At first, I shied away from watching “Confirmation,” the HBO docudrama about the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.
For the real thing, I remember being glued to the tube for a solid week, horrified and angry, and those feelings are still visceral.
But while the HBO version does dredge up some mighty depressing history, it’s worth watching: smartly made, well-written, with inspired casting and acting. Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill, an always-reluctant witness, unaccustomed to the bright lights, who, it turns out, could have used some Olivia Pope-style coaching, if it even existed then.
As Joe Biden, (who does not come off well) Greg Kinnear was given the Veep’s then-thinning crown and even got the Pennsylvania accent right.
Afterwards, I was outraged all over again.
From a modern vantage point, it demonstrates that this seemingly celestial body known as the Senate was actually made up of craven and compromised old white men, who closed ranks around the future Justice, mostly to end their own public embarrassment, fairness be damned.
Meanwhile, Hill was very publicly dismissed as a crazy bitch, a witch, and an hysterical stalker.
Where to begin with the ironies? Thomas played the race card for the first time in his life, brilliantly. His phrase of outrage, “high-tech lynching,” became part of U.S. history. With the help of this commanding, brilliantly aggrieved speech, his nomination was confirmed. Of course, he hasn’t spoken from the bench since.
And consider that Hill was called to testify by the man who acted as the feminist conscience for the Senate: Ted Kennedy.
Best of all, Anita Hill had been harassed while working with Thomas when he was director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created to handle just such harassment complaints in the workplace. You can’t make this stuff up.
Remember, in that almost-innocent, pre-Kardashian age, before Internet porn became ubiquitous, Hill’s outrageous testimony, complete with Thomas’ mention of porn actor Long Dong Silver and talk of pubic hair, was not welcome in America’s living rooms. The contrast--her conservative demeanor and blue suit vs. what she had to testify about--was hard to process.
Yet most of the woman I knew at the time who had ever held a job believed her, because that sort of male attention--i.e, constant embarrassment and harassment under the guise of joshing-- was just how it was.
And the point is that now, 25 years later, there are legal sanctions in place to protect women from egregious behavior like this, right?
Well, not so fast.
The Erin Johnson vs. J. Walter Thompson case, a harassment suit filed against then-JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez just last March, eerily mirrors some of the same behaviors shown in “Confirmation.”
But imagine if Hill had had modern technology at her disposal. If she had been able to record Thomas on her smartphone, or had video from any of the meetings they attended together, would the hearings have come out differently?
NEWSFLASH: Johnson does have a video of Martinez making his first rape “joke” at a company meeting in Miami. The “smoking gun” was submitted as an amendment to the case shortly after it was filed, and the WPP side did their damnedest not to have it admitted as evidence.
Once it became clear that it existed, Martinez was caught in a lie, and stepped down as CEO.
In one of those life-is-stranger-than-fiction moments, the footage was posted last night on Vimeo.
Let’s go to the tape.
The reality is weirder than I expected. Martinez is very thin, jumpy and wired, with buzzy energy and a strange agenda. He speaks English with a thick accent and his own colloquial way of putting sentences together. As CEO, he seems very concerned about the “tricky characters” at the hotel (code word for black people) whom he thought had stolen some luggage.
In less than a minute of opening remarks, he gets right down to it: “I found such different and strange characters in the elevator… I thought there would be rape in the elevator, and not in a nice way.”
Some employees at the breakfast are heard laughing. Was it out of embarrassment? Corporate fealty? Or was it merely that they were used to hearing him talk this way, since he was known to complain about “fucking Jews” or dark-skinned “monkeys” at the airport?
Let us remember that when they returned to New York, Johnson tried counseling Martinez on his use of the word rape. The result was that he redoubled his efforts, making rape jokes in the office, saying stuff like, “Come with me to the bathroom. I want to rape you.”
Johnson tried to get the CEO sensitivity training, to no avail. She tried reporting him up the ladder. No response.
In the HBO drama, after the proceedings, Hill is shown slinking home to Oklahoma, despondent and broken.
But in a wonderful subsequent scene, she returns to her office, to a flood of mail from women all over the country, who were thanking her for speaking out, and giving them a voice. These were letter writers who had either suffered similar harassment silently, out of fear, and continued to work with their offenders. Or they had come forward to complain, and were humiliated, punished, and even fired for their actions. They told her she was their hero.
By contrast, there is no Hollywood wrap-up to Johnson’s case. The struggle in real life is pretty grueling. Johnson remains on administrative leave. There is a deadline of May 20 for the opposing attorneys to submit an answer or other response to the complaint.
The next stage in the case is discovery, where the parties exchange documents and conduct depositions. And blah and blah. No deal in sight—the WPP attorneys are going to the mats.
So far, WPP is arguing that he was just making the employees feel comfortable—and that English is his fifth language. How is it possible no one seems to be addressing the fact that Martinez felt comfortable using rape as a humorous subject? And that, to him, talk about raping women was a casual topic. And if he was like that in front of 60+ employees, you have to imagine he was even more comfortable talking about rape in private.
So who needs to revisit the bad old days of Anita Hill, when we can conjure up fresh female harassment examples, right here and now? Indeed, this is a sad case. And it’s no less depressing.
Great piece, Barbara!
The similarities are eery indeed. And we have Anita Hill to thank for introducing the words "sexual harassment" into the vernacular 20 years ago. This is the next terrain for equality and you're right, Barbara that technology and social media, will make it harder to dispute, defend or ignore.
