The Right and Wrong of the Morgan Freeman Sexual Harassment Charges

The Right and Wrong of the Morgan Freeman Sexual Harassment Charges

The Morgan Freeman sexual harassment charges put out by CNN were a shock.  If accurate, it’s another sad reminder that bad behavior is too easily tolerated in Hollywood.  Of course, it’s not the only place that is, but this article is about the entertainment industry.

 The tendency in show business is to excuse a star’s bad behavior as part of his or hers “creative process” (see: Jeffrey Tambor).  Eccentricity is one thing.  Sexual harassment is something else.  However, there are different levels of it.  

Two Different Men, two Different Charges

On Friday, May 25, 2018, Harvey Weinstein turned himself into NYC police and was formally charged with “rape, a criminal sex act, sexual abuse and sexual misconduct for cases involving two women.”   This is what the prosecutor said about the charges.

Mr. Weinstein used his position, money, and power to lure young women into situations where he was able to violate them sexually.

Meanwhile, there are somewhere between seventy-five to ninety-five allegations against him that range from sexual misconduct to rape.  He’s also accused of retaliating against actresses that were able to rebuff his advances. There are other cases being looked at in New York to possibly add to his charges. Los Angeles and London are also looking at cases in their cities.  

There’s a reason for this reminder of events that I know are fresh in your mind.  It’s because on the same day Weinstein was charged, CNN came out with this report on the Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman. The title is as follows.

Women accuse Morgan Freeman of inappropriate behavior, harassment

As soon as I saw it I thought I was going to be physically sick. Good God, was he another Weinstein or Bill Cosby?  After I read the report I no longer felt sick. Mind you, I didn’t feel good.  This was a disappointing reveal about an actor I have great admiration for. His alleged behavior is a classic example of “toxic masculinity,” a term that writer Tim Zimmer at Slate defined beautifully.

Men are taught to regularly say and do things to women that they would never say or do to other men, that they would never want men to say or do to them.

Toxic masculinity can turn into the horrific behaviors and actions of Weinstein (who’s since been indicted), Cosby, and the alleged conduct of the Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman. Their reported actions describe conscious and deliberate abuses of power that are felonies.  Even things that have been alleged to have been done by Louis C.K. fall under criminal sexual misconduct.  At this point, what Morgan Freeman has been accused of does not.  

The Morgan Freeman Sexual Harassment Charges: His Responses 

Entertainment Tonight released a video with Freeman’s first statement after the CNN report was put out.  The video also has two examples of the bad behavior listed in it.

From his first statement, you can tell Freeman was baffled by the accusations against him.  His second statement shows he at least understands what’s been objected to.  

All victims of assault and harassment deserve to be heard. And we need to listen to them. But it is not right to equate horrific incidents of sexual assault with misplaced compliments or humor.

I admit that I am someone who feels a need to try to make women–and men–feel appreciated and at ease around me. As part of that, I would often try to joke with and compliment women, in what I thought was a light-hearted and humorous way.

Clearly I was not always coming across the way I intended. And that is why I apologized Thursday and will continue to apologize to anyone I might have upset, however unintentionally. But I also want to be clear: I did not create unsafe work environments. I did not assault women. I did not offer employment or advancement in exchange for sex. Any suggestion that I did so is completely false.”

Morgan Freeman has a Point

There’s a good chunk of Freeman’s second statement that is true.  Thus far the pattern of behavior Freeman is accused of doesn’t go to the level of being a felony or even a misdemeanor. No one is claiming Freeman raped them, or whipped it out in front of them, or threatened their job if they didn’t play along.  

This article isn’t a defense of the things he’s been accused of.  It is about putting them into their proper place. That place exists somewhere in the space between the aforementioned men and the former Senator Al Franken, who’s forced resignation some have called unfair and lacking in due process.

Whatever you think about Franken’s treatment after the fact, few disagree that his behavior was inappropriate.  In that way, the behaviors of Cosby, Weinstein, Franken, and those that CNN claim are Freeman’s fall under toxic masculinity.  At the same time, not everything that’s being called out merits a Defcon 1 response. Doing so actually trivializes the worst of the behaviors.

Next Up: Morgan Freeman vs. the Worst of Behavior

The Worst of Behaviors

The fame of the above men used to be for their work.  Now it’s become for the crimes they’re accused of, and in the case of Cosby and Roman Polanski, there have also been convictions. Polanski infamously raped a 13-year-old girl and then fled the country.  Recently, four other reported victims who were underage at the time have come forward.

The vast number of accusers for Weinstein and Cosby puts them in the category of serial rapists who used their power and influence instead of a gun or knife. To that point, Weinstein actually is accused of damaging the careers of women who managed to get away.

In the case of Cosby, his fame was the lure used to drug his victims.  Slipping a woman a “molly,” “mickie,” or “roofie” in order to rape her is a long-standing tool of rapists and has nothing to do with fame.  It’s so prevalent that it ends up in song lyrics.

Hoffman and Kevin Spacey stand accused of sexual battery and indecent exposure.  One of Hoffman’s alleged victims was a teenage girl. Most of Spacey’s accusers were underaged boys at the time.  

