“In light of the Ramin Gray Case, how can we find a route to rehabilitation?”, asked Alastair Smith’s editorial in The Stage last week. I read the headline on the glowing screen of my mobile phone, in the morning half-light, in which my waking brain had decided, unwisely, to feed itself on the multifariously anxiety-provoking contents of an average Twitter newsfeed. A few days previously, I’d started my day with a horrendously self-aggrandising Guardian piece by a male academic who explained that he’d basically solved #MeToo by reading some female authors (not even contemporary ones – female authors so well-known, so canon, that it’s frankly frightening that he’d managed to forge a career while ignorant of them). Another morning started with the news that comedian Aziz Ansari’s new tour is “a cry against extreme wokeness”. Another with Louis C K’s “redemption” by means of an underground surprise gig. The entirety of last week was saturated with the tense drip-feed of news surrounding the nomination of Brett Kavenaugh to the Supreme Court, accompanied by the gradual, agonising humiliation of Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony of horrific sexual assault was first undermined, then ignored.
When I think about the evolution of #MeToo – from furious, righteous movement of experience-sharing, to glib marketing buzzword, to what looks an awful lot like a return to the status quo – I get a bit demoralised. The fact that most of the conversations around #MeToo (and from here on, I’m going to focus in on the theatre world) take place on social media gives the movement a distinct quality. It’s uniquely painful and draining for women and men who’ve suffered harassment or workplace abuse to move through online social spaces that vibrate with a constant hum of traumatic rehashings and impotent searches for justice, weaving in and out of memes and life updates and theatre plugs. This constant low hum of discussion is also deceptive. It looks and sounds like change, more often than it is. And people who aren’t affected by it and have no investment in it can easily interpret it as ‘mob justice’ or ‘the pendulum having swung too far’.
A year on from #MeToo, who’s ACTUALLY suffered? Ramin Gray has lost his job under circumstances that, as Alastair Smith’s article explains, are far from clear (but they relate to workplace behaviour, not sexual harassment). Kevin Spacey is under investigation for sexual assault claims. A few people have found that Twitter has become a bit uncomfortable for them, so they’ve taken quiet hiatuses. Max Stafford-Clark was ousted from Out of Joint (but given that he was aged 77, and in recovery from a stroke, his career at the company probably would have ended in the next few years anyway).
You can count the number of people who’ve lost their careers in theatre, in the aftermath of #MeToo, on the fingers of one hand. You’d probably need the digits of a whole jazzhands-waving West End chorus line to count how many abusers are still out there, thanking their lucky stars that things seem to be simmering down. And their numbers are overshadowed by the many, many people who haven’t abused anyone, but who’ve still suffered. As Caroline Framke’s Vox article asked: what about the great art by women we’ve lost? Months on, I’m also interested in the psychological impact #MeToo has had on all the people who spoke out and saw nothing happen. On the people in the industry who suddenly found themselves with a huge amount of emotional mopping up to do, both theirs and other peoples’. And who were left with an intractable mass of unfairness parked at their doors, the kind of complex situations which they could talk and talk and talk about, without coming any closer to a solution that felt fair or achievable.
The dismally small number of scalps that #MeToo has claimed is a reflection of a justice system that makes it catastrophically difficult to secure convictions, and an industry that’s understandably cautious about taking action when there’s anything less than cast iron proof. It takes an awful, awful lot for allegations around someone for accusations to gather weight. And when they do, even if all we hear about are a few dodgy-sounding but potentially harmless incidents, I strongly suspect that, as with Spacey, they’re just a tiny snapshot of patterns of behaviour that go back years. No one loses their job for one off-colour remark or shouted insult or stray hand. We’re talking a fundamentally, deeply fucked-up relationship with the people they hold power over.
There might be ways to rehabilitate abusers. But letting them stew in self-imposed social media exile for a few months before allowing them to return as though nothing happened definitely isn’t one of them – even if they’ve been reading Simone De Beauvoir, not watching Jordan Petersen videos and wanking. And any other solution for rehabilitation seems like it would rely on an exceptional amount of emotional labour from everyone around them – time, energy and effort that they’ve shown they’re not worthy of.
Generalisation time: the arts are kept afloat by the underpaid labour of young people (disproportionately female), a large proportion of whom won’t find their footholds solidifying into lofty perches in power. In an industry built on precarity and near-infinite supply of eager workers, an abuser’s influence is outsize. They are able to poison a whole organisation, forcing everyone around them into complicity or silence – or losing their jobs. They are able to make the people they’re attracted to or who are ‘on their side’ feel very, very special (briefly) then discard them with impunity. And to shout down anyone who objects.
If someone can’t be utterly relied on to treat younger, vulnerable workers as human beings, they shouldn’t be working in the arts. If someone doesn’t respect women (all women, not just the ones they have no chance of sleeping with) as equals, they shouldn’t be working in the arts. In any capacity. No one is “owed” or “deserves” jobs in theatre. Each available role has hundreds of people who could do a wonderful job of it. If someone shows they aren’t worthy of that coveted prize of a position, they should lose it. Simple.
Taking away someone’s prime job in the theatre industry isn’t the same as “locking them away and throwing away the key” (as one commenter on Twitter worried). They can still breed miniature goats or write an awful novel or hike through the Pyranees or get a job in pretty much any other field. They’ll fundamentally be fine. Or at least, they’ll be as fine as all the other people who’ve lost much less well-paid jobs in the industry through no fault of their own. Like all the performers who’ve found it impossible to juggle work with having small children (how has the first West End job share only happened this month?). Or the people whose organisations have been defunded. Or the people who’ve struggled with mental health problems, or physical health problems, or with the slightly frightening work-life balances that are seen as ‘normal’. If there’s a queue for rehabilitation, all the above people should get right to the front.
Talking about an issue a lot sometimes feels like solving it, but sexual harassment and abuses of power in the industry are something that’s too big, too intractable, to be filed away, ‘case closed’. A year on from the Weinstein revelations, #MeToo is just beginning – and the real work involves turning conversations into action, not reversing the few decisive steps we’ve made.
For more on power abuses in the theatre industry, read Alice Saville’s other columns No More Heroes and Sexual harassment in the theatre industry won’t end until it’s everyone’s problem.