Let me be clear. I do not call into question anything that U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s accusers have raised concerning his invasions into their private space.
Nor do I condone antics that have been made public, such as the picture of his mock touching of a sleeping woman on an airplane or the allegations of a forced kiss from one accuser and a “groping” while posing for pictures from others. Stupid and tasteless and, yes, invasive is a way to describe these events.
I have had many experiences as a professional that involved pressure from men in various situations and I know what that feels like. But, as an older woman, I now want to speak out about bringing some rationality to the discussion around our senator.
An intelligent man’s career and the work he has been willing to undertake on behalf of women is on the line. I beg for a moment of sanity while we pause. There are three issues that should cause us to reflect on the current situation.
First, every offense against a woman is not equal. There are degrees of offense. In 1976, Rudy Perpich was governor of Minnesota. He convened a panel called the Sexual Assault Task Force. Its charge was to review levels of sexual abuse and recommend what the law should be regarding each level. The committee comprised about 20 members from various parts of government and the private sector: from law, from nonprofit organizations, from women’s rights groups. We worked for six months to come up with recommendations for the governor and his staff to present to the Legislature.
I was honored to be a member of that panel and I learned a lot in the process. One thing I understood at the end was that there are degrees (both legal and actual) of infringement on the privacy and physical space of someone. Some wrongs are far more heinous than others.
Second, there is no power differential between Franken and his accusers. Sexual harassment by definition, includes coercion because one party has power over another. If there is no power relationship, a woman can walk away from unwanted and inappropriate attentions, annoying as they may be. We don’t have to endure them.
Third, Franken, in his past, made his living as a comedian, or rather as a master of farce. Farce is the legitimate theater tradition’s bastard stepchild. Cheeky, saucy and often raunchy, it has a long history starting with Terence and Plautus in the Roman theater. Variations continued down through the London Music Hall era, Punch and Judy shows and the American Vaudeville traditions.
The culmination, in the contemporary world, was the “Saturday Night Live” crowd with its outrageous satire. Franken was at the heart of it, for a while.
But times change and women are no longer willing to be held hostage to male power, even in the world of entertainment. Farce is not funny when it involves the humiliation of women by men who should know better. Franken now knows better. He appears to have changed as well.
Franken left that “Master of Farce” persona behind when he entered politics and he became a surprisingly informed and intelligent representative of his state in Congress. He has been a strong supporter of women, both in his office and in his legislative offerings. His transgressions are not trivial, but neither are they unforgivable.
He has apologized for past behavior. We should give him another chance.
Judith Koll Healey is a writer living in Minneapolis.