After Jimmy Kimmel’s theatrics, John Oliver shows a better way to confront an accused harasser

John Oliver gets it right.
John Oliver gets it right.
Image: Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP
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For many men, the past few months have been perspective-shifting: Turns out women weren’t exaggerating how bad sexism and sexual harassment is, after all. Crazy!

Now “woke” to women’s hellish reality, many of these men want to be better feminists. This pursuit demands they believe and defend women’s allegations of sexual misconduct—as women and gender-queer people have been doing for centuries. Late-night television hosts Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver have eagerly embraced this charge—though one is doing it far better than the other.

Last week, Kimmel, the host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, got into a Twitter feud with Alabama Republican senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of “dating” and sexually assaulting teenage girls (charges Moore denies). After Kimmel sent a writer from his show to heckle Moore at an event in Alabama, Moore tweeted that if Kimmel wants to critique Moore’s Christian values, he can “come down here to Alabama and do it man to man.” Kimmel responded by telling Moore on live TV that “There is no one I would love to fight more than you.” Nothing like a good old pseudo-chivalrous battle over women’s rights!

Kimmel clearly had good intentions; And as powerful men continue to be ousted as penis-flashing predators, it’s refreshing to see a male celebrity using his platform to fight sexual misconduct. But also: Please. Women do not need men to be our knights in shining armor, threatening fisticuffs for our honor. The spat was a late-night TV stunt, and in taking the bait, Kimmel makes the whole thing about himself.

His message—”Look at me, I’m a good guy!”—is problematic in its own way. The truth is that there’s no such thing as “good guys” and “bad guys,” as my colleague Thomas Page McBee has written in Quartz. That binary ignores the systemic sexism that creates and upholds toxic masculinity. What women need are male allies who are willing to share the burden of this moment of cultural reckoning—to engage other men in difficult, real conversations about patriarchy, sexism, the wrongs of the past, the path for the future.

In this, British comedian John Oliver sets a strong example. While chairing a panel hosted by the Tribeca Institute on Dec. 4, Oliver confronted the actor Dustin Hoffman about actress Anna Graham Hunter’s allegation that Hoffman harassed and groped her during the filming of the 1985 film, Death of A Salesman, when she was 17 years old. The panel was part of an anniversary screening of the 1997 film Wag the Dog, which Hoffman starred in.

The tense exchange, first reported by the Washington Post, began when Oliver alluded to Hunter’s allegation by saying, “This is something we’re going to have to talk about because… it’s hanging in the air.”

Caught off-guard, Hoffman devolved into intense self-defense: ”I still don’t know who this woman is,” he said, “I never met her; if I met her, it was in concert with other people.” Though Hoffman previously offered a conditional apology for anything he “might have done” to make Hunter uncomfortable, while speaking with Oliver he repeatedly noted that he didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong.

“First of all, it didn’t happen, the way she reported,” said Hoffman, before emphasizing that this harassment allegation is not representative of what he is like today. Oliver refused to accept this excuse:

“It’s ‘not reflective of who I am’—it’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off,” Oliver told Hoffman. “It is reflective of who you were. If you’ve given no evidence to show it didn’t [happen] then there was a period of time for a while when you were a creeper around women. It feels like a cop-out to say ‘it wasn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”

Hoffman responded by accusing Oliver of “putting [him] on display,” then asked whether him if he really believes “this stuff you read.” “Yes,” Oliver replied. “Because there’s no point in [an accuser] lying.” “Well, there’s a point in her not bringing it up for 40 years,” Hoffman rebutted. “Oh Dustin,” said Oliver, putting his head in his hand. You can watch the full exchange, recorded by a Washington Post reporter, here.

Oliver’s pushback in the conversation with Hoffman is not earth-shattering. Oliver does not deserve of major accolades for doing the emotional labor women have always shouldered. But Oliver’s stance does model the bare minimum that men—especially powerful men—can do to fight sexism.

Instead of making the exchange about himself or inciting a theatrical punishment, Oliver attempts to engage Hoffman in a genuine conversation, using fair and even-keeled questions to push his perspective on the implications of his alleged abuse. He tries to break through Hoffman’s reflexive defensiveness by bringing up the harm Hunter describes experiencing.

In a recent interview with Wade Davis, an NFL player turned feminist advocate, Quartz asked if there is a benchmark that men can work toward in becoming better feminists. Feminist nirvana isn’t a state one can reach of course, but Davis offered men a useful temporary goal:

“When [you] feel confident enough to challenge other men in spaces when they are being problematic in various ways. And not just challenge a stranger, but challenge your friends, challenge the people who we actually respect and there’s something to lose. Because it’s really easy to challenge a stranger when you’re never going to see them again. But are you willing to lose a close friend who will not stop being sexist, misogynistic, or homophobic? That willingness is a destination worth working towards.”

In today’s climate, Oliver surely had more to gain than to lose in confronting Hoffman for his alleged harassment. Still, this willingness to calmly and non-violently challenge another man’s sexism is beyond many men’s comfort zone—and it’s a practice worth aspiring to.