“Arrested Development” and how “good guys” can have their eyes wide shut towards harassment

Jeffrey Tambor (L) and Jason Bateman in Arrested Development. 

It’s pretty apt that in the photo session for Sopan Deb’s New York Times article about Arrested Development that most of the castmembers shut their eyes.

It was a nod at awkward family portraits in which everyone misses the mark to smile and stare into the camera. But given what was brought up during Deb’s interview session, which included Jeffrey Tambor’s sexual harrassment and verbal abuse on the set of Transparent as well as Arrested Development co-star Jessica Walter’s own story of Tambor’s verbal abuse (as addressed in The Hollywood Reporter‘s interview with Tambor), the shut eyes are also indicative of the men of Arrested Development unwilling to condemn the behavior of one of their own and address their own gender biases in the process.

Unfortunately, Jason Bateman, someone considered by many people to be one of Hollywood’s “good guys,” was the ring leader of the Eyes Wide Shut brigade that day, starting off the topic of Tambor’s misconduct by asserting he wouldn’t do Arrested Development without Tambor, allowing Tambor the unearned grace of posturing false contrition at his past wrongdoing, saying how he promised the cast he wouldn’t be “a distraction.” As if what he’s done in the past could be whittled down to just that. Not being prepared for a scene or being routinely late to set is a “distraction.” Being a person who inflicts violence on others is a whole different beast.

It’s when Walter relates her own account of Tambor’s violence that Bateman really takes things up a notch.

Walter tries to discuss how Tambor lashed out at her on set. Throughout the conversation, Bateman tries to negate Walter’s experience by saying seemingly innocuous but just as violent phrases as “not to belittle the situation” or “not to excuse it,” the implied “but” in both situations being his attempts to explain away what happened in what he called “context.”

“…[N]ot 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.’ And when you’re in a privileged position to hire people, or have an influence in who does get hired, you make phone calls. And you say, ‘Hey, so I’ve heard X about person Y, tell me about that.’ And waht you learn is context,” he said. “And you learn about character and you learn about work habits, work ethics, and you start to understand. Because it’s a very amorphous process, this sort of [expletive] that we do, you know, making up fake life. It’s a weird thing, and it’s a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes.”

None of this makes any sense. Yes, actors have discussed how creating characters often has the ill side-effect of them taking their work home with them. Sometimes actors go to dark places when developing characterizations. But none of that mental exercise (especially when it comes to a comedy) has anything to do with treating people on set with decorum and decency. None of it has anything to do with creating a positive, encouraging working environment. Acting isn’t just “a weird thing” that has it’s own rules or should be thought of as “a breeding ground for atypical behavior.” Acting is a talent, but it’s also a job. A job that comes with the same types of protocols that every other job has (or should have). Being a a creative doesn’t give license for being a bully, abusive, or manipulative. Regardless of what society has indoctrinated us to believe, there is no excuse for anyone–genius or otherwise–to treat someone without regard.

What’s amazing is that Bateman not only mansplains the industry to Walter, his senior in both age and years in the business, but to fellow co-star Alia Shawkat, the only person (and only other woman castmember present) to defend Walter from her fellow co-stars.

“…[T]hat doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” she said. “And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently.”

But still, Shawkat was lectured about “context” by Bateman and the other co-stars, Tony Hale and Will Arnett, chimed in with attempts to make light of the subject, saying how they’ve all gotten on each other’s nerves at one point in their 15-year span together on Arrested Development. David Cross, who had already been accused of making racist and sexist jokes at the expense of comedian Charlene Yi, even went as far as to allude that Walter was to blame for her own mistreatment.

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“…I think it’s important to note–and it hasn’t been noted–that this kind of behavior that’s being described, it didn’t just come out of the blue,” he said. “It wasn’t zero to 60. There is a cumulative effect sometimes.”

It was after being railroaded throughout the interview that Walter, through tears, gave an admission of forgiveness that felt, to me, much more like a woman beaten into submission, gaslit into believing the way out of it was to be submissive and give in.

“Let me just say one thing that I just realized in this conversation. I have to let go of being angry with 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.”

“But,” she added,  “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.”

