it.

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It involves taking something that is — obviously, objectively, are-we-seriously-still-not-clear-about-this-ly — not normal, and saying that under the magical circumstances of your extraordinary workplace, it’s reasonable to assume that anyone could be susceptible to suddenly behaving in an abusive way. Acting, you see, is “not normal” and therefore “to expect it to be normal is to not understand what happens on set.”

Jessica Walter has been a professional actress longer than Bateman has been alive, but he positions himself as the authority on what is and is not “normal” on a set, all in the name of justifying unjustifiable behavior.

In a Lainey Gossip post about this interview, Elaine Lui brings up this excellent point about “so-called well-meaning men”:

“What’s been done here is an example of how women can be silenced and disadvantaged, even in non-violent ways, by so-called well-meaning men. And it illuminates an entire spectrum of conditioned and institutionalised misogyny. So it’s not just the monsters that have to be handled. Sometimes it’s the “nice guys” who disappoint you the most.”

In Bateman’s comments, you can read the rush to be reasonable. There’s this sense that between two opposites, the most rational position is the halfway point — that an objective third party, called upon to comment, would seek middle ground between two people who disagree. And if you do that, if you step in and say “look, he has a point and she has a point; let’s find a compromise here,” you get to feel like you’re the one with the level head. The one who sees both sides. The one whose stance is morally unimpeachable.

The most telling example of this in the Arrested Development piece is David Cross, who chimes in near the end of the interview to say, “I agree with everybody.” 

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In a situation like this one — where there is a person who verbally abused another person and there is zero question as to whether or not this abuse occurred and what it entailed — the reasonable position is not the middle ground. There is no middle ground to take. The reasonable position is the one Bateman came around to in the last part of his multi-tweet apology: “There’s never any excuse for abuse.”

What’s especially striking in the interview is not just how Walter’s male colleagues attempt to minimize what Tambor did to her but how she, too, tries to minimize it — as victims of abuse so often do. Likely due to the fact that Tambor was fired from Transparent amid sexual harassment allegations (which Tambor denies), Walter goes out of her way to say that Tambor “never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever.”

Hers is a telling, troubling twist we’re seeing in these post-Weinstein months: That before a person can claim their status as a victim of the violence or harassment they endured, they must first clarify the types of violence or harassment they didn’t endure, and express gratitude for the fact that they weren’t as victimized as somebody else. At least it wasn’t this. It could have been that. There is so much qualifying about what didn’t happen that you could almost forget what did happen, which was still a violation, and a considerable one.