Then there’s C.K. Louis.  He has admitted to being guilty of indecent exposure. While it’s considered a lesser crime – it’s still a crime.  The punishment for it can get you jail time and registered as a sex offender.

Based on what CNN has reported about Morgan Freeman, he should not be put in the same category as these guys.  Any consequences he faces shouldn’t be the same either. At the same time, there have to be consequences if we want the bad behavior to stop. 

Here’s What’s Wrong in the Second Morgan Freeman Statement

Freeman says he does not “create unsafe work environments.”  If the allegations in the CNN report are true, (and he’s disputing them) he does – but hasn’t known it.

In the article, it’s mentioned that Freeman does these things right out in the open with other people around, and even with cameras rolling.  That’s a very different thing than say, Weinstein, who – by the reports – clearly knew he was in the wrong.  Hoffman’s accusers describe his behavior as clandestine. He didn’t want a photo with his hand on the actress’s breast. In contrast, Freeman’s actions are of a man that thinks he’s not doing anything improper.

Morgan Freeman on Respecting Women

There’s a telling CNN video clip from 2011 where Freeman is asked by Piers Morgan about being “a ladies man.”  His response might explain what’s behind his behavior.  

What’s the essence of this clip? For one, he talks about respecting women and not chasing them.  Instead, he says you should let women chase you. This statement, in particular, jumps out at me.

You meet a lady, you express to her how wonderful she looks or…how you respond to the way she looks, or whatever it is, and then, go on about your business.

What Freeman is describing is basically hitting on women.  Yet, he either doesn’t seem to know that or doesn’t know it’s a bad thing. Honestly, many men don’t.  They should consider that the practice is called, “hitting.”

Old-Fashion Sexual Harassment?

There’s an entire culture understanding about these interactions between men and women which needs to be addressed and changed.  We can’t put it all on those abusers of a flawed social contract. In an article regarding an uncomfortable incident with comedian Aziz Ansarithe author mentions the statement of one man that really opens up this issue.

“Everything we were taught was wrong. I feel cheated, angry.” He was taught to be assertive, take charge in the mating and seduction ritual. The message was clear: Make the first move, be persistent, don’t back down. All of this, he could see now, was part of toxic masculinity.

Even if you like the old-fashioned, “mating and seduction ritual,” that’s not what’s supposed to be happening at work.   The reports from the women seem similar to what Freeman described to Mr. Morgan, and it made many of them uncomfortable.  Legally, that falls under making the workplace feel unsafe. 

Next Up: The Age of Mad Men…

Mad Men

Today is not the Age of Mad Men

Morgan Freeman is 81 years old.  This means he came of age in the late 1950’s and early sixties.  The time period covered in the TV series Mad Men starts in 1960.  …Some of the stories CNN has reported about Freeman remind me of Freddie from Mad Men.

It’s more than just Freddie though.  All of what Freeman is accused of, and his defense of it, reminds me of Mad Men.  It’s in his casual objectification of the women he works with.  There’s also his idea that doing so to a woman is somehow helpful to her.  Today we tend to forget that once upon a time this thinking was a socially accepted reality.

The thing is we no longer live in the age of Man Men. Some men of a certain age (and Freeman is in that group) seem to have missed the memo.  Specifically, they missed this one from 1964.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it occurs in the workplace. EEOC guidelines define sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

  • Submission to such conduct is a term or condition of an individual’s employment. The requirement may be stated outright or may be implicit, or implied.
  • Submission to or rejection of the conduct is a basis for employment decisions
  • Conduct of a sexual nature has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with work performance
  • Conduct of a sexual nature creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Unwelcome is the critical word. Unwelcome means unwanted. Sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome.


Honestly, I think most men get the first two points listed.   It’s the last two they tend to miss.  Let’s use one last example from Mad Men to show what those points can look like.

Just to be clear, the men are belittling Joan and Peggy’s work while commenting on Joan’s body as an asset to get the business she wants.  What’s most interesting about it is that the men seem oblivious to the effect they are having on the women.  Times being what they were, the women do their best to work around the nonsense.

Today, we’re all supposed to know better.  If the reports in the CNN article are accurate, Morgan Freeman obviously doesn’t. Likewise, women still find themselves having to work around improper male behavior – like wearing baggy clothes to work to avoid being hit on.

Freeman thinks he’s being playful and humorous –  you know,  just joking around -like the guys in the meeting.  In his statement, he actually says he does it to put people at ease!

Next Up: So, Me Too & Time’s Up – Now What?

Morgan Freeman Sexual Harassment Charges: What Happens Now? 

The Me Too & Time’s Up movements are important and necessary if we’re going to make safety and equality for all in the workplace a reality.  For too long women have put up with sexual misconduct, abuse, and full out assault and rape, as the price for earning a living.  It is good to remember though, that while these movements have a connection, they aren’t the same thing.

