John Oliver's public confrontation of Dustin Hoffman serves as an act of genuine solidarity
John Oliver is the gift that keeps on giving.
Last week, the host of HBO’s politically incisive satirical news show Last Week Tonight was moderating a panel discussion for the 20th anniversary screening of Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Oliver took the opportunity to ask Hoffman about allegations of sexual harassment recently brought against him by Anna Graham Hunter. Hunter was a teenager working on one of Hoffman’s films during the alleged incidents in 1985.
What followed in the next hour were a series of uncomfortable, angry moments between Hoffman and Oliver, witnessed by an audience of hundreds. Hoffman jumped to defend himself with classic responses including (but not limited to) claiming that he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, it was decades ago, sexual humour was a regular occurrence on set, and that Hunter had purposefully waited decades before revealing the allegations. That last excuse elicited a vocal groan from the audience.
Despite the anger from Hoffman and members of the audience, Oliver did not back down.
“It’s ‘not reflective of who I am.’ It’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off. Because it is reflective of who you were,” Oliver said, referencing the apology Hoffman had made weeks ago in response to the allegations. “It feels like a cop-out to say, ‘Well this isn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”
Throughout the confrontation, Oliver remained unapologetic in his stance, especially when asked by a (seemingly incredulous) Hoffman about whether he actually believed Hunter.
“I believe what she wrote, yes,” he answered firmly. “Because there’s no point in her lying.”
Some time after Oliver said this, a voice called out from the audience, “Thank you for believing in women.” The crowd burst into applause.
In that moment, John Oliver proved himself an ally to survivors of sexual violence and harassment. His willingness to place himself in a deeply uncomfortable position for the sake of holding Hoffman accountable, thus opening himself up to denigration from the live audience and the internet at large, is what many survivors have long been demanding from so-called allies.
Too often, the burden of confrontation lies with survivors, who are disproportionately women. Having to hold one’s abusers accountable can be retraumatizing, and potentially threatening to one’s life and livelihood. At times like these, it is crucial for allies to openly and tangibly support survivors in the ways they are asked, in order to lessen these burdens.
Many men in the mainstream media, who have enjoyed the praise that comes with calling oneself an ally, have failed to meet this responsibility. Allyship is about actions, not about performative speeches, songs, or tweets about how sorry you feel for women. It’s about putting yourself on the line and making yourself and the people around you uncomfortable when necessary. It demands using the power and privileges you may be given due to your gender, race, class, or fame to make tangible change.
Oliver chose to use his platform, his popularity as a mainstream media personality, and his privileges as a white man, to demand accountability from a fellow white man accused of sexual harassment. In confronting a prominent celebrity about his history of sexual violence at a time when many men have remained conveniently quiet on the subject, he took a risk that would have gotten anyone less popular (or privileged) in a hell of a lot more trouble.
Too many men who call themselves allies have chosen to cower behind longtime friendships and public reputations, denying the reality of women’s experiences for the sake of their own comfort. Friends of Woody Allen and Johnny Depp, or admirers of Louis CK and Al Franken, for instance, need to learn to take a page out of Oliver’s book.
Oliver’s decision to step up in this way should inspire men to hold their brothers, fathers, friends, and selves to a higher standard of accountability. This doesn’t need to happen in the public forum. Accountability can look like difficult conversations with other men about the misogynistic things they say and do, or shutting down sexist humour or “locker room talk,” and above all, believing survivors. It’s time for men to step up, and step out of the comfort zone.
Inori Roy is a freelance writer and student at McGill University.
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