The case of Morgan Freeman
A distinguished man in Hollywood doesn’t trend on Twitter these days unless he’s died or been accused of sexual harassment, and the actor Morgan Freeman was very much alive last month when his name rose to the top of the clamour. Eight woman had come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. Among the most common complaints: that Freeman habitually commented on women’s bodies, clothing and his perception of how attractive they were in professional settings, causing them great discomfort.
Two cases have surfaced in old footage from the syndicated American television show Entertainment Tonight. In one, when journalist Ashley Crossan thanks him for the interview by saying, “Pleasure to meet you,” Freeman responds, “Mine. Look at yourself.” In another, Freeman goes into a brief soliloquy about the journalist Janet Mock’s skirt: “I don't know how you all manage to do that all the time. You got a dress halfway between your knee and your hips, and you sit down right across from me and cross your legs.”
Mock was unequivocal in her objection to this behaviour, saying: “This interaction is an exhibition of the casual nature at which men in positions of power believe that everything belongs to them including women’s bodies as they’re merely just trying to do their job.”
In a world where we’re truly sensitive to sexual harassment, can anyone say ‘nice haircut’ to anyone else ever again?
In response, Freeman issued a long semi-apology in which he emphasised that he did not believe that his behaviour should be called harassment: “All victims of assault and harassment deserve to be heard. And we need to listen to them. But it is not right to equate horrific incidents of sexual assault with misplaced compliments or humour. I admit that I am someone who feels a need to try to make women – and men – feel appreciated and at ease around me. As a part of that, I would often try to joke with and compliment women, in what I thought was a light-hearted and humorous way.”
Is the pushback against Freeman’s “compliments” a sign that the #MeToo movement has gone too far – that women are being too sensitive in cases when men are trying to be light-hearted and humorous? Do men need to re-learn what compliments are and how to deliver them? In a world where we’re truly sensitive to sexual harassment, can anyone say “nice haircut” to anyone else ever again?
The trouble with compliments
It’s not an unfamiliar experience for many women, I’m sure, but when I think about what I’ll call The Trouble With Compliments, I remember in particular a man of my acquaintance who I used to run into socially three or four times a year, which is to say that we knew each other, but not well. Every time I saw him he would greet me with an enthusiastic: “You’ve lost weight!”
Rather than make me feel good about myself – which I genuinely think was his intention, rather than to fat-shame me (each time he saw me, I’ll note, my weight had hardly vacillated) – this always made me feel bad. “How heavy did I look last time I saw you?” I would wonder, and also, “Why is the size of my body the thing about me that you find most worthy of a remark?” It would never have occured to me to comment on his measurements in return.
A compliment is defined by its intent, not by its receipt. That is to say, just because you make a remark to someone that is intended to be a compliment doesn’t mean that the recipient will understand it as a compliment – and it certainly doesn’t mean that the recipient is obliged to receive it as a compliment. Or, at least, it shouldn’t. But, for a long time, that hasn’t been our collective understanding.
Rather, for time immemorial, it’s been a commonly held view in Western culture that women should be flattered when men pay them compliments – that it’s an important tradition not just of flirtation and romance, but of chivalry. Women who have negative reactions to compliments from men are often chided for being ungrateful. But, in the post-#MeToo era, one of the things that we’re having to consider is how often statements that are intended to flatter can be undermining or harassing, or even abusive. Now, women are putting their hands up to say, "I don’t want you to tell me that I look hot." It’s been a long time coming.
He does it because he likes you
For many women, our toxic understanding of compliments goes back to childhood, when so many of us learnt that male attention was, in itself, complimentary, regardless of the form that it took. “He does it because he likes you” is still a too-common explanation to young girls when their male peers are unkind to them. By that logic, if negative attention is just a reframed compliment, then not only should we tolerate it, but we should be downright enthusiastic in our acceptance of any positive male attention. No matter who it comes from, or when.
These are narratives that gaslight women – that tell us how to feel instead of acknowledging our real feelings, and the primordial nature of these stories mean that they’re hard to shake off. Just a couple of years ago, I was slapped on the bum by a stranger riding past me on a bicycle while I walked my dog. When I recounted the story to friends (after I called the police), they all commiserated, but more than one of them added, “Of course, he probably did it because he thought you were attractive.” I’m sure this was intended to comfort me, but it was a reflection of how much people want to believe that women should consider any sexual attention to be positive attention – even if it’s literal assault.
It’s been a commonly held view in Western culture that women should be flattered when men pay them compliments – that it’s an important tradition not just of flirtation and romance, but of chivalry
Compliments are at their most problematic when they’re insincere, and the truth is that most of them are, especially in professional contexts. When a man who has no real (or appropriate) romantic designs on a woman compliments her on her appearance, her body or her sex appeal, it shows the opposite of sincerity or reflection. It functions as a signal of his understanding that she is a woman, that the way she looks or the degree to which he considers her sexually attractive is his primary interest. More broadly, it signals that this is how they think about women in general. Some men do this because they know no other way to relate to women (perhaps Freeman, as a man over 80, falls into this category). Some men do it because they want to put women in their place – to remind us that they consider us as ripe for their consumption, no matter the reason for our engagement.
The end of compliments?
Earlier this year, the French actress Catherine Deneuve led a backlash against #MeToo, claiming that it would spell an end to sexual freedom. “It's as if someone finding you attractive is an insult,” she complained. “I beg to differ: I'm complimented if someone is attracted to me. The only question is: am I allowed to say no?” The shortcoming of Deneuve’s argument is in the assumption that every display of attraction is a compliment. The question is not just whether a woman is allowed to say no to a sexual invitation, but whether a woman is allowed to reject an expression of attraction itself because it’s unwelcome, regardless of the reason that it’s unwelcome.
No one is saying that compliments should be banned. But now is a good time for a reconsideration of their appropriateness – for us to rethink how men talk to women and vice versa. In general, compliments about the physical appearance of someone with whom you don’t have an established level of emotional intimacy run a high risk of being inappropriate. Telling someone you’ve just met that you find them attractive will rarely put them at ease – it instantly flags that you are assessing them primarily as a potential sex partner. Even if, like Freeman, you think you’re being nice.
This is particularly the case in a professional situation, but I’d say that it’s even the case in a scenario where people may be more open to a romantic connection: going up to a stranger at a party or a bus stop and saying, “You’re hot!” is far more likely to evoke an eye roll than a phone number. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: would I make this remark to someone who I didn’t consider a potential sexual partner? Where lines are crossed become pretty clear thereafter: if you are a heterosexual man and wouldn’t tell another heterosexual man that you admire his legs, it’s creepy to say it to a woman outside of an explicitly romantic situation in which you know that your interest is reciprocated.
Does that mean that no one can be made to feel appreciated and at ease any more? Of course not. It’s just a matter of showing that appreciation through compliments that call out positive attributes of a person that have nothing to do with sex – like their intelligent conversation; their great sense of humour; how good they are at their job; how they’re kind to other people. These sorts of compliments indicate that you admire someone as a whole person – that you’re considering more than the body that they inhabit. But it’s also important to remember that these kinds of compliments are not accompanied by entitlement, either – if your compliment doesn’t elicit the response that you desire, the recipient is not to blame. Gratitude is earned, not an entitlement.