Why we can’t let go of the Franken question
By MONICA HESSE | The Washington Post | Published: July 26, 2019
Thanks to a 12,000-word New Yorker article, we now have new vehicle to think about Al Franken, perhaps more deeply than anyone ever thought about Al Franken.
The “Saturday Night Live” star-turned-U.S. senator resigned in 2017 after eight women accused him of inappropriately touching or kissing them at various points in his career. But according to the article, written by the renowned political-investigative reporter Jane Mayer, his resignation was a railroading. Facts about the initial accusation were misrepresented, she writes. She quotes sources who see Franken as a “cautionary tale,” a blundering but decent man whose propensity for “social kissing” swept him up along with genuine villains.
It’s worth reading. For one reason, it’s fascinating to watch a skilled investigative journalist comb through the shrapnel of a story that nearly everyone else abandoned after it exploded. For another, it’s fascinating to watch a skilled journalist dig into some assertions so thoroughly — Mayer carefully dismantles Leeann Tweeden’s claim that Franken had written a USO tour’s raunchy skit just so he could kiss her, for example — but breeze past others.
For example: If someone is just a “physical person,” as Franken said he is, why does that physicality so often manifest only around young women? Why do so many overly friendly elected officials seem to know not to “socially kiss” other men?
For many observers, Al Franken is the razor’s-edge of this whole conversation about harassment, punishment and redemption. If we can determine the appropriate response to someone whose actions were not criminal but merely gross, then we’ll have a template for going forward. If we can figure out how to think about Al Franken, we can figure out how to think about anybody.
Somehow, the matter of Al Franken’s resignation has become the Zapruder film of the modern era. Just tell us the right answer so we can all get off this grassy knoll.
In the middle of the New Yorker piece, there’s a laugh-out-loud line, though I don’t think it was intended as such. While discussing the aforementioned raunchy skit — the one where Tweeden says Franken “mashed his face” against hers in rehearsals — Mayer interviews a Franken defender. The defender insists that Franken’s interactions were on the up-and-up: “All the scripts had been approved by the Army.”
This logic is hilarious and confounding. The U.S. Army approving a skit doesn’t make it inoffensive; the Army itself has been a petri dish of harassment and assault. It is not a reliable arbiter of taste.
But here’s the thing, which I’ve been wrestling with ever since reading the article: I’d wager that no institutions in 2006 would be reliable arbiters of 2019 taste. Our collective taste was bad then. Many mainstream cultural icons made inappropriate, sexist, homophobic jokes. We still loved Bill Cosby. We laughed at and excused a whole manner of things that we shouldn’t have, which is partly why we’re here now, 13 years later, excavating.
Speaking of comedians, Aziz Ansari has a new comedy special on Netflix. It’s worth watching. Ansari, who was himself accused of inappropriate behavior on a date, addresses his own actions in a vulnerable and honest-seeming way that comedians like Louis CK and, yes, Franken, have appeared unable to do. And he turns his lens outward. He encourages his audience to think about their own past selves and our past culture.
How many audience members, for example, bought tickets to “The Hangover” and laughed uproariously at the movie where Bradley Cooper used an LGBT slur — in 2009! — and Zach Galifianakis had a whole scene based off of a derogatory word for people with intellectual disabilities? How many loved “The Office,” where Jim won’t take no for an answer, and Pam encourages Michael to keep hitting on a woman who has already rebuffed him?
I wish we would spend more time in these periods of self-reflection.
I think it’s possible, though it depresses me to say it, that what Al Franken allegedly did would merely have been considered boorish until fairly recently. Mashing a kiss onto an unsuspecting woman? Squirrelly, yes. Raunchy, yes. But punishable? Heck, Adrien Brody did it to Halle Berry on stage at the 2003 Oscars, and we were supposed to be charmed.
Now it’s considered harassment. It should have been considered harassment all along.
Again, taste was bad then. Many of us were dumb. Many of us weren’t, but many of us were. Many of us once bought into culture that we’re now trying desperately to cancel, and to make right.
Which decade’s standards should we apply when we think about Al Franken? Then or now? I don’t think there’s necessarily a right answer to that question, but I do think it’s one of the right questions. How do we deal with behaviors that millions of Americans very wrongly thought was acceptable 20 years ago?
You don’t have to decide that Franken was a bad man in 2006 in order to think he should have resigned in 2017.
You can decide that he might have been considered a fine man then. You can decide that he’s a fine man now, too, that he’s learned and grown — and that he should feel free to run for office again, if he chooses.
You can also decide that even if his past behavior was fine, it’s also OK to want our leaders to be better than fine. It’s OK to want them to define truly good behavior for the rest of us, rather than trundling along, doing what everyone else has been trained to accept.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”