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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Leonard Pitts Jr.: How the times have changed

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Miami Herald

You may, if you are old enough, recall a TV actor named Foster Brooks.

He was a guest star on such classics of boomer kitsch as “The Monkees,” “The Munsters” and “The Mod Squad.” But if you do remember him, it’s likely for one thing only: his imitation of inebriation. Brooks made his slurring, stammering “funny drunk act” a TV staple, back when drunks were still considered, well … funny.

To recall his career is to marvel at what a difference a generation or two makes.

That era produced another TV trope that, in hindsight, seems equally bizarre: the funny sexual harasser. A hundred times, you saw it: the lecherous boss chasing the nubile secretary around the desk. A hundred times, it didn’t register as anything but a joke.

And again, the memory makes you marvel at how the times, they have changed.

In their new book, “She Said,” Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the New York Times reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story, remind us that early October contains three anniversaries, each a milestone of the progress we have – and have not – made in learning to take sexual assault seriously.

Oct. 7, 2016: The Washington Post releases the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” video where presidential candidate Donald Trump brags about sexually assaulting women. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” he says. “Grab them by the … You can do anything.”

Oct. 5, 2018: The Senate advances the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite a credible allegation that, as a drunken teenager, he attempted to rape a then-classmate, research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford.

Between those two dates – Oct. 5, 2017 – the Times published its report on the film producer Weinstein and his alleged assaults on women in his professional circle, including the actress Ashley Judd. Later, Gwyneth Paltrow and Annabella Sciorra would also number themselves among the accusers.

The story opened a floodgate. By the time the wave of accusations crested, it had splashed dozens of famous men: Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., George H.W. Bush and Al Franken among them. Once-silent women found their voices under a hashtag – #MeToo.

“She Said” recounts the journalistic detective work that led to the breakthrough. It’s a compelling story that leaves one pleased to see the good guys – the good “gals,” really – get a win. But let us be clear on the limitations of that win. Indeed, the convergence of those anniversaries speaks eloquently to America’s ongoing irresolution on matters of sexual harassment and assault. Sure, Weinstein is facing charges, but Kavanaugh went to the Supreme Court, and Trump to the White House.

Still, the story Twohey and Kantor broke changed gender politics. Predictably, there came a backlash, increasing numbers of male managers reportedly refusing to mentor female subordinates. That would seem to open them to civil sanctions. It will be fun to watch one of them try to defend his sexism in court, perhaps before a judge with lady parts.

Elsewhere, folks just want to know, where is the line? Is it allowed to tell a co-worker you find her attractive? Can you share – or laugh at – a bawdy joke? “So much was suddenly open to question,” write Kantor and Twohey.

And it is. And that is surely frustrating and difficult.

On the other hand, some of us remember when the boss chased the secretary while the laugh track howled. We thought nothing of it. Now people are wondering “What’s acceptable?”

Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

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