Eliza Dushku in CBS' Bull (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINION

Eliza Dushku can “take a joke” – it doesn’t mean she wasn’t sexually harassed

Fuck the boys’ club and its rules, says Rebecca Schiller. It’s time to set our own

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By Rebecca Schiller on

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“A woman.”

“A woman who?”

“A woman who loves nothing more than backslapping and sinking pints, and can totally take a joke like a man… but would be really grateful if you could stop sexually harassing her for an hour or two.”

As women like Eliza Dushku (actor of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame and the latest star to call out harassment in Hollywood) have discovered, these days the boys’ club has a longer list of membership requirements. A penis used to be the important credential, though it helped to be white, straight and conservative, too. Today, the door is open a little wider. Women are told that they can join the boys’ club as long as they adhere to the rules:

  1. What happens in the boys’ club stays in the boys’ club.

  2. Be grateful and don’t expect to sit on the good chairs or get paid enough.

  3. Be one of the guys, take a joke, don’t be a party pooper, it’s just locker-room talk.

  4. Smile, it might never happen (even if it has).

It happened to Eliza Dushku, even though she knows that smiling, laughing and being one of the guys can be a useful tool when trying to get a seat at the Hollywood table. In her brave piece for The Boston Globe this week, the experienced actor sets out how she was harassed and humiliated by her co-star Michael Weatherly on the set of CBS’ Bull. Her testimony tells of sexual bullying, a barrage of comments about her appearance and public jokes about threesomes and spanking her like a “little girl”, as well as references to a “rape van”.

Following a conversation with Weatherly, attempting to resolve the situation, Dushku was fired. CBS went on to settle the case with a $9.5m payout to reflect her lost earnings. A draft of an independent report into sexual misconduct at the company points to CBS’ treatment of Dushku as one of the many examples of the company prioritising their reputation over a victim’s wellbeing.

Despite tapes of his comments being available, Weatherly has only apologised for a “joke” gone wrong. When Dushku confronted him about his behaviour, he appears to have gone straight back to the boys’ club rule book, found Dushku in breach and arranged for her to be ejected. Dushku explains that 40 minutes after the conversation between the co-stars, Weatherly texted CBS television president David Stapf, complaining about her “humor deficit” and asking for her to be written off the show.

In her record-straightening article, Dushku balances her criticism of him and the network by explaining that she has three older brothers and was “considered a tomboy” growing up. She points out her toughness (“playing a badass vampire slayer turned tough LA cheerleader”) and her familiarity with working alongside leading men, including Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. “I can handle a locker room,” she insists. “I do not want to hear that I have a ‘humor deficit’ or can’t take a joke. I did not overreact.”

Many women will relate to Dushku defending her sense of humour. There is a pervasive, inaccurate belief among certain boys’ clubs of “feminists not being able to handle a joke”, when sexual harassment and trivialising rape have absolutely zero to do with humour. It makes sense that Dushku defended her own ability to take a joke. When a man shouts at me to “smile, it might never happen”, I usually crack a weak grin even though, on the inside, I want to scream about how he is upholding women to sexist standards.

Many of us internalise the membership rules of the boys’ club, not realising that, when we do, we allow the last, unspoken rule to persist: the rule that gives the power to say where the line is, to decide whether something is a joke or a crime, to the perpetrators – to the men.

When I read Dushku asserting herself as one of the boys, I hear someone saying, “I know where the line is. Believe me. Please believe me.” She waves her credentials as a tomboy as a token of credibility, because to be believed, to be treated as equal and to be allowed to say what is and isn’t appropriate is still viewed as a man’s privilege.

But how many of us have tried to become part of the boys’ club only to discover that membership of it is an illusion that disintegrates the moment we refuse to play the part we have been assigned? We can’t find things funny when we are the fall guys in every joke and when the same inequalities and violence that once kept us away from even a taste of economic and sexual freedom are still used to constrain us.

I like a laugh. I like that burst of oxytocin that ripples out from my belly, through my limbs and into the tips of my fingers like the best of them. But you know what I like more than a laugh? I like safety and equality and power. Fuck the boys’ club and its rules. It’s time to set our own.

@HackneyDoula 

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Eliza Dushku in CBS' Bull (Photo: Getty Images)
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