“I’m not surprised that anyone would boo me for calling out a man accused of rape, because that response is so terrifyingly familiar to me and most survivors. If my own peers haven’t stood by me when I’ve spoken out, why wouldn’t I hear boos from strangers in a New York bar?”
On Tuesday, Kelly Bachman published an op-ed in The New York Times—a remarkable essay that discussed comedy and complicity and the way the two can tangle together. Bachman was writing because, late last week, she had found herself subject to a very particular kind of viral fame: She had been one of the stand-ups performing at the club Downtime Bar—during Actor’s Hour, an event meant to showcase the work of up-and-coming performers—when Harvey Weinstein, entourage in tow, made an appearance as a member of the event’s audience.
Bachman, in her set, had been one of the few people to say something about the man who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 90 women. (Weinstein has insisted that he has never had nonconsensual sex.) The comedian referred to Weinstein, who reportedly entered the venue using a walker and spent much of the event perched at a marble table flanked by two women, as “the elephant in the room” and “Freddy Krueger.” And she made a joke that was only very broadly the stuff of comedy: “I didn’t know we had to bring our own Mace and rape whistles to Actor’s Hour.”
But here was what helped her set go viral: For making those minor nods to reality, Bachman was booed. Video of the scene, posted to Instagram, captured a male voice in the audience responding to Bachman’s references to Weinstein: “Shut up!” he shouted. The audience’s impulse to silence her—backlash, in real time—was ratified when Andrew B. Silas, another stand-up performing at the event, presented a decidedly different take on Weinstein’s presence: “I’d like to address the elephant in the room,” Silas said. “Who in this room produced Good Will Hunting? ’Cause that shit was great.”
Silas told BuzzFeed News that he’d intended the joke to be supportive of Bachman—a callback to her own reference to the “elephant in the room.” (“I swear I’m not a piece of shit,” Silas insisted.) But the effect, of course, was the opposite: Silas’s set seemed to mock Bachman’s—and to insist that Weinstein’s presence at the show was its own kind of light joke. BuzzFeed reported that the Downtime owners had given performers at the Actor’s Hour explicit instructions not to mention Weinstein in their sets. But Bachman, who wrote in her op-ed that she is a three-time survivor of rape, had no interest in staying silent while Weinstein sat before her. And that was how comedy turned into something else: When Bachman mentioned him during her set, she was punished for saying what was plain.
The Downtime show functioned, in the end, as a kind of morality play in reverse. It was a lesson in how easy it is, still, for someone like Harvey Weinstein to move through the world at once thoroughly disgraced and vigorously defended. The scene served as a reminder that, despite the #MeToo movement’s revelations and reckonings, regression is its own kind of force. This was heckling used not in the typical manner—a less-powerful person, demanding a say—but instead in the opposite. This was heckling done in defense of the powerful.
Here is one of the definitions the Oxford English Dictionary offers for heckle, the verb: “To question (a politician, witness, etc.) thoroughly and persistently, esp. in order to test the strength of his or her position or statements.” That idea carries a certain nobility: Heckling, functioning as an arbiter. The notion posits a fundamental equality between the heckler and the hecklee. It suggests the Socratic. The heckling carried out against Kelly Bachman, though, conveys precisely the inverse idea: It was angry. It was incurious. It was partisan—not in a political sense, but in a moral one. And it was interested, as backlash always will be, in protecting the status quo.
When the revelations about Weinstein broke, around this time in 2017, many people met the news not only with shock, but also with a kind of knowingness. They talked about open secrets—about the way Weinstein’s alleged behavior had been treated, for years, with a slippery irony: as a known unknown, as another strain of alternative fact. Two years later, Weinstein’s appearance in a space meant for young performers—and the boos that greeted the woman who dared to object to it—suggests a new iteration of open secret that is, in its way, even more pernicious than the last. There is at this point, even as Weinstein awaits trial for a small percentage of the allegations against him, an obviousness to his monstrosity. It’s not like he’s a Weinstein is a defense that #MeToo detractors often invoke on behalf of those who are accused of—merely, the detractor will often add—groping, or harassing, or abusing their power. But even Weinstein, the Actor’s Hour episode proved, enjoys ongoing impunity: protected in public spaces, his comfort prioritized over that of everyone else.
It is notable, in that sense, that Donald Trump also found himself on the receiving end of heckling—from a crowd at a World Series game he attended in Washington, D.C., this week. This was heckling at scale: During a break in the game’s action, the Nationals Park jumbotron displayed an image of the president in his box, making a rare appearance at an event not populated by his base. The park’s crowd booed, loudly. A section of the stadium began chanting—an ironic reversal of the president’s preferred taunt of Hillary Clinton—“Lock him up.” A group in the park’s upper deck, prepared for the occasion, unfurled an IMPEACH TRUMP banner.
