The James Franco Lawsuit Has a Point to Make About ‘Comfort Zones’

The allegations that the actor exploited women students echo a broader assumption: that discomfort in a professional setting is a liability.

James Franco makes his arrival at the 2017 Academy Awards.
James Franco makes his arrival at the 2017 Academy Awards. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

Late yesterday, news broke: Two women, Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, are suing James Franco and two of his partners in the acting school Studio 4—on the grounds that the men “engaged in widespread inappropriate and sexually charged behavior towards female students by sexualizing their power as a teacher and an employer by dangling the opportunity for roles in their projects.”

The allegations themselves are not, strictly, new; they represent a legal escalation of complaints made to the Los Angeles Times—by five women—in January 2018. The new suit alleges that Franco and his partners used Studio 4, essentially, as a front: a mechanism through which they could take advantage of young women who attended classes there in the hopes of becoming actors. The school disbanded in 2017. Before it did, the suit alleges, its students were “routinely pressured to engage in simulated sex acts that went far beyond the standards in the industry.” The women were reportedly required to sign away their rights to footage taken of them. “In auditions and classes,” The New York Times notes, “the women said they were encouraged to push beyond their comfort zones while they were denied the protections of nudity riders and other film-industry guidelines that govern how actors can be portrayed and treated in nude scenes.”

This is, in one way, a very specific story about Tither-Kaplan, Gaal, Franco, and the extreme particularities of the American entertainment industry. And Franco’s attorney, early this morning, denied the allegations. “This is not the first time that these claims have been made and they have already been debunked,” he said in a statement, adding: “James will not only fully defend himself, but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit.”

But it’s worth pausing, while the suit is new, to consider the specifics of the allegations: the denial of industry-standard protections for the actors, the school’s insistence that those actors constantly push beyond their comfort zone. The broad outlines of the story the women are telling are there, again and again, in discussions of sexual harassment and abuse: pressure applied. Comfort zones treated not as guides to appropriate behavior, but as hindrances to it. People’s internal sense of what is acceptable for them, and to them—and what is not—ignored and, sometimes, turned against them.

Comfort zone, the term itself, is ecological in origin: It refers to the range of temperatures at which organisms will not need to expend energy on thermoregulation. In social and cultural contexts, though, the term is typically treated as a negative—not a matter of blunt biological necessity so much as a reminder that one’s preferences about the world can double as impediments. In art, in business, in work, in life, in a culture that prizes self-optimization and denigrates comfort accordingly, a comfort zone can become a place that suggests complacency. And comfort itself can function as a paradox: The best comfort is to be found, American culture will often tell you, in making yourself uncomfortable.

In some ways, certainly, those ideas are apt. Progress, at the level of the individual person and the level of a culture more broadly, often demands, very specifically, discomfort. But the Franco suit suggests the other side of that logic. Nudity reportedly encouraged, though an actor might be uncomfortable being naked on a stage. Sex scenes seeming to play out despite people’s stated discomfort with them. Internal temperatures ignored. It is a theme. Here is part of the exchange recorded by the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in March 2015—a discussion with Harvey Weinstein, conducted in a hotel hallway, recorded as part of a New York Police Department sting operation:

Weinstein: I won’t do anything and you’ll never see me again after this. Okay? That’s it. If you don’t—if you embarrass me in this hotel where I’m staying—

Gutierrez: I’m not embarrassing you—

Weinstein: Just walk—

Gutierrez: It’s just that I don’t feel comfortable.

Weinstein: Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway.

Gutierrez: It’s not nothing, it’s—

Weinstein: Please. I’m not gonna do anything. I swear on my children. Please come in. On everything. I’m a famous guy.

Gutierrez: I’m—I’m feeling very uncomfortable right now.

Weinstein: Please come in. And one minute. And if you wanna leave when the guy comes with my jacket, you can go.

This is typical—not just of the stories told of Weinstein, but also, too often, of sexual scripts. Gutierrez was saying, again and again, that she was uncomfortable; Weinstein was, again and again, ignoring her. The aggressor, impatient, demanding, unwilling to hear protestations of discomfort. “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s short story, went viral in 2017 in part because it was a literary explanation of a phenomenon already familiar to so many people: comfort zones declared and ignored. Discomfort dismissed as a liability.

Consider, again, the allegations in the new Franco suit—the things Franco and his colleagues allegedly asked women to do in the name of artistry and art itself. Tither-Kaplan took a master class at Studio 4 on the filming of sex scenes—a class reportedly meant to serve as a pipeline for casting in Franco’s independent films. Here is one allegation Tither-Kaplan has made before, and made again in the suit: “During the making of an orgy scene for one of his films,” The New York Times reports, “Mr. Franco removed plastic guards that covered other actresses’ vaginas while he simulated oral sex on them.”

Franco’s attorney has disputed this claim as well, telling the Los Angeles Times in January 2018, “The allegations about the protective guards are not accurate.” But the allegations suggest a professional environment turned, in an instant, into another kind. They also suggest a kind of protection—a kind of comfort—for Franco and his partners. The suit refers to the “master class for sex scenes” that Tither-Kaplan took. Some people hearing her allegations might conclude, given that setting, that abuse isn’t really abuse, that simulated sex is meaningfully indistinguishable from the other kind.

That conclusion, however, would be wrong. Hollywood, for all its talk of movies and magic, is in the end a business like any other, its products created by workers engaged in acts of professionalism. (Indeed, as the Times journalist Jodi Kantor noted to Bob Woodward earlier this week, when Woodward asked, among other things, whether Weinstein’s alleged predations were a kind of “weird foreplay”: The allegations against Weinstein are, first and foremost, workplace violations—less about sex itself than about the squelching of opportunity, talent, and ambition.)

In Hollywood, many studios are taking steps to fight the very problems laid out in the Franco suit. Earlier this year, my colleague Kate Julian reported on efforts to make the filming of sex scenes more comfortable for the actors involved in them—on the set of HBO’s The Deuce, a show exploring sex work in the Times Square of the 1970s (a show, it should be noted, starring Franco). “For the moment, at least,” Julian wrote, “HBO seems intent on finding a way to make sex safe for the small screen, and the small screen safe for sex.”

The women who are suing Franco are doing so, they say, because that system failed. They are alleging that their comfort, in a professional environment, was deemed inconvenient. Their story is so specific; their story is so common. It is notable that, often, stories of sexual harassment and abuse are dismissed on the grounds that the people who tell them are overreaching. They were merely made uncomfortable, the dismissers say. What’s the big deal? Why such prudery? It is notable as well that the #MeToo movement at large has often been challenged on the grounds of discomfort—not the discomfort of the people who have claimed abuse, but rather the discomfort of everyone else. “More men are uncomfortable interacting with women at work since #MeToo, study says,” went a May 2019 headline. Whose comfort matters? Whose is expendable? Those are the questions at play—in the Franco case, and beyond. The answers are rarely encouraging.