Seventeen million people have seen Erin Andrews naked. This was not her choice. She was filmed through a peephole by a stalker that a Nashville-based Marriott obligingly agreed to put next door to her, just because he asked. In recompense, she has won a $55 million court judgment.
I’ll pause while you go ask your social media buddies how much they’d accept to take off their clothes for the entertainment of the entire country.
How Much Money Does A Celebrity Need?
No reasonable person doubts that Andrews was wronged here. She did absolutely nothing to invite this humiliating incident, apart from working in media (as a sports journalist) and staying in a hotel. It’s creepy that the hotel happily gave out information about celebrities staying in their establishment. It’s alarming that making a peep-hole into the room was apparently child’s play.
That the management was willing to give the pervert the room next door, without bothering to mention to Andrews that someone was stalking her, is absolutely crazy. Creeps across the land are now scratching their chins and thinking, “Huh, who’d I like to stalk? Apparently it’s not that hard!”
Clearly, she deserves something. Even so, some are irritated by the showy price tag. Gersh Kuntzman voiced his irritation in the New York Daily News, suggesting Andrews’ judgment is an insult to black victims of police brutality, since they’ve received much smaller settlements. How come Andrews gets $55 million for a mere embarrassment, while the family of Freddie Gray gets only $6.4 million? Are a celebrity’s feelings worth more than ten times as much as a poor man’s life?
The Judgment Is about Making A Point
We could see it that way, but I would argue that we shouldn’t. First of all, the gaudy number is largely for show. The hotel won’t really pay that much, and she won’t receive anywhere near that much. Read this explanation of why Andrews will likely get more in the range of $6 million, nowhere close to the stated sum. That’s still a lot of money and you don’t need to cry for her, but her real award probably won’t be Scrooge McDuck-level compensation.
Second, Kuntzman is making a very apples-and-oranges comparison here, for many reasons, starting with the practicality. When the police make a mistake and someone dies, that is tragic. Still, law enforcement is dangerous by its nature, and you can’t expect perfection from people who are regularly making split-second, life-or-death decisions. Tragedies are going to occur once in a while. We should in some instances offer redress, but taxpayers can’t be expected to shell out $50 million every time a cop misbehaves. That’s not feasible.
On the other hand, it’s completely feasible for Marriott to refuse to abet perverts. This incident can’t be listed as an occupational hazard of hotel management. It was a completely insane, unforced error.
When celebrities are involved, awards do tend to go up, which might make us a little less angry when we appreciate that it cuts both ways. NFL players are routinely dinged with hundred-thousand-dollar fines when they do inappropriate things on the field. Charging ordinary people such ruinous amounts for a single rude word or raised hand would seem preposterous. But we’re mostly unbothered because we know NFL stars are loaded. The sums have to be higher in order to motivate them, and a similar principle applies here.
That raises the question: why should we want Andrews to feel motivated to sue Marriott? This gets to the heart of the matter. It’s very wrong to think that this is just about Andrews’ feelings, or the unpleasantness of being embarrassed. This is about an objective assault on her dignity, and it’s shameful to dismiss that with “poor little rich girl” sneering.
We’re All Showgirls Now
The most revolting point of the legal proceedings was when the hotel’s defense team implied that Andrews was not harmed by the incident because it helped her career. Apparently ESPN executives were thinking along similar lines, which is why they effectively forced Andrews to give an interview to Oprah Winfrey officially denying that she had helped stage the incident for publicity reasons.
Kuntzman seems sympathetic to this line of defense. He writes,
But Erin Andrews is still alive and, as the defendants in the case argued, is certainly thriving. She’s free to go on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or schmooze with NFL players. But a jury felt her pain — and treated the symptoms with cash. America, what a country.
Such a huge jury verdict makes a mockery of real pain and genuine suffering.
Putting the best possible spin on this, the Marriott lawyers may just have seen themselves as mitigating the damage by showing that Andrews’ entire life has not been ruined. Torts law is complicated and sometimes takes these perverse turns. At the same time, we could read this a different way, and some obviously have.
Commentators like Kuntz would have us believe Andrews can’t really have been harmed given that she is rich, famous, and privileged. There are two ways to read this, and both are frankly awful.
One is that privileged people just aren’t entitled to ordinary human respect or decency. Only protected classes deserve that. In this vein, we might connect Andrews’ case to Bernie Sanders’ recent declaration that white people can’t really know what it’s like to “live in a ghetto” or be poor. She’s a rich, white woman with a cool career, so who cares if horny adolescents the nation over are drooling over her naked pictures? Get over it.
Here’s another way you could read it (insinuated both by Marriott’s attorneys and by Kuntzman). Why should Andrews be so indignant over this incident when it may have helped vault her to the top? Michael David Barrett stalked her and humiliated her before the entire country, and now she’s a success! Be grateful, Erin Andrews! This one pervy stalker may have been better than a roomful of agents!
In other words, we’ve reached the point where some are happy to assume that every woman in the world should be willing to take her clothes off for money.
Our outrage-meters are so tapped out by now that I feel ridiculous writing that this argument is “an insult to women everywhere.” But isn’t it, really? Any girl who had the experience of being spied on in the shower (perhaps by a brother’s friend or a middle-school miscreant) can remember how violated she felt.
Andrews got that experience times 17 million. Who cares if it helped her career? In our oversexed world, it’s just taken for granted now that we’re all society’s showgirls, waiting for the right price?
It may not be a good thing that gargantuan legal judgments are one of our society’s favorite ways of making a moral statement. But so it is, and in this case, a decisive statement was warranted. Robbing a woman of her modesty is deeply wrong, as a fundamental violation of her dignity. People who are trying to trivialize that should be ashamed of themselves.