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The Particular Horror of Hearing Creepy Stories About Famous Men Who Should Know Better

Between Gawker publishing rumors that beloved comedian Louis C.K. has a tendency to expose himself (and I don’t mean emotionally) to women in the comedy world and today’s BuzzFeed piece alleging that a well-known TV character actor most recently seen on Mad Men acted inappropriately in the publication’s offices, it’s been a banner week for learning that a few male celebrities whose work addresses sexist and downright creepy behavior… may also practice that behavior.

Some brief background: last week Defamer updated an original Gawker blind item that mentioned a comedian with a propensity to expose himself and masturbate around women, offering further, if somewhat slim evidence that the comedian is C.K. — whose work has been embraced by some feminists. From the previous item, all the way back in 2012: “One of the ladies was so shaken by the episode that she complained to the festival’s organizers about the comedian’s behavior. She promptly received a call from his extremely powerful manager explaining that, if she valued her career, she would drop it. She valued her career.” Gawker has been unable to fully confirm any of these stories.

Then BuzzFeed’s Susan Cheng wrote about her experience interviewing Paul Johansson, known for playing super-creep Ferg Donnelly, star of Joan’s sexual harassment plot arc. Cheng says she heard “about three comments from Johansson that would’ve been inappropriate in an ad agency in the early 1970s, like the one his misogynistic character works at on Mad Men.” And that’s before he joked about “making out” in their phone booths. Cheng reached out to Johansson for follow-up comments on their encounter, but received a letter from his lawyer instead, calling her allegations “reckless and defamatory.”

Both of these allegations follow a common pattern: male artists expose, discuss, and participate in art detailing and even condemning sexist or problematic behavior, and then end up being accused of the same behavior. Of course, anyone who has spent time in progressive spaces, full of so-called male feminists or proud white anti-racists, will be aware that this kind of hypocrisy is far from rare. It may arise from entitlement, the idea that, “I’m doing good work so I can get away with bad behavior.” Conversely, it may be a function of guilt, the idea that someone is hyper-aware of his or her own bad behavior, and so turns to activism, art, or self-expression that recognizes and even attempt to atone for a pernicious part of the self.

If the rumors about Louis C.K. are true, for example, that casts new light on his comedy routine about the threat men pose to women. Clearly, he’s someone who understands the issue of misogyny and gendered violence on a larger level.

Of course, some anti-rape activists rape. Some putative anti-oppression champions oppress. And to an even greater extent, some artists who are particularly deft and believable at transposing the worst kinds of sexist or brutal behaviors into performance or writing may have an intimate connection with the very actions they describe.

But that doesn’t stop it from burning particularly badly when artists we trusted, the truth-tellers or comforting father figures, from Bill Cosby on down, are revealed to be participants in a system that hurts us. There’s a reason why more progressives are up in arms about the Louis C.K. rumors than today’s rumors that Bill O’Reilly hurt his wifeEach new report of gross misconduct or just plain sleaziness from a treasured figure contributes to a sense that there’s absolutely no one we can trust, no true allies. Of course, this isn’t universally the case — and the stories about C.K. may never come to anything. But the prospect that so many of the men who “get it” still can’t stop this behavior is bound to make us wonder: who can?