If there’s one thing this moment of sexual reckoning has taught us, it’s that we should listen to women. But does that extend to the women speaking up to defend the men other women have accused of sexual harassment? This last week has seen multiple high-profile women ripped apart for coming in to bat for the accused. On Friday, there was Lena Dunham’s now-retracted defense of Girls writer Murray Miller. Tuesday morning saw the release of a letter of support for Al Franken from the women he worked with on Saturday Night Live:
We feel compelled to stand up for Al Franken, whom we have all had the pleasure of working with over the years on Saturday Night Live (SNL).
What Al did was stupid and foolish, and we think it was appropriate for him to apologize to Ms Tweeden, and to the public. In our experience, we know Al as a devoted and dedicated family man, a wonderful comedic performer, and an honorable public servant. That is why we are moved to quickly and directly affirm that after years of working with him, we would like to acknowledge that not one of us ever experienced any inappropriate behavior; and mention our sincere appreciation that he treated each of us with the utmost respect and regard.
We send our support and gratitude to Al and his family this Thanksgiving and holiday season.
In Dunham’s letter defending Girls writer Murray Miller, she declared that Miller was the “wrong target” and suggested that this was “one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year” while having no way to know personally whether the specific claim was true. Her statement was a pretty astonishing display of hypocrisy for a very public feminist who, as recently as August tweeted, “Things women don’t lie about: rape.” But it feels unproductive to paint the SNL women’s letter with the exact same brush.
The statement from 36 SNL women is deeply imperfect. The opening line “We feel compelled to stand up for Al Franken” initially positions itself too directly as a rebuttal to Franken’s accuser instead of an attempt to provide some separate context. The phrasing “we would like to … mention our sincere appreciation that he treated each of us with the utmost respect and regard”—in other words, they “appreciate” being treated like human beings— strikes a strange note. But the statement is no Lena Dunham 2.0. It did not aim to assassinate Tweeden’s character or diminish her claim. While the SNL women could have chosen stronger language than “foolish and “stupid,” they accepted that what Franken did was wrong. Their intention was not to slander Tweeden, but to testify—after years of sharing a workplace with Franken—about what their own experiences were like.
Unlike Dunham’s, their input felt relevant to the allegations at hand. In Franken’s case, in which the (initial) accusation was workplace-adjacent, his female colleagues’ input could theoretically help establish whether there was a pattern of predatory behavior, without dismissing the fact that the incident happened and may have happened to other women. Though of course the court of public opinion is not the court of law, men still have the right to deny accusations, and their friends and colleagues should have the right to attest to their character, too—as long as they don’t smear an accuser’s testimony in the process. Friends and colleagues can add texture and context to the portrait of how this person generally conducts himself around women in the workplace, helping to clarify what kind of offender he is. It goes without saying that we should reflexively believe the women who come forward, regardless of what other women have to say about their friends. But it doesn’t necessarily feel like a cultural good for us to outright dismiss the words of anyone who speaks in defense of the accused.