The myth of the male bumbler

How manipulative men use one of our culture's most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponize it into an alibi

Beware the army of bafflers.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Image courtesy iStock)

Male bumblers are an epidemic.

These men are, should you not recognize the type, wide-eyed and perennially confused. What's the difference, the male bumbler wonders, between a friendly conversation with a coworker and rubbing one's penis in front of one? Between grooming a 14-year-old at her custody hearing and asking her out?

The world baffles the bumbler. He's astonished to discover that he had power over anyone at all, let alone that he was perceived as using it. What power? he says. Who, me?

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The bumbler is the first to confess that he's bad at his job. Take Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who testified Tuesday of the Trump campaign's foreign policy team, which he ran and which is now understood to have been in contact with Russian agents: "We were not a very effective group." Or consider Dave Becky, the manager of disgraced comedian Louis C.K. (who confessed last week to sexual misconduct). Becky avers that "never once, in all of these years, did anyone mention any of the other incidents that were reported recently." One might argue that no one should have needed to mention them; surely, as Louis C.K.'s manager, it was Becky's job to keep tabs on open secrets about his client? Becky's defense? He's a bumbler! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The bumbler doesn't know things, even things about which he was directly informed. Jon Stewart was "stunned" by the Louis C.K. revelations, even though we watched someone ask him about them last year. Vice President Mike Pence maintains he had no idea former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was lobbying for a foreign power — despite the fact that Flynn himself informed the transition team back in January, and even though Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) had written Pence — who was head of the transition team — to that effect as far back as Nov. 18, 2016. Wait, what? said Pence in March. Surely not! Really?

There's a reason for this plague of know-nothings: The bumbler's perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture's most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.

Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.

Breaking that alibi means dissecting that myth. The line on men has been that they're the only gender qualified to hold important jobs and too incompetent to be responsible for their conduct. Men are great but transparent, the story goes: What you see is what you get. They lack guile.

The "privilege" argument holds that this is partly true because men have never needed to deceive. This interesting Twitter thread by Holden Shearer has been making the rounds: "One of the oldest canards in low-denominator comedy is that women are inscrutable and men can't understand them. There's a reason for this and it ain't funny," he writes. The thread is right about the structural problems with lowbrow "women are so confusing!" comedy. "Women VERY frequently say one thing and mean another, display expressions or reactions that don't jibe with their feelings, and so on. But it's actually really easy to decode once you understand why it happens. It is survival behavior," Shearer writes.

But nested in that account is the assumption that the broad majority of men are not dissemblers. The majority are — you guessed it — bumblers! If you've noticed a tendency to treat girls — like the 14-year-old whom now-Senate candidate Roy Moore allegedly picked up at her custody hearing — as knowing adults and men in their 30s — like Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and Donald Trump, Jr. — as erring youngsters, large sons and "coffee boys," this is why. Our culture makes that script available. It's why Sessions is so often referred to as an "elf" instead of a gifted manipulator (here's a very clever analysis of his strategy, which weaponizes our tendency to read white men — even very old attorneys with a long history of maliciously undermining civil rights — as slow, meandering children who know not what they do.)

It's counterintuitive, I know. For decades now, the very idea of a duplicitous, calculating man has been so exceptional as to be almost monstrous; this is the domain of cult leaders, of con artists, of evil men like the husband in Gaslight. And while folks provisionally accept that there are men who "groom" children and "gaslight" women, the reluctance to attach that behavior to any real, flesh-and-blood man we know is extreme. Many people don't actually believe that normal men are capable of it.

Back when Dylan Farrow's allegations about Woody Allen were in the news, people quickly glommed onto Allen's exculpatory claim that Mia Farrow "brainwashed" her children into lying about him. It was fascinating, both because the claim was pretty evidence-free and because Woody Allen had blatantly and repeatedly admitted to manipulating and grooming Soon-Yi Previn. But, because Allen so skillfully deployed the script of the bumbler, everyone failed to see his behavior in those terms. Allen's portrayal of himself — he barely knows what he had for breakfast! — was just that effective. Never mind that he's so organized, ambitious, driven, confident, and purposeful that he successfully puts out a movie a year.

As the accusations of sexual misconduct roiling politics, publishing, and Hollywood continue to stack up, a few things are going to happen. The first stage of a phenomenon like this will always be to characterize the accused men as exceptions, as bad apples. #NotAllMen, the saying goes. But the second is that everyone is going to try to naturalize sexual harassment. If there are this many men doing these things, then surely this is just how men are! that argument will go. There's a corollary lurking underneath there: They can't help themselves. They're bumblers.

That won't wash. But the only way to guard against it is to shed our weird cultural blindness to manipulative male behavior. We must be smarter than our cultural defaults. We need to shed the exculpatory scripts that have mysteriously enabled all these incompetent bumblers to become rich, successful, and admired even as they maintain that they're moral infants.

We do that by looking at the deliberate, active steps they took to conceal what they did.

Take Benjamin Genocchio, who was recently replaced as executive director of the Armory Show, the New York City art fair, after 19 people testified to his inappropriate conduct. "I never intentionally acted in an inappropriate manner nor spoke to or touched a colleague in a sexually inappropriate way," Genocchio said. "To the extent my behavior was perceived as disrespectful, I deeply and sincerely apologize and will ensure it does not happen again."

In short: He's a bumbler!