It was a moment that found the president leaving the emotional security of the safe spaces he constructs for himself: Typically, the president watches only Fox News, dines out only at restaurants that he owns, surrounds himself only with fans who, if they do not genuinely adore him, will pretend well enough that they do. Which is to say that the president is usually spared the full brunt of public opinion. He tends to inhabit a world that allows him to pretend that he is only loved, only admired, only catered to.
What happened after the crowd booed, however, was another kind of morality play—another kind of case study in how readily the status quo will work to maintain itself. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough described the crowd’s taunts of the president as un-American. (“We are Americans and we do not do that,” he said. “We do not want the world hearing us chant ‘Lock him up’ to this president or to any president.”) Several other pundits echoed that idea. A news cycle became consumed, once again, with another debate about civility—this one conveniently forgetting the fact that crowds booing presidents at baseball games is in fact a long-standing American tradition.
The term booing has a less vaunted background than heckling does. First used in the 19th century, it derives from an onomatopoeic origin, according to the OED: It refers to the braying sound made by cows. It suggests the idea that crowds of people can be reduced to a kind of animalism. It presents crowds as agents not of wisdom, but of its opposite.
But the crowd at Nationals Park was also, in another sense, heckling. They were summoning the power of the crowd to effect a kind of justice. The throngs at the political arenas in ancient Rome devised detailed systems of booing and applauding—a means of communicating with their leaders. This was a way of flattening the distance between the government and the governed; it was an early opinion poll. The crowd in Washington this weekend was doing something similar: It was holding a president whose administration is defined, above all, by cruelty—and who himself has made a mockery of civility—to account. Joe Scarborough had gotten it precisely wrong; the boos that emanated from Nats Park, demanding to be heard by the president, were profoundly American.
You can say the same for the boos that shaped the show at the Actor’s Hour last week: They, too—in a much more gutting way—were distinctly American. Those jeers sought not accountability, but its opposite. They suggested stasis. They highlighted a familiar form of lethargy, the kind that can come when people decide not to speak up—when people who have voices choose the comforts of complacency over the awkwardness of saying something.
But the awkwardness is crucial. The awkwardness is urgent. Kelly Bachman was not the only person to question the audience silence that met Weinstein’s presence at the Downtime event. Nor was she the only person to be punished for speaking up. Zoe Stuckless, a young actor attending Actor’s Hour as an audience member, was struck by the fact that no one confronted Weinstein during the show’s intermission, shouting to the crowd, “Nobody is going to say anything? Nobody is really going to say anything?”
It was Stuckless, not Weinstein, who was ultimately asked to leave. The person who has been credibly accused of an array of abuses, from bullying to rape, was given more consideration, in that moment, than a person who dared to question him. Stuckless described to Vulture the events that led the actor to say something when so many others did not:
I was waiting for somebody to say something, somebody who I felt would have had more authority than I did. I felt like I was just a nobody, an audience member; I had no reason to speak up.
At that point, there was some little part of me that was still sure that somebody else would say something. And they didn’t. They went into the next thing. I knew the show was going toward the intermission, and so I said to myself that if nobody else said anything, by the time we got to the intermission, I would say something. And the intermission hit; nobody said anything. Nobody did anything.
It was so surreal. I was so certain that, especially in this community, of course somebody with power has got to stand up. Somebody must. And then nobody did. It’s stunning that it’s so easy and so quick to slip back into that same culture of silence that allowed him to do all of those horrendous things.
This, meanwhile, is how Downtime originally described what had transpired, in a message the bar posted to its Facebook page: “Shortly into the evening, one guest began heckling another, causing a disturbance to everyone in attendance. After several requests to stop were ignored, we kindly asked the heckler to leave.”
The Actor’s Hour later professed regret about how the situation was handled. But it was that handling—the gatekeepers’ reflexive reaction to the confrontation in their midst—that exposed so much. Real time is revealing in that way. A better world is either created or impeded through decisions made in the moment—through small choices, made time and time again, about whose comfort matters and whose, implicitly, does not. Backlash moves slowly and quickly at the same time. Its machinations are both obvious and imperceptible. Louis C.K. is currently engaged in a comeback tour. Mark Halperin signed a deal to write a book about the politics of the 2020 campaign. NBC, whose executives have been accused of attempting to bury Ronan Farrow’s reporting about Weinstein, still refuses to conduct an internal investigation into those accusations—and other reports of systemic rot at the network. And, of course, the president of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 60 women, including an allegation that amounted to rape. He has said that each woman is lying; he has met no justice.
The opposite, in fact: When Trump, this week, faced the lowest common denominator of public accountability—a few seconds’ worth of booing—pundits clamored to denigrate the people who would dare to express their outrage. This, too, is what backlash looks like. This, too, is how the status quo congeals. There is, in the end, very little distance between complacency and complicity. “A lot of the work in calling out rape, rapists, and rape culture unfortunately still falls on survivors,” Kelly Bachman wrote on Tuesday. “We are the ones screaming out while others fall silent, boo or demand we ‘shut up.’ I want other people to speak up for us so that we don’t have to. I want it to become normal to name the elephant in the room.”