Jill Filipovic: Accusations about his behavior, for which he's apologized, should not surprise
She says banter showed how cultural scripts about sex allow bad behavior to flourish
The sexual harassment and assault claims against powerful men keep rolling in, and this week, it’s Charlie Rose under scrutiny after a stunning piece in The Washington Post detailed allegations of years of Rose’s harassment and unwanted sexual advances toward younger female employees and prospective employees. In a statement, Rose apologized, adding, “I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate. I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Rose played the role of dirty older man on CBS for years.
Talk about sex has been routine on “CBS This Morning,” which shouldn’t be a big deal – adults have sex, and it’s a fun and normal part of life. But the “CBS This Morning” sex talk tended to follow a familiar script: flirtatious women teasing a leering older man. It was such a staple of the show (and so creepy) that “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” has, over time, turned it into a running gag.
It wasn’t as straightforward as Rose “harassing” his co-hosts, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, on air; they were just as likely to bring sexually charged commentary into the room. Nor should the lesson be that sex is off-limits on television, or that we need to return to some sort of moral prudery – that, too, often disadvantages women, who are then perceived as representations of sex itself.
But the sexual banter on “CBS This Morning” did show us how our cultural scripts about sex and sexuality allow bad behavior to flourish, and cover for men who abuse their power. This show was but one version of a trope that you can’t avoid when you turn on the TV.
On the show, the joke was that Rose was of course attracted to his female co-workers, and that he was a bit of a ladies’ man. The women were coquettish and flirty but in a way that read as safe and bordered on head-patting – a kind of condescending flirtation with which many women who have had to appease inappropriate bosses are surely familiar.
King and O’Donnell are both accomplished journalists, but to sell a morning show to audiences that want them to seem fun and familiar, they were on air smiling with Rose when he asked to see their tan lines again.
This is so often how we present heterosexuality: men as sexual bloodhounds always sniffing out another lay (no matter how old they are, no matter whether they’re in their place of employment), women as objects of desire.
For women, shutting down that narrative means you’re prudish or even rude. Being likable means playing along – flirting with men old enough to be your father when they indicate that’s what they like, while not crossing the line into explicit conveyance of your own sexual desires (that would make you a slut).
Men, obviously, benefit mightily from this model. The same behavior Rose exhibited on the air – his gently leering old man persona – was allegedly magnified in his life off the air, reportedly to the detriment of some of his female subordinates, according to their accounts.
To their immense credit, Rose’s former co-hosts addressed the issue directly on the show and made clear that their friend and former colleague gets no passes here. Beyond that, the Rose revelations offer a good opportunity to look at the bigger picture – not just his behavior, but the cultural norms that enabled it. The ones that we saw played out on television every morning.
Rose is one of the many men who not only stand accused of sexual harassment but has also had a hand in shaping the stories that narrate our culture and our politics. The culture of harassment of course has to change. But so does the subtler culture of misogyny, and the stories we tell about men, women and the way we are.