The phrase “I have to let it go” struck a chord in me. It’s a phrase that, to me, states how she realized she would never get anywhere trying to be successfully heard in advocating for herself. To me, it feels like the statement was her actually admitting that the only thing she could do at that moment was to just accept what happened and deal with it on her own, because her own co-workers, who were there as she was crying, refused to see past their own noses and Tambor’s presence.

NPR’s Linda Holmes similarly dissected Walter’s statement of forgiveness and its forced nature.

What does have to mean here? Does it mean “should”? It could. Does it mean “want to”? It could. But Bateman has already declared at the top of the conversation that if she isn’t over it and she doesn’t want to work with Tambor, he’s already chosen a side. Not only that, but if anyone else wants to go on without Tambor over his admitted behavior, as Transparent did with his admitted and alleged behavior, Bateman will not allow it. So maybe have to from Walter just means … have to. I have to. This is my work. It is other people’s work. It’s loved by fans. It’s loved by me. Maybe it isn’t that, but what else could she have said, given what had already happened?

The statement of “have to” also underlines another excuse many men in power make when explaining away their own or others’ abusive attacks in the workplace–“we’re a family.” The same thing is said in the New York Times piece, with Bateman saying, “this is a family.” Lots of women at work in various industries have been told the “family” lie. I’ve been told the “family” lie when facing my own experience of emotional violation at a job. “We’re like family.” What, I ask, does the concept of “family” mean to people who say this in the wake of a colleague’s admission of pain and fear? In their mind, does “family” mean that abuse is tolerated? Does it mean people fly off the handle for no reason? Does it mean the abused person is stuck in their position because you can’t change your “family”?

You can’t change who you’re related to, but you can change your job, because, surprise surprise, your job isn’t your family. Your co-workers aren’t (usually) your family, and even if they were, you can still quit. And if we take it one step further, if your own family is emotionally abusive, you can save yourself and remove yourself from the situation. In other words, to me, a person in a state of power telling an emotionally violated co-worker “we’re like family” is in effect telling someone “You’re helpless in this situation. You have no power because you can’t change anything. Your life is predetermined, and I’ve determined your life is what make it.” To the person saying “we’re like family,” its their way of holding the power, the control, over their other so-called “family” members’ heads.

There are tons of lessons to take away from this powerful and disturbing New York Times interview. The most apparent lesson is how deeply entrenched the boys’ club mentality is in society, even in the minds of those we think the “good guys.” Bateman’s made his entire career from being “the good guy,” the “inoffensive guy,” the “under the radar guy.” How he acted in that interview says a lot about the underside of that type of shtick. Yes, he issued a lengthy (for Twitter) apology about how he wrongfully dismissed Walter’s valid anguish.

Apologies are meaningful–it’s great he said something instead of nothing– but it’s sad that it’s only now, after being dragged through the Twitter streets, that he’s admitting wrongdoing. It’s great that he’s now “horrified” about his actions, but hopefully some of that horror also includes the fact that if it weren’t for the backlash, he might not have ever realized how wrong he actually was. Ditto for Hale, who tweeted a statement saying he has personally apologized to Walter for undermining her.

[EDIT: David Cross has also now stated he has “unequivocally” apologized to Walter]

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What I hope the men of Arrested Development take from this event–and what I hope all men following this story take from it–is that checking one’s privilege goes beyond just using hashtags or wearing special pins. It involves the taxing, arduous, and scary process of examining how your various privileges define your place in society and to what extent they define how you view yourself as a person. The self-exploration should spawn some uncomfortable moments–the horror Bateman is feeling now is precisely what he should be feeling–but from that exploration should come a deeper understanding of the self. After that, though, it’s time for action. It’s time to show what you’ve learned by supporting others, listening to others, and doing what it takes to be better than you were before. This also includes calling out other men who are exhibiting harmful, violent, repugnant behavior. Instead of praising Tambor for doing the least amount of work possible towards contrition, they should have been holding him accountable for his actions the moment they heard about Walter’s story. If they truly acted as “family,” they would have done so.

Do I think Bateman, Hale, and Arnett are bad guys who aren’t worthy of redemption? No. But I do think that every guy, including the “good guys,” have to think twice about how they relate to each other and how they relate to women. Too often, women are put in Walter’s position of being put down so much they concede their own point just to keep the peace. If the good guys actually want to be good, then they should check themselves and each other. ♦

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