Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Morgan Freeman and the troubling direction of #MeToo

The film awards season is over and Cannes has been handed back to wealthy holiday-makers, yet the #MeToo movement shows no signs of slowing down. Morgan Freeman is the most recent addition to the ignominious list of film producers, directors and actors who have had accusations of sexual harassment made against them since #MeToo took off in October last year.

Allegations against the 80 year-old Freeman, star of The Shawshank Redemption, emerged last week on the day before Harvey Weinstein handed himself into police in New York on charges of rape. The charges against Weinstein are serious; he should stand trial and, if found guilty, face a lengthy prison sentence. Yet the #MeToo label puts Freeman and Weinstein into the same category: both have abused their power in order to sexually harass women. We’re asked to see their crimes as comparable; the behaviour of both men showing the abuse women in the film industry routinely experience.

Eight women have so far come forward with accusations against Freeman. The most serious allegations come from an anonymous female production assistant who worked with Freeman on the 2015 film Going In Style. She alleges that Freeman ‘subjected her to unwanted touching,’ explaining that he would rest his hand on or rub her lower back. In one incident, Freeman allegedly tried to lift up her skirt – although he wasn’t successful. He made comments about her figure and clothing, apparently on an almost daily-basis. None of this took place in a hotel room, it occurred in a film studio. It was not in private but in public; no one had recently emerged from the shower and everyone was fully clothed. In this context, Freeman touched a young woman’s back and skirt and made clear he found her attractive – behaviour she did not solicit or reciprocate. Freeman might be rude, boorish and annoying around women. But deserving of comparison to Weinstein? Hardly.

The allegations made by the seven other women, and reported on by CNN, don’t even amount to back-rubbing. One woman notes that Freeman harassed her and her female assistant on numerous occasions by making comments about their bodies. A recurring theme in the accusations is Freeman’s eyes or, to be more precise, where – or at what – he would look. One woman claims that sometimes Freeman would ‘come over to my desk to say hi and he’d just stand there and stare at me. He would stare at my breasts.’ She says, ‘If I ever passed him he would stare at me in an awkward way, would look me up and down sometimes stopping and just staring.’ All mention Freeman’s alleged habit of ‘looking women up and down.’ On one occasion he apparently asked a woman to give him a twirl. And, so far, that’s it.

Freeman spoke to and looked at a small number of women in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. In the words of a male former employee, he behaved like a ‘creepy uncle’. But this is a difficult accusation to make stick. At what point does a look turn into a stare? When does a glance become ‘looking up and down’? When does a compliment become a comment about someone’s body? It’s impossible to provide objective answers to these questions. The accusations against Freeman show us that #MeToo is moving into subjective terrain. It’s no longer about what a man has done but about how a woman feels. Whether it’s a look or a stare, a compliment or sexual harassment, depends entirely on how it is perceived. Morgan has now apologised to ‘anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.’  

Defining sexual harassment so broadly and subjectively does women no favours. The majority of women can cope with being looked at, having their back touched or having their appearance commented on. They can make clear when such attention is not wanted. No workplace rules or changes to the law can ever control where people look. Still less can we legislate against circumstances in which people might feel uncomfortable.

The #MeToo movement calls for a change in culture so that women no longer need to put up with behaviour that makes them feel uncomfortable. Not only is this impossible it is also counterproductive. The more we tell women the workplace is a sexist and toxic environment, the more women come to interpret their experiences through that lens. 

The allegations against Freeman have come to light months after #MeToo first took off on social media. Some of the accusations now circulating against him date back decades. Lori McCreary, Freeman’s business partner, reports Freeman recalling, in public, the time they first met twenty years earlier. ‘She had on a dress cut to here,’ he apparently told those listening. As Freeman says, ‘How is that news?’

It’s become news now because CNN sought out women willing to make accusations against Freeman. As part of a ‘months-long reporting process’ they ‘reached out to dozens more people who worked for or with Freeman.’ It seems that some of those contacted ‘praised Freeman, saying they never witnessed any questionable behaviour or that he was a consummate professional on set and in the office.’

This story about Morgan Freeman is the result of a concerted effort to dig up allegations against him and claim another famous scalp. This is not about Freeman. It’s not even about the women who felt uncomfortable. Rather, this is about feeding the #MeToo publicity machine in order to keep the whole show on the road.