In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, there has been one heartwarming story floating around that proves that not all men in Hollywood use their power in order to abuse women starting out in their career; that, quite on the contrary, it is actually possible to use your power in order to make women feel more at ease. All it takes is the simple act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Recently, journalist Nell Minow told Vanity Fair about the time that she had to interview David Schwimmer, of iconic Friends fame, about a movie he’d directed, Trust, at the Phoenix Hotel in Washington D.C. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with conducting an interview in someone’s hotel room, and I’m sure plenty of interviews between young female journalists and older male celebrities have occurred in hotel rooms without incident. But what we know from the common denominator of those terrible Weinstein stories is that, oftentimes, being alone in a hotel room with a powerful man can make a woman very vulnerable to sexual assault.
Schwimmer understood this. So, he did something that, to Minow, was so radical that she still remembers it six years later: he quickly suggested that, if she wanted, he could make sure there was a third party in the room.
It seems like such a small gesture, but it speaks volumes of Schwimmer’s character and his genuine respect of women. Rather than thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m a really good guy, she has no reason to worry,” he put himself in her shoes and thought, “Hmm, if I were a woman, I would be a little nervous to meet a celebrity alone in her hotel room, and I’d worry about what people would think.” That’s what’s called being a gentleman.
“I haven’t thought of that since it happened but the Weinstein stories made me not just remember it but remember it in an entirely different context as an indicator of the prevalence of predatory behavior and as an indicator of Schwimmer’s integrity and sensitivity,” Minow told Vanity Fair. “This wasn’t just about his being a good guy who would not have tried anything. He understood what it is like to have to be constantly on the alert and he wanted to make sure I understood I was safe.”
When I read the story, I wasn’t surprised, because I’d met Schwimmer in May 2016 at a press event for his AMC series, Feed the Beast, and was immediately struck with how different he was from many, many other men I’d met in Hollywood. When you asked him a question, he looked you directly in the eyes in a way that showed you had his undivided attention. Again, this might seem like a very small gesture, but you’d be surprised to know how many men in Hollywood sit staring on their cellphones while you chat, in a way that very clearly screams I-am-very-important-and-don’t-have-time-for-you, and only look up and put their phone away only when addressed by another man.
I used to date a filmmaker that considered himself a “feminist,” who was working on a big-budget horror film. Whenever we would go out to dinner with the director and the rest of the top tier crew, they would all sit together on one side of the table discussing Terrence Malick and Tarkovsky, and I’d get lumped together on the other side of the table with their girlfriends (all actresses and models), whose officially sanctioned topics of conversation seemed to only be where we like to get our nails done and what our favorite beach resorts were. Whenever I tried to pipe in to the other side of the table to lend my thoughts on why To the Wonder is a pile of pretentious garbage, I’d be talked over so forcefully that it was like I wasn’t even there. I realized after a while that, for them, my presence had an unspoken agreement to it: we, the men, will pay for the drinks, and, in return, you, the women, sit there and look pretty and shut up. I got used to it after a while, but it never stopped being sad.
Schwimmer, on the other hand, was not like that at all. Surrounded by a horde of female journalists, he gave each one his undivided attention. He didn’t cut anyone off. He didn’t act like his time was more valuable than ours. He didn’t once look at his phone. He asked questions, even though he was the one being interviewed. He didn’t make flattering but vaguely inappropriate comments like, “Well, you’re pretty, you can be an actress,” or try to make himself the center of attention when we started discussing what our favorite restaurants were in New York. Simply put, the treated us the same way you would a male journalist. And the best part was, he made it look so easy.
I met Schwimmer again, briefly, the following spring, at a Hearst master class promoting “That’s Harassment,” a series of five short films depicting instances of men harassing women in ways that are much more subtle than catcalling. The films, which were all based on real-life stories, were written and directed by Israeli-American filmmaker Sigal Avin.
She approached her friend, Schwimmer, and asked him to help produce and promote the films. He did her one better and starred in one, The Coworker, where he plays a boss that makes inappropriate advances toward his colleague while working late in the office. The films, which you can watch in full here, are excellent because they display what Avin calls “the gray area of sexual harassment”—instances in which men might not even be aware they’re acting inappropriately.
In an interview with Cosmopolitan, Schwimmer explained why the subject mattered so much to him:
I grew up with stories of sexual harassment from my mom. Every woman in my family, in my life, has been harassed, except my daughter, thank god, who’s only 6. But my mom was one of four women in a class of 400 lawyers when she was going to law school. And then she was a young woman lawyer in California, in the ‘70s and the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Countless stories of harassment. But I sent her the link to the films and only after she watched them did she say, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was harassed by my doctor?” [Editor’s note: In another video, a patient, played by Cynthia Nixon, is sexually harassed by a doctor, played by Michael Kelly.] I was like, “No.” Then she told me my sister was harassed by her doctor when she was a young woman [too], and I didn’t know this either.
In the course of these stories and this process, I was repeatedly putting myself in the mind-set of what it must be like to be a woman in the world today. When you’ve been objectified your entire life and become accustomed to being a second-class citizen in many, many ways—constantly told that you aren’t worth the same as men, basically, and that your body comes first, or what you look like comes first—it makes a lot more sense to me that a lot of women don’t even recognize when they’re being harassed. Because you spend your whole life not being treated with the kind of respect that men are automatically given.
Following the phenomenon of #MeToo, which made it overwhelmingly clear that, as Schwimmer himself said, virtually everyone woman on the planet has had to deal with harassment in one form or another, men have been taking to Twitter to pledge #IWillChange. It’s a noble promise, but in a culture in which this kind of behavior is so ingrained, in can be hard to really figure out how to be better. The simple answer is: be more like Schwimmer. Next time you’ve got an interaction with a woman, think, “How would I feel if I were in her shoes? How can I make her feel safe and comfortable?”
And then, you’ll truly be your best self.