Nothing makes my heart sink quite like the news that another famous man has been sharing his opinions on the #MeToo movement. Sean Penn, when asked, described what was happening as “salacious”, adding that “some [of the allegations] are unfounded”. Matt Damon talked about a “spectrum of behaviour” and suggested that some forms of unwanted sexual contact were less inappropriate than others. Bryan Cranston asked when the accused could expect to be forgiven, and get a “second chance”. Minnie Driver put it perfectly when she responded to Damon: “You cannot tell another woman about her abuse.”
The trouble is that if you’re in a position of privilege, and, like Penn, Damon and Cranston, a straight white man, you’re used to being listened to. The world constantly confirms the idea that your opinion is important and valid, regardless of how limited your experience is. As Homer Simpson himself said, “I’m a white male aged 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.” These men aren’t just any white males either – they’re enormously successful Hollywood actors. They are constantly lionised, made to feel important and powerful, and treated as though their views on everything, from climate change to midnight snacks, are as irrefutable as papal edicts.
So, when I read The Times headline, Jon Hamm on Me Too, I felt a twisting in my gut. Yet the actor says that the movement is vital, “because the behaviour that it’s responding to is deplorable”, but he doesn’t really have further opinions to share, because, “Us straight white guys have been saying a lot for a long time; we might want to start listening a little more.”
How refreshing. How rare. For more than a year, we have been shouting, and shouted over. We’ve come together and tried our hardest to be heard. At every turn, we have been met by powerful men who minimise and deny our experiences – and even well-meaning men who tell us how they think we should feel. It’s startling and encouraging that Hamm, whose power and influence is significant enough for his views on #MeToo to be a headline in a national newspaper, is able to recognise that it’s not his turn to speak.
Hamm’s career fascinates me. Unlike many A-list actors, he didn’t find success in his early twenties. He had been an extra, a waiter and even a film-set dresser before being cast as Don Draper, aged 36, and I think it’s striking that he was a fully fledged adult before he was exposed to the spotlight. In the interview, he also speaks candidly about losing both of his parents by the time he was 20. He talks about how he needed antidepressants and therapy, saying, “People think it’s representative of weakness, but it’s not. If you need help, you need help. Mental health is incredibly important.” We know that there is a huge stigma attached to conversations about men and mental illness, and vulnerable men can have a difficult time asking for help. Hamm’s words make me think that his therapy didn’t just help him to overcome tragedy, but gave him a clearer, more compassionate understanding of humanity. I wonder how many powerful men might have chosen their words around #MeToo more carefully if they had worked on themselves enough to reach that level of understanding.
Hamm displays a self-awareness and empathy that seems rare in leading men
Throughout the interview, Hamm displays a self-awareness and empathy that seems rare in leading men. He reveals that he has experienced inappropriate behaviour from unnamed individuals but he acknowledges that there is a difference between men and women when it comes to physical vulnerability. “It’s certainly different being a 6ft 2in, 200lb male than it is being a 5ft 4in, 100lb female.”
He’s experienced one problem that many of his female contemporaries face: he knows how it feels to be defined by your appearance, and dismissed. “Of course. I’ve been unfairly judged: ‘Oh, he must be dumb because he’s good-looking.’ I make a point of not doing that to other people. It’s ‘judge not lest ye be judged’.” Perhaps because he’s been directed by a stereotype that many women in his industry experience, he’s unusually qualified to identify with them. This makes the fact that he is not choosing to speak for them especially significant.
To me, the interview reads like a masterclass in positive, empathetic masculinity. In some ways, it seems absurd to praise and celebrate Hamm for simply being a decent human being. Is the bar really that low? Yet, it’s very unusual to hear anyone in his position acknowledge their privilege with such honesty, and I’m certain that it’s connected with the fact that he has known pain and failure well enough to wear his power lightly. More importantly, there is a message about privilege that we can all use and learn.
The #MeToo movement is the work of courageous women speaking out after years of abuse, but nothing will change unless men like Hamm, who have great power and freedom, let them speak and amplify their voices. Even those of us who aren’t movie stars, or even straight white men, can be inspired by Hamm and use our vulnerabilities as signposts to help us identify our strengths. Sometimes our most difficult moments make us aware of the advantages we have. When we know what those are, we have a responsibility to reach down and lift up anyone who isn’t sufficiently seen. It’s not about talking for people who don’t have a voice. It’s about acknowledging everyone has a voice, and remembering that if people seem silent, it’s because they are not being listened to. We all might want to start listening a little more.