Posted on Friday, October 30th, 2009 at 6:37 pm
Author: Renee Martin
David Letterman has been the king of late night for decades. From stupid animal tricks to tossing out canned hams to the audience, he has kept the laughs coming. Part of his charm is his ability to be completely self-depreciating while telling a joke.
When Letterman decided to share that someone had allegedly attempted to blackmail him because he had engaged in “some terrible things,” the delivery of the information to the viewing public was extremely important. Apparently, the blackmail letter even came with proof of Dave’s guilt.
He took ten minutes to tell the story, pausing to allow for the occasional nervous twitter, while making sure that the audience was not only attentive, but relating to him as the lovable late night shtick man they had come to adore. “I’m motivated by nothing but guilt. I’m a towering mass of Lutheran Midwestern guilt,” Dave hinted as made his way to the climax of this little confession. Faced with the threat that “these terrible things,” which he deftly reminded the audience were true, were about to be revealed to the public, he announced that he had arranged a meeting with the D.A. What could the king of stupid animal tricks have done?
Letterman knew better than most that the method of delivery is often more important than the message itself and so he continued to whet the curiosity until he sensed a climax of anticipation. Dave then revealed that he had engaged in consensual sex with women working for his show. In the wake of the arrest of Roman Polanski, his indiscretion seemed not only minor, but downright acceptable for a man in his position.
In the days that followed, the intimacies of Letterman’s sex life would become a water cooler topic. The ladies on “The View” would weigh in, reminding everyone that whether or not Letterman had been unfaithful to his wife was a private matter. Barbara Walters even went as far as to point out what a handsome man Letterman is. In a bid to support him, she reminded the public how painful this must be for him, considering that he is such a private man. “Victim Dave” quickly became the go-to script in media discussion of the alleged blackmail scheme, yet the spectre of sexual harassment hung in the air.
Letterman made it quite clear in his confession that all sexual liaisons were indeed consensual, but this does not mean that this did not lead to a compromised work environment. Balance in the workplace is often very difficult to negotiate. The average worker spends more time in a typical week with their fellow associates than with their families. The modern day workplace is a breeding ground for affairs, bitterness and, unfortunately, gender inequality.
Nell Scovell, a former writer for The “Late Show With David Letterman,” responded to the speculation by announcing in an article in Vanity Fair, that she quit her dream job because of a hostile working environment. Scovell made it clear that Letterman did not attempt to harass or seduce her, but she did say that the sexual relationships and the potential for favouritism made it extremely hard to continue on in a job that once meant a great deal to her.
According to Scovell, this discomfort takes on the form of harassment because it results in a hostile work environment that is demeaning to women. In an office environment where people are engaging in sex, the hierarchy becomes blurred. When you are having a conversation with one half of the sexual relationship – the other half being your superior – you are never certain how far it extends. Does this person have the ability to manipulate the situation enough to get you reprimanded or fired? Will they be awarded the great assignments because of an intimate relationship? There will always be a question of whether or not work is truly valued, if you are not a participant in the sexual dalliances.
Since Scovell’s revelation, many have weighed in on whether or not she should have quit her job. Whoopie Goldberg made it clear on “The View” that women should not stay in situations that are unhealthy. While this is a laudable position, it does not reflect the enormous class and gender stratification that currently exists.
download The Candy Snatchers movie Lilo & Stitch trailer Women are disadvantaged in the work place, and this means having the ability to leave is a privilege. In many cases, women do not possess the contacts necessary to appropriately network. Even when they are successful in landing a job, income disparity usually means that they will earn less than men, thus limiting their options. Though Scovell was so distressed by her job that she chose to seek employment elsewhere, we must still acknowledge that she was lucky to be able to do so.
Meanwhile, undocumented female workers risk rape and violence daily to send stipends to family members that are dependent upon their contributions for food, education, housing and healthcare. According to the World Bank, in 2008 these remittances totalled 305 billion US dollars. In light of this situation, what recourse do the women have but to attempt to block out heinous violations and continue to work? There are single mothers that are being fondled by their bosses who cannot quit because they have no one to turn to. Women who are poor cannot afford to simply walk away from a job, no matter how painful it is for them continue. It was wonderful to praise Scovell for choosing her mental health over continuing in a position in which she clearly found damaging, but it was her class position that made that choice available.
A poisonous work environment harms more than just the employees at a particular company. As people interact with one another, discussions of the ways in which female employees change interpersonal dynamics makes it even less desirable to hire women. Professions that have largely been male-dominated continue to be so because of a refusal to change behaviour, a desire to maintain gender based privilege, or simply the wish to avoid potential lawsuits.
According to Scovell, the “Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Jay Leno Show”, and “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” currently have no women employed as writers. If the few women employed behind the scenes are involved in sexual relationships and not participating in positions of power, it reduces such women to their ability to sexually satisfy a male superior.
Whether or not such relationships are 100% consensual is debatable when we consider the power differentials. Not saying no does not always mean yes. Even though these employees may not be as vulnerable as undocumented workers, sexual relationships blur the line as to the real function of an employee.
Letterman may have been able to laugh and play on the “boys will boys” stereotype in the telling of the alleged blackmail scheme, but that does not mean that his sexual activities did not cause harm to the women in his employ. Though he smiled like a Cheshire cat in what was clearly a desperate attempt to portray himself as the victim, his gender will protect him from being reduced to a vicious punch line while the paychecks continue to roll in. He will not be defined by his sexual activities any more than Bill Clinton was when he engaged in an extra-marital dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. That stain will belong to the women who will never be sure if their purpose is to act as a fluffer, or to contribute their wit and intelligence into creating an evening of good television.
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