“Matt Lauer Is Planning His Comeback,” a headline at Vanity Fair announced on Tuesday. Plucked from a short report in Page Six about Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s embattled lawyer, the rumor of Lauer’s comeback was dropped in a buzzy description of the famous customers at an expensive Upper East Side restaurant, an almost comical setting for such a cast of villains. Cohen was in a “good mood” as Lauer dined nearby, apparently.
Though Lauer, who was accused of both sexual assault and sexual harassment, was fired from NBC, Page Six reports that he is rumored “to be testing the waters for a public comeback by coming out of hiding from his Hamptons home.” According to unnamed “pals,” Lauer is “ready to restart his life.” The two sentences were vague in detail—it’s unclear what a comeback for Lauer could entail, other than leaving his Hamptons home—but are part of the narrative thread that emerged almost concurrent with the post-Weinstein #MeToo resurgence: the redemption story.
Lauer was the most recent addition to the redemption arc—stories about men fired after allegations ranging from sexual harassment to assault and bullying who are now preparing for a comeback. Louis C.K. is reportedly planning a comeback through the comedy club circuit that, according to one of his supporters, will serve a public good by maybe changing “a few minds among his fans” and saving “a couple of girls from unnecessary and unwanted incidents.” After all, C.K., the original story in The Hollywood Reporter noted, had behaved wrongly, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as “Harvey Weinstein, James Toback or Bill Cosby.”
Likewise, the New York Times reported in early March that chef Mario Batali, who, after being fired from one network television gig and having an upcoming Food Network project canceled, is now “deeply introspective.” “Privately, some suggest the time has come for a more nuanced approach to replace the scorched-earth policy toward men who have harassed women—one that allows something resembling redemption,” the Times reported. Batali was listening and exploring options, including hiring a “powerful woman” to head a new company. He is, friends argued, engaged in “real redemptive behavior;” reaching out to women and listening.
Those same narrative threads were practically reiterated word for word in a recent Boston Globe column penned by Tom Ashbrook, the former host “On Point”—a nationally syndicated show on National Public Radio—was fired by WBUR after allegations of bullying and sexual harassment. Ashbrook’s performance of the redemption narrative was flawless. He acknowledges that he supports #MeToo, even as he was a “target” of the movement. But, importantly, Ashbrook is keen to note that he has listened and learned.
“I have listened and looked inward and focused on the complaints and my own actions,” he writes. “I’ve absorbed their weight. And bit by bit, I’ve come to see and fully own my mistakes. My behavior was offensive and overbearing to some.” Penance performed, Ashbrook asks, “Is there a way back?” and “is there room for redemption and rebirth?” He concludes by asking the city of Boston if he can return to the radio as this newly reformed man, one humbled and suddenly eager to listen. The transformation recounted here is swift, as it always seems to be. Lifetimes of abusive behavior are magically rectified, unraveled and unlearned by the simple acts of introspection and reflection, in mere months.
There’s a certain tick-tock already baked in the redemption story; a sense that there are correct steps done in a thoughtful order to restore temporarily suspended careers. The first is to admit wrongdoing and apologize. C.K. issued an apology, as did Batali (Batali’s, done through his newsletter, even included a recipe for cinnamon rolls). The second is evidence that a man has made some sort of effort to change. This is usually in the form of thinking or listening, perhaps even a kind of soul-searching.
Lauer himself laid out the redemption steps during a 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly, shortly after his ouster from Fox News when it was revealed that he had paid millions in settlements to over five women he had reportedly sexually harassed and assaulted. “Since your firing have you done some soul-searching?” Lauer asked O’Reilly. “Have you done some self-reflection? Have you looked at the way that you treated women... [do you] think about it differently now than you did at the time?” O’Reilly, of course, could not bother to pretend otherwise. The bellicose brand that had made him a star would not allow for self-reflection or any admission of guilt.
O’Reilly, we understood, was not a good man who had simply made a mistake—not like C.K. or Batali. O’Reilly simply didn’t have the capacity for “reflection,” a word that in the redemption narrative seems to have little, if any meaning. O’Reilly was incapable of the performative empathy or the liberal awareness that ostensibly makes a man eligible for redemption. Instead, O’Reilly chose the other option: simple denial with no interest in redemption (one that’s worked for Woody Allen and Kobe Bryant, to just name a few).
Subject aside, Lauer’s line of questioning was telling. Changing the way one treats women, Lauer implied, required looking in a mirror and self-reflection; simply put, it requires only the examination of the self to right wrongs. The individual, such language implies, is the sole source of correction. But perhaps the value of individual men—or at least the revelations they divine solely from within themselves and their subsequent apparent value—is part of what created the ecosystems that led to #MeToo.
It’s revealing that such self-reflection never results in the conclusion that men who have spent careers harassing and bullying should not return to those careers. They never reach the conclusion that their past actions have permanently degraded their authority as cultural arbiters. It’s telling that they demand not just forgiveness but the continued public support that an actor or chef or journalist requires with giving so little in return. But then they would have to question the very “self,” and its true capacity for reflection, they value so dearly. The work of making amends is messy and long; there is no room for such things in these swift and tidy narratives.
The redemption narrative does not ask difficult questions nor does it make such demands. It is too invested in preserving redemption itself, too attentive to the weak defense that this particular man is no Harvey Weinstein, too restless in its demands for a return to grace.
Of course, we’re primed for the redemption story. As a friend of Charlie Rose, fired from PBS and CBS after numerous women accused him of sexual harassment, told The Hollywood Reporter, “We live in a society that roots for transformation. I do hope Charlie will be one of the victors.” And that’s true, a quick glance through the history of nearly all mankind reveals an eagerness to forgive men for harassment, assault, and all manner of violence.
#MeToo was supposed to be a reckoning, not just a shift in perception but also a change in practices. The redemption narrative instead preserves such practices, conflating a reckoning with an image problem that simply needs to be managed. It demands a kind of ritualistic performance of penance while ensuring an inevitable return to public admiration and high-paying jobs. This is, perhaps, what is most frustrating about the rehabilitation story: its outcome feels inevitable. Second chances always seem guaranteed for powerful men.