I wondered how it was that Morgan Freeman, black, progressive, a Barack Obama enthusiast and the owner of a squeaky clean image, was hit with career- and reputation-endangering accusations of “inappropriate conduct” that were on balance far, far less alarming than the borderline or outright criminal offenses claimed by the victims of most of the #MeToo targets. Now we know: Morgan Freeman, then 79 , was interviewed by a young, attractive CNN reporter before the Harvey Weinstein story broke. The actor made creepy, sexually suggestive comments to her, and they bothered her as she continued to consider them during her maternity leave, which began soon after the interview. When she returned, Harvey Weinstein had been exposed, #MeToo was in full swing, and the reporter, Chloe Melas, had a new and unexpected male celebrity to investigate and perhaps take down.
This does not appear to be another example of a vicious abuser whom the Weinstein story allowed to finally meet justice after years of victimizing those who came within his sphere of power. All of the claims against Freeman are garden variety dumb, blundering sexual harassment without malice, almost exclusively by the spoken word. Although the news accounts mention “unwanted touching,” the only description of such touching involves Freeman touching a woman’s skirt and threatening to lift it. There have been no “groping” accusations, at least not yet.
Never mind. The allegations so far have already harmed, probably irreparably, the Academy Award-winning actor’s career. Visa has dropped him as its long-time spokesman. Honors he has received are being reconsidered. More penalties are sure to come.
Freeman issued a clumsy, non-apology apology, saying,
“Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows I am not someone who would intentionally offend or knowingly make anyone feel uneasy. I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected — that was never my intent.”
It’s a poor apology, but I believe him. He never intended to make anyone uncomfortable, and it didn’t occur to him that any woman would make a big deal out of being—from his perspective—flirted with, even naughtily, by a very old man and iconic movie star. In this, he falls not in the ugly Cosby, Harvey, Kevin, Matt and Charlie category but into the sadder George H.W. Bush class, which I will call “The Dirty Old Men Division.”
You will recall that the nonagenarian ex-President, confined to a wheelchair and less of a sexual threat at this stage of his life than a Teletubby, was a minor #MeToo subject when it was revealed that he had fallen into the bad habit of pinching and groping young, nubile female behinds when they came into his limited reach during photo ops, and making a suggestive, stunningly-dumb joke along with it, that his favorite magician was “David Cop-a-Feel.”
It is important to remember that in the days when Bush and Freeman were young, and indeed not all that young, old men being frisky with young woman was considered normal, typical, natural, humorous, even cute, and absolutely benign. I could post dozens of YouTube clips of movies and TV shows as well as cartoons making light of this conduct, which was once treated as a privilege of old age. The idea was that since the poor old geezers couldn’t do anything any more, women were happy to let them pretend.
It was always wrong, of course, like a lot of customs and traditions that we look back on now and wonder, “What the hell were people thinking?” It was always disrespectful and presumptuous. That doesn’t change the fact that the “harmless dirty old man” routine was a cultural norm of centuries’ standing, and one that changed very rapidly just a few decades ago. Thus not one but two changing social norms of long-standing were behind Freeman’s misbehavior: sexual harassment of women in the workplace generally, which was not even a widely recognized concept until the 1980s and not understood by the general public until even later (The Clarence Thomas hearings were in 1991), and the cultural good will pass given to “frisky grandpa,” which has just sort of faded away, like the myths that drunks are funny and women are bad drivers.
Freeman was 54 in 1991. I hate to say that it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks, but norms and accepted behavior that one has grown up with and gone through middle age with are not easy to alter. In Freeman’s case, there was one more powerful norm at work: he had watched male movie stars get away with such (in his eyes) harmless flirting for decades. When did it become “unwanted”? When did women start being “uncomfortable” with his pats and winking jokes? He was Morgan Freeman! He was a good guy! He played Malcolm X! Frederick Douglas! Hoke! Principal Joe Clark! Alex Cross! Nelson Mandela! The President! God! Twice! What young woman wouldn’t find his sexually provocative comments welcome, even charming?
This is the point where Georgetown Professor Paul Butler bursts into my office with “Oh come on!” like he did on the air when I pointed out on NPR that powerful, famous men whose sexual conduct with women in the workplace crossed the line but was always previously treated as “welcome” because of who they are now were finding that that same conduct had become, seemingly overnight, unwelcome and thus grounds for shaming and worse. Butler thought that no sympathy or understanding was due such victims of cultural whiplash, though if my example had been Morgan Freeman instead of Donald Trump, I wonder if he would have protested so emphatically, or at all.
This is exactly what has happened, is happening, and just happened to Morgan Freeman, and I’m not saying that his conduct wasn’t wrong. I am saying that destroying senior citizens for being slow to adjust to changing social norms is also wrong—unfair, vindictive, and a Golden Rule breach.