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.”
Read: The weaponization of awkwardness
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.