Balancing Act: What’s Behind That Al Franken Photo?

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Heidi Stevens nails it in this column about why women are so fed up with sexist behavior and how many of us (including men) are searching for a better way forward.

Chicago Tribune

Here’s what I see when I look at that Al Franken photo:

I see a guy marking his territory.
I see a guy making sure we know this woman doesn’t belong here, not really.
I see a guy playing to other guys, who do belong.
I see a guy with a knowing grin, secure in his knowledge that he’s identified a rightful foil, an interloper, an “other,” and can continue to make her the butt of his jokes.

Are his hands hovering or actually touching her breasts? I watched that debate play out all over social media, and I understand why. Touch is a powerful thing. More powerful than feigned touch.

But if we’re putting Franken in a larger context of men accused of sexual misconduct, and I think we are, whether there’s a wisp of air between his hands and Leeann Tweeden’s flak vest isn’t really the point.

Tweeden was on a USO tour to the Middle East, her eighth since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, she writes. Franken was the headliner, and he wrote a skit that required him to go in for a kiss. Tweeden planned to dodge the kiss, but she said Franken wouldn’t stop badgering her to rehearse it with her pre-show.

“He came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth,” Tweeden writes in a post released Thursday. “I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it next time.”

Franken reacted like a scorned schoolboy, allegedly drawing devil horns on the headshots Tweeden was autographing for the troops and lobbing petty barbs her way the rest of the two-week tour.

On the C-17 plane, on the 36-hour flight home, she writes, she fell asleep and he went in for the now infamous grab. Ha ha, watch this.

All of these stories, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, James Toback, Brett Ratner, Andy Dick, Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the p _ _ “, are rooted in the same inclination to treat women as props.

Disposable, interchangeable, optional props, here in service of the real deal (the men) and, if not properly humiliated, in danger of forgetting their place.

Comedy, Franken’s pre-Senate home, is a boys club. We’ve been reminded of this repeatedly since sexual harassment allegations started swirling around other comedians.

So are Hollywood, politics, the workplace, the mall … the world?

Enough. Enough acting like men got here first and women showed up to spoil the fun. Enough acting like, actually, women can be fun, as long as you can hit on them. Enough acting like you don’t know how to act, what to say, where to look because, I don’t know, the rules just keep changing.

Here are the rules: Women belong here, wherever here is. Women have, in fact, been here all along, whether men want to acknowledge it or not.

Women didn’t “enter” the workplace in the ’70s. Women were nurses in the Revolutionary War and every war since.

They crammed into factories in the early 1900s. They’ve cooked and cleaned and care-taken and created art, music, scientific discoveries, since the beginning of time.

Are men and women working side-by-side in more industries than we used to? Yes. Are traditional male-only bastions of power, Congress, C-17s, corporate board rooms, directors’ chairs, becoming a tiny bit closer to looking more like the 50-50 population they serve?

Yes. And that’s progress, even if it means adopting new behavior. This isn’t a boys school/girls school mixer. It’s life. We’d do well to get better at working with one another.

When I look at that Al Franken photo, I see we have a ways to go. I see a guy who encounters a woman at work, Tweeden was every bit as much at work on that USO tour as Franken was, and decides she doesn’t belong there, not really. Not in the way he does. Not in the important ways.

Maybe he doesn’t treat his female Senate colleagues that way. Maybe he doesn’t treat the female pages and interns that way. Maybe he’d behave differently on a 2018 tour.

I like his politics and I’ve laughed at his books and I’d like to believe he’s evolved, but I wouldn’t know. I don’t work with him.

What I know, what we all know, in the wake of Weinstein opening the floodgates, is that photo, that rehearsal, these latest allegations, don’t exist in a vacuum.

Women are fed up and speaking up. So are a bunch of men. Many (most?) of us, regardless of gender, are searching, hungering for a better way forward.

We have to start by believing, truly believing, that women belong. Not as props, not as foils, not in service to men.

This is a truth as old as time. It’s beyond time to start living by it.

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