With a weekend op-ed in the New York Times and an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Monday night, former Access Hollywood and Today Show host Billy Bush is back in the spotlight almost 14 months after getting fired from NBC following the release of the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape. The official story is that Bush was coaxed back by the need to respond to rumors that President Donald Trump has been telling people that it wasn’t his voice on that tape (despite saying, at the time, “I said it, I was wrong, I apologize.”). It’s cynical to assume that there’s something else behind Bush’s re-emergence and wrong to dismiss the value of Bush’s words, which have drawn praise from one of Trump’s accusers. But in light of recent events, it feels alright to be a little cynical too.
Maybe Bush feels emboldened to tiptoe back into public life following the fall of Matt Lauer and others. Maybe he feels like he has a right to seize on an opportunity to remind people that, by comparison, his sins — laughing off the now President’s boasts about possible sexual assault — aren’t as bad as exposing oneself or making unwanted advances. I don’t know and I don’t know that it really matters. It’s hard to deny that it’s bizarre that Bush’s career suffered from the tape and Trump’s did not, but that doesn’t mean the moment is right for a Billy Bush comeback tour.
Allegations of sexual misconduct have knocked several powerful men off their pillars, revealing clear dysfunction in America’s corporate culture and social fabric while the #MeToo movement has shown that this isn’t, simply, a Hollywood problem.
To some, all of this has come as a knee-buckling shock. To others, the shock has surely come from seeing mainstream media coverage, sustained public outrage, and actual consequences for behavior that has been often whispered about but rarely dealt with.
As Trump proves, however, the purge has been far from universal. Some have denied the validity of the allegations against them, others have tried to outlast the outrage, and then there are those that exist in a grey area. To name a few notable figures whose alleged past misdeeds have popped up with little tangible consequence, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Weiner, and others have been accused of harassment (or worse) but they haven’t suffered more than a dent to their reputations (if that). This while many others have lost their jobs and seen their future prospects thrown into question.
There’s a kind of randomness to who gets tripped up and who skips along with their careers mostly intact. As Billy Bush can attest. Each offense is uniquely terrible, of course, but it sometimes seems like this has more to do with previous stature, connections, the scope of media interest, and how quickly another revelation about someone else can come along to clear the deck. It’s chaotic and no one is getting enough time to process all of this and linger on the ugliness. But that’s not exclusive to these stories in 2017.
With the lack of consistent consequences, the worry blooms that our current moment of viable consequences will be an insufficient deterrent, and the status quo will eventually return as the grey area expands and people grow numb to the parade of bad guys in the news and in their lives. As fucked up as it is for some men to realize, women have always been familiar with the sight of the world shrugging when they speak out on sexual assault — and they will probably always be on guard for that response. But right now, (some) men are actually standing shoulder to shoulder with women while listening to and believing them. It’s the brave women of #MeToo and those who are speaking up (despite the still present risk of a backlash or being vilified) who have led this charge, but the resulting male wokeness from the guilt and revulsion over ignoring, minimizing, or being blind to these issues has helped give this movement staying power. For now.
While we hear more about the men whose anger and angst bubbles to the surface, defiant and proud of their backward views about women, there are some men, supposed allies, that feel their angst under the surface. Alleged good guys who are using all the right hashtags while still eagerly looking for an opportunity to declare victory for women, disown their own guilt from inaction, and decide that all of this is settled.
We don’t need a return to the status quo, though. We need a new normal that permanently re-calibrates our understanding of harassment, boundaries, and respect. And we need men to hide away their angst about this process for so long that they start to lose touch with it. “Ah ha” moments and epiphanies are glorious miracles, but that kind of forced personal evolution through shame will do in a pinch when it comes to shedding the kind of pre-programmed bullshit that is pinging around in the heads of a lot of men. That only comes if we, as a society, sustain our collective outrage. And part of that means there needs to be a clear guideline and deterrent against abhorrent behavior. Not a brief timeout followed by a paint-by-numbers apology tour and an easy and unfettered return to public life.
Billy Bush may be authentic in his contrition, spot on with what he’s saying, and he may be paying a much heavier cost than a lot of people who did worse things, but he’s also an unintentional trial balloon whose efforts are being watched carefully by those cast out into the shadows for signs that people are ready to forgive and forget. It’s not for me to say whether that day should ever come for Bush (or anyone else). Still, I feel alright saying it shouldn’t come right now when we’re still working through the trash heap and battling the scourge of denial, “let’s separate art from the artists” bartering, and nostalgia for the supposed good old days when men thought sexual harassment should be considered a compliment.
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