From Weinstein to Lauer, workplace sexual harassment has been a huge part of the current #MeToo/Times Up reckoning. But as John Oliver so beautifully illustrated on last night’s Last Week Tonight, this isn’t the first time sexual harassment in the workplace has been addressed, whether it’s by training videos from the 1980s or Liza Minelli dance numbers from the 1990s. Every time the issue enters the cultural spotlight again, we may take a few steps in the right direction — but it’s not enough for there to be lasting change. And so history repeats itself.
Nobody knows this better than Anita Hill, who publicly testified about sexual harassment she experienced while working with then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Her testimony was a television sensation in 1991, and looking back on what she endured (blame, shame, disbelief — the whole familiar gamut), it’s easy to see the similarities in reactions to victims then and now. So Oliver naturally wanted to sit down with her and see whether she thinks anything has actually changed thanks to #MeToo, and what more we can do.
Long story short: she’s feeling more optimistic than she was 27 years ago! And look, I don’t want to spoil it, because the entire segment should just be required viewing, but there is a fascinating exchange toward the end of the interview where Oliver acknowledges that, as a younger member of the workforce, he observed harassment and did nothing, and has felt slightly ashamed because of it. When Hill asks him what he would do differently now, he says that he would speak up and say “That was a pretty creepy thing to do, right?”
Hill kindly points out that this is a pretty “manly” thing to do, and suggests instead maybe talking to the victim and asking how they are feeling, and if they would like him to say something.
“It’s kind of sad that that’s not an instinctive reaction, isn’t it?” Oliver says, because even now our idea of doing what’s right is so often to talk rather than listen. In a segment so focused on how men are overreacting and trying to cope with how to behave in the workplace, it’s important to recognize that it isn’t just the would-be harassers whose behavior needs to shift, but the bystanders as well.