The Missions of Me Too and Time’s Up

Me Too was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke and became a hashtag sent viral in 2017 by actress Alyssa Milano.  This is part of the original vision statement

Using the idea of “empowerment through empathy,” the ‘Me Too’ movement was ultimately created to ensure survivors know they’re not alone in their journey.

TIme’s Up was founded on January 1st, 2018 by a group of female Hollywood celebrities. This is from their mission statement.

TIME’S UP™ is an organization that insists on safe, fair and dignified work for women of all kinds. We want women from the factory floor to the floor of the Stock Exchange to feel linked as sisters as we shift the paradigm of workplace culture. 

Time’s Up and Me Too Can Work Together, but  They Are Not The Same

Rather than reinvent the wheel, there’s a comprehensive article in Time magazine about the differences between Me Too and Time’s Up.  This is their nutshell version of them.

#MeToo explicitly deals with sexual violence of all kinds, Time Up’s is focused more so on workplace equity and creating equal economic opportunities for women and people of color – and combating sexual harassment and assault is just one of the many ways Time Up’s are working to end widespread employment disparities.

Looking at these two movements, the Me Too part of dealing with Freeman is being met.  It’s the Time’s Up part that needs looking at.

What Should Time’s Up For Morgan Freeman Look Like

In Hollywood, the shift in culture has been rapid, as major stars and power players have been taken down off their pedestals.  Bill Cosby being indicted for sexual assault and Harvey Weinstein turning himself into the police today are absolute wins. What they did was atrocious and criminal.

That’s why when the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences announced they were kicking out Weinstein, Cosby, and Polanski, I was thrilled.  Meanwhile, across the nation, Cosby has been stripped of his various honors: lifetime achievement awards, honorary degrees, etc.

Time’s Up Shouldn’t be One Size Fits All

Now though, SAG is deciding whether or not to strip Freeman of his lifetime award.  Yet, nothing that Freeman is accused of comes remotely to the level of Cosby, Weinstein, or Polanski. What they appear to be looking at are possible violations of their new code of conduct.  

The changes SAG has made are good.  At the same time, is it fair to impose it retroactively?  There is also this issue of equivalency. Being a serial rapist and acting like a dirty old man on set should not have the same punishment.

How Should Such Things be Handled?

Most HR departments deal with inappropriate, non-criminal behavior with warnings and training before firing.   Corporations get warnings and fines.  However, the fear of retaliation often stops people from reporting bad behavior.  Sadly, it’s not an unreasonable fear.  For real change to happen, this fear has to be addressed.

 Time’s Up wants to  “shift the paradigm of workplace culture.”  In pursuing that goal they are providing funding for lawsuits, advocating for equal pay, and holding people accountable.  However, to really shift things people need to know it’s okay to tell a big star “no” or “stop it” without fearing for their job.  

Silence Only Makes Things Worse

There’s a lot in the CNN report about people being afraid to say anything in fear that Freeman would try to ruin their careers.  It’s the idea that the star will intrinsically have this power – which they do – that keeps people from saying anything.  This lets the person acting out think it’s just fine. 

In the case presented about Freeman, there’s no evidence to suggest he’s ever imposed any kind of career blocks to the women for not picking up on his cues.  The very existence of the report shows this.

CNN reporter Chloe Melas says she reported an incident with Morgan Freeman to HR.  It was looked into and found to be unsubstantiated. She’s not been fired or curtailed at CNN because of it.  (In fact, she’s one of the authors of the CNN reporter against Freeman – which is a little odd, but does show CNN hasn’t held anything against her.)

Another Nuance: Age, Culture, and Comfortability

The other thing is that one of reported “accusers,” reporter Tyra Martin has pushed back on how her story was presented.  Her account adds a different spin on things.  It backs up Freeman’s point that he was just joking around.  At the same time, she acknowledges that what was okay with her may not have been understood by someone else.  

Her characterization made me think of some of my own experiences as a person of color.  For instance, older black men tend to tell me to “smile” as I’m walking down the street.  It’s annoying and inappropriate – but usually harmless.  If the same thing is done by a man in my age bracket though, that’s another story.  It feels far more intrusive and uncomfortable – because he should know better.   

Morgan Freeman is an 81-year-old African-American man.  It doesn’t make his actions okay, but there’s likely no malevolent intent. 

The Wrap Up: So Far, Morgan Freeman is not a Bill Cosby

 I’m going to wait for more information on Freeman.  It’s not that I don’t believe the stories of the women.  For one, I do want to see if the behavior described is as far as it goes. If it starts going into Hoffman or Weinstein territory that’s a different story.  

The Morgan Freeman sexual harassment charges may have some validity.  At the same time, the level we’re discussing is nowhere near the scale of some of the other cases.  If proven,  yes, someone probably needs to sit him down and explain some things to him.  Maybe SAG should consider fines for future similar behavior. 

However, at this date, none of what’s been alleged against Freeman makes him a Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein.  It makes sense that he’s fighting against that perception.  The momentum of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have been sudden and fast.  As such there’s not been a lot said about the different levels of sexual harassment.  We need to start that conversation.

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    • Joy D'Angelo
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