The news that Matt Lauer has been fired from NBC News for inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace is more than just another instance of a powerful man getting exposed in our post-Weinstein moment. It’s a reminder that the powerful men who have been abusing women in secret have also shaped the way our culture talks and thinks about women in public.
Lauer is a stalwart of morning TV news, a beloved icon who is watched by millions. His coverage helps set the tone for the way Americans think about a given news story — and when that story is about women, his coverage can take on an ogling, proprietary tone, often with the subtext that women’s bodies are both shameful and owned by the public.
In 2012, when Anne Hathaway was on a press tour for Les Misérables, a photographer crouched down as she got out of a car and took a photo of the view up her skirt. That was a horrifically sleazy thing for the photographer to do — but when Hathaway appeared as a guest on Today, Lauer framed the incident as an error on her end. The podcast and radio show Majority Report preserved a clip of the encounter:
“Nice to see you,” Lauer says to open the interview. Then he adds, with what sounds like a leer in his voice, “Seen a lot of you lately.”
Hathaway tries to play it off as though he’s talking about her oversaturated press cycle, flashing her movie star smile in a determined way and saying, “I’d be happy to stay home, but the film.”
But Lauer is having none of it. “Let’s just get it out of the way. You had a little wardrobe malfunction the other night,” he says, raising his eyebrows meaningfully as Hathaway sits very still opposite him. “What’s the lesson learned from something like that? Other than that you keep smiling, which you always do.”
Hathaway’s response is remarkably graceful. “It was obviously an unfortunate incident,” she says. “It kind of made me sad on two accounts. One was that I was very sad that when we live in an age where someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment, and rather than delete it and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies the sexuality of unwilling participants. Which brings us back to Les Mis.”
That their conversation even acknowledges the fact that what happened to Hathaway was a violation of privacy — an attempt to humiliate her for the fact of possessing a woman’s body — is entirely due to Hathaway. Lauer frames the conversation as though what happened to Hathaway is an error on her part that she must learn a lesson from.
Lauer’s framing of his question — and his instinct to raise the question in the first place — reinforces an ideology in which women’s bodies are both inherently humiliating and inherently public property. It’s this ideology that helps perpetuate a culture in which men can sexually harass and assault women in private and get away with it — and now there’s good reason to believe that Lauer was one of the men doing just that.
So our cultural reckoning with the powerful men who abuse women cannot only be focused on the damage they did on an individual level, as horrific as that damage might be. We also have to look at how these men shaped and perpetuated the sexist narratives of our culture, in order to stop more powerful men from abusing the same system that got us here in the first place.