The HBO movie was excellent, Kerry Washington always wonderful to watch. I too remember watching this incredible drama play out on live television in 1991. I was pregnant with my second son. It was an embarrasing episode aired on TV, only to be outdone by the exposition of Bill Clinton, the intern and the cigar. I suppose we have Anita Hill to thank for introducing "sexual harassment" into modern vernacular, but do we also have her to thank for the ease with which some women falsely accuse men of harrassment and assault? By her own statement, Clarence Thomas never touched her or threatened her professionally, yet her accusations have forever linked his name to Coke cans and public hair.
It's interesting when I talk about this with men, they say that it's over blown and doesn't really happen, or never in their offices....if it isn't happening to you, it is often invisible...the same with any form of prejudice....good people, people who wouldn't say these things, people who don't believe these things don't notice it when it isn't pointed at them.
Years ago, I had to run out of an art directors office, leaving my portfolio when he became so clearly inappropriate. When I called to have my work messengered back to me, his reply was what fun it was to see me.
I would bet any woman I know has some similar story to tell. Now lines are so blurred. We live in a world where grainy sex tapes make you the most famous and successful woman in America. Outrage or allowance...the mixed messages don't foster progress...
Excellent piece - it's too bad there are so many connections between yesterday and today. Sexual harassment is deeply ingrained, and it needs to be called out every single time.
Excellent. Great perspective and the link to the JWT scandal is perfect. Thanks.
This column is another great in your portfolio of greats. BTW, is this was when America was great ?
"Rape -- not in a nice way." WTF, nothing like a nice rape.
The very fact that Martinez apparently believed that sexist and racist comments like these could possibly be acceptable for a senior executive of a public company in the communications business, is shocking. That Mr. Martinez attained this position, and never revealed this behavior to his former co-workers or the senior executives who hired and interacted with him in that role, is highly suspicious.
Great column. We keep expecting things to improve, but as long as there is a significant imbalance of power in the workplace, with men in a preponderance of top positions, that won't happen. Neither will equal pay for equal work.
I did not watch Confirmation, but I remember the actual event only too well. The supposed bastions of equal rights on the committee, Biden and Kennedy, might as well have been invisible. Kennedy had no standing to make any commentary whatsoever, and his years of womanizing and winking finally came back to bite him (and all of us) in the ass.
Biden gave Thomas a free pass when Thomas admitted he did not even listen to Anita Hill's accusations. Clearly a potential Justice of the Supreme Court should be able to hear both sides of an argument. Nope.
The JWT thing gets me down about the entire industry, and it's a great parallel. Although, having worked for women for a good part of my career, I've seen less of this type of harassment than others most likely.
Fantastic! Thank you Barbara
It's a bad joke in any language. That defense is lawyer-speak. Barbara we ought to start a Kickstarter fund for Erin if there isn't already one for her legal costs. I bet if you publicized it lots of people would join in.
"The Senate was actually made up of craven and compromised old white men, who closed ranks around the future Justice, mostly to end their own public embarrassment." So what has changed? As I say on AdScam about the Martinez tape... The assembled JWT Senior Wankers snigger… Proving they are either sycophants or racists. But hey… They work on Mad Ave and will shove their tongue up the bosses arse whenever prompted. I hope Erin takes them for millions.
Funny cooincidence that the inspiration for the Olivia Pope character is a woman named Judy Smith who played a role in this real life drama. Smith was an advisor to George Bush 41 during the Thomas hearings. You may remember the scene in the movie where Bush's people are watching Anita Hill's first press conference, pre-judging her as just another bimbo whose story nobody will buy. After Hill makes a brief statement Judy Smith says, "I believe her". (Gulp)
What's astounding to me (NOT) is how many JWT clients essentially endorse this behavior by not taking a stand against this blantant bias. J&J, Kimberly Clark, Bloomberg, Estee Lauder, Kellogg's -- these brands depend on women and people of color to buy their products, and the agency they pay to engage these consumers cultivates an ethos that is entriely disrespectful of the target. And worse, JWT, the staff, and WPP are going to the mat to defend this bias :"We knew he was joking!"
Why is this behavior OK to companies like Kimberly Clark who have one of the most acclaimed gender-diversity committments in the country? Or Kellogg's or Estee Lauder who market to no one else but women? What's the message to consumers here?
I have the utmost respect for USAA who walked the minute racism was revealed in Campbell Ewald -- who immediately appologized and fired the CEO. JWT's clients have a responsiblity to their public speak out: this behavior is unacceptable.
These advertisers are perpetuating the same behavior as those white guys in the senate that took down Anita Hill. If they took their billings to a gender-fair agency, JWT/WPP would immediately appologize and things on Madison Avenue would start to change.
I'm beginning to feel like a mylar balloon that is deflating due to the non-stop pressures of overheated, clumsy, but huge dirigible-like entities that are gathering around.
I'm a visual person, hence the images to describe my feelings.
It's disheartening to be back where we were in the 60s and 70s, fighting the same fights for women's rights, equality for all minorities, and trying to build a world where wars were not seen as the solutions to international disputes.
In all honesty, I think we've lost ground--certainly in evolving as a culture, a nation, a world, and leaving old hatreds behind us as we stand confidently on a hillock holding hands with each other singing "I'd like to buy the world a coke..." Writers such as Barbara Lippert bring my hopes up when she offers clear, informed articles that always seem to contain a ray of light...even if it is at the end of a dark tunnel.
Thanks Barbara. Believe that Hill has gone on to a successful career in academia. I'm glad the process of 25 years ago did not destroy her personally or professionally. WPP should cut Martinez loose and re-examine their vetting process for their high ranking chiefs.
OK. I'm convinced.
I'll watch it.
Inappropriate and aggressive behavior is not always initiated by men. And please don't limit the targets to women.
I rebuffed the advances, lost the business, and lost a job. It's intolerable to be in those circumstances no matter what your gender. It stings 30 years later!