It was almost as if it was performance art.
Ed Asner, TV icon and Hollywood veteran, appeared on Chris Jansing’s MSNBC program to promote his new book, “The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs.” Given the news of the week, Jansing started their exchange by referencing the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal.
“I want to talk about workplace sexism.”
Asner thanked her for having him on the show and added, “And not even a kiss?”
Jansing said “no,” laughed a bit, and launched into the discussion she had intended to have with him.
At the end of the discussion, Asner tried again.
“You still owe me a kiss,” Asner said.
Jansing admonished him this time.
“You’re gonna get yourself in trouble,” Jansing said. “And with good reason, Mr. Asner.”
Asner replied: “No, no, no, I’m not a job procurer.”
The whole interaction felt like a microcosm of this scandal, and most sexual harassment scandals including most recently Fox News, which follow a similar pattern. Asner’s suggestion he was owed a kiss was an expression of just how commonplace this sense of entitlement is, particularly as we are learning about the industry in which he’s spent his career.
His brazenness bringing it up in a segment in which he was asked about workplace sexism is another clue.
Jansing’s immediate reaction—slightly surprised and miffed but wanting to do her job the best she can—strikes me as a pretty normal reaction to an inappropriate if basically unthreatening comment like this. Her brain is likely running through the options: Was that really a thing? How should I react? Did I mishear? Is this a big deal? If I make a deal of it, how big should I make it? Will I be accused of overreacting? What are the consequences of calling him out? How do I do my job while handling this?
Born in 1929, Asner is much older than Weinstein, who ludicrously claimed through his representation to be an “old dinosaur… learning new ways.” But just like Weinstein, Asner was alive and quite present during the women’s liberation movement. Asner, in fact became a cultural symbol for it along with his co-stars on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In his role as Lou Grant, Mary Richards’ sexist boss, he was the fictional representation of the “dinosaur” Weinstein is pretending to be in 2017.
Grant’s evolution as a character, into a champion for Moore’s modern female character, was symbolic of societal change and Asner seemed to embrace it off screen, too. He backed the Equal Rights Act and advocated for more female hires on his spin-off, “Lou Grant.” Since those days, he’s collected all the requisite Hollywood liberal lion creds. He backed single-payer health care, bashed President George W. Bush (with bonus dabbling in 9/11 Trutherism), endorsed Barack Obama, and calls himself a socialist.
In between Asner’s opening gambit and the close of this interview, he went after President Trump for the behavior described in the “Access Hollywood” tape, called for him and others in the wrong to be punished, but also hinted at his own culpability.
“I’m sure I’ve been guilty at times of using my overpowering masculinity to beg for a kiss as I did when I opened this conversation with you,” he said. “But I know better than to push it and Harvey Weinstein, I guess, didn’t know when to stop.”
The reference to his “overpowering masculinity” seemed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but does he know better than to push it?
At the end of this segment, he jokingly reasserts that he is owed a kiss from Jansing. Jansing admonishes him, but then softens her statement with “kidding,” barely audible under Asner’s remarks. That’s another natural reaction, in the moment, to something uncomfortable and inappropriate. She wants to put down a marker that he’s out of line, but is unsure what tone that should take and what the offense warrants.
And, the finale is Asner, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood for decades, pretending he has no power.
“No, no, no, I’m not a job procurer,” he says laughing.
I read this is as him declaring, there’s no quid pro quo, here. He has nothing to give, and therefore, his comments aren’t out of line.
Whether it’s intentional obtuseness or genuine obliviousness, it’s a problem that Asner seems to dismiss the idea he’s in a position of power and has been for quite some time, and that might color people’s reactions to him. This inappropriate comment is on live TV, and Jansing herself is quite powerful, so there’s not much danger here.
But what about another less public situation, where the head of, say, an extremely powerful labor union in an industry, with lots of pro-women bonafides, is meeting with young, ambitious women with less power, asking for kisses, and pretending there’s no power differential? That would be a different story, and it’s the type we’ll continue to hear more of as more doors open on behind-closed-doors behavior.
In the meantime, this may not be the best way to sell books about the righteousness of liberals to a liberal audience, Ed.