Before you nod along, agreeing that it's just impossible to know what's appropriate in this day and age, let's look at how the allegations against Genocchio square with his professed confusion. At Artnet's 2014 holiday party at the Gramercy Park Hotel, as Colleen Calvo, the marketing coordinator, was checking guests in at the door, Genocchio allegedly ran his hand up her sequin pants. Per Calvo: "Ben said, 'Is this the only time I get to touch your ass without getting yelled at?'"

Does that sound like someone who doesn't understand the difference between what's appropriate and what's not? Does it instead sound like someone who understands perfectly what the boundaries are and is knowingly violating them? Nor was this isolated: The New York Times confirmed that Genocchio was spoken to repeatedly about his behavior. It was a known problem. He ignored the warnings.

Facts be damned: Genocchio knew he was playing to a wider audience that wouldn't look at those details; he hoped he could activate the bumbler stereotype and use it as an alibi.

This is not what bumblers do. This is what predators do. The actions are malicious, and the mind games are deliberate. So what about their handling of their reputations after the fact? Was this, too, bumbled?

No. In the majority of cases, the accused men were cunning and vindictive stewards of their reputations and did everything they could to ruin their victims.

Harvey Weinstein reportedly destroyed the careers of actresses he harassed; he got them branded as "difficult" or "crazy." He apparently hired ex-Mossad agents to spy on them.

Director Brett Ratner — to choose one unsavory example — addressed Olivia Munn's account in her book about how he masturbated in front of her (she'd left the director anonymous) by identifying himself and claiming he'd slept with her. (He later admitted she never had sex with him). It was a calculated effort to inflict maximum damage on her; to brand her a "slut."

Former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly allegedly pressured one of his victims (who worked at the network ) to give him "dirt" on another victim so he could shut down her allegations against him.

Former Fox News chief Roger Ailes reportedly videotaped his victims in compromising situations so he could ruin them later if they misbehaved.

What about the seduction phase? There's been a spate of articles about men desperately worried that they've somehow bumbled into harassment. Were these men "accidental" predators? Did they stumble — baffled and confused — into a situation where they haplessly and unknowingly harassed women?

Well, director James Toback apparently used "theater school" language to convince his targets that their vulnerability was artistically necessary. As Rachel McAdams recalls, he "used the same language during my audition — that you have to take risks and sometimes you're going to be uncomfortable and sometimes it's going to feel dangerous. And that's a good thing — when there is danger in the air and you feel like you are out of your comfort zone."

Roy Moore allegedly weaponized the nastiness intrinsic to divorce to convince a mother to leave her child in his care at her custody hearing. "He said, 'Oh, you don't want her to go in there and hear all that. I'll stay out here with her,'" said Nancy Wells, the mother of one of his accusers. "I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl." Moore allegedly picked up the 14-year-old around the corner from her house — presumably so no one would see him — and took her to the woods. The next time he allegedly undressed her, removed his own clothes, and made her touch him.

Oh, and Louis C.K., the ultimate bumbler? The bumbler extraordinaire? He lied. He lied to Marc Maron, a close friend, saying that the rumors about him were false. He appears to have done the same to Pamela Adlon, who defended him against the accusations. Nor does it end there: To hear Louis C.K. tell it, he had no idea his manager was getting the women he'd targeted to keep quiet. To hear his manager tell it, he had no idea Louis C.K. had been up to much of anything at all. Louis C.K. might be any number of things sick, addicted, depressed, twisted, predatory, egotistical, self-destructive — but one thing he is not is a bumbler.

How many deliberate, premeditated lies, how many carefully set traps, how many instances of deceit do we need before we can admit that men are every bit as duplicitous and two-faced as women are suspected of being? That harassment is not an accident? That predation requires planning? That this gigantic apparatus through which women's careers are destroyed and men's are preserved isn't just happenstance?

Alas, the greatest supporters of the bumbler myth tend to be other men. You might recall that Dustin Hoffman was accused of groping and sexually harassing a 17-year-old on set — of saying things like "I'll have a hard-boiled egg … and a soft-boiled clitoris." He pleads bumbler: "I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation," he said. And indeed, it is hard to imagine how a teenager at her first job might receive those words. But did her employer defend her when she finally confessed, decades later, that she'd dealt with a hostile work environment? No, director Volker Schlöndorff has instead come to Hoffman's defense: He is "just a kidder," Schlöndorff says. Everyone gave Hoffman a foot massage!

Predatory men normalize their predation and support each other. "You're a target. I'm a target," O'Reilly said in a July 2016 appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers in which he discussed his employer, Ailes. "Anytime somebody could come out and sue us, attack us, go to the press, or anything like that. … I stand behind Roger 100 percent." Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, before he himself was accused of sexual assault, also defended Ailes. "I can tell you that some of the women that are complaining, I know how much he's helped them," the future president said, adding that Ailes is "just a very, very good person. And, by the way, a very, very talented person." Weinstein supported Roman Polanski, calling the charges that he drugged and anally raped a 13-year-old girl a "so-called crime" and calling the charges themselves "a shocking way to treat such a man." And Oliver Stone, himself accused of groping a model, lamented Weinstein's fate: "It's not easy what he's going through," Stone said. "I'm a believer that you wait until this thing gets to trial. I believe a man shouldn't be condemned by a vigilante system."

This is how the culture attempts to normalize this stuff: by minimizing the damage to women and the agency of men. When actress Katharine Towne described an incident in which Brett Ratner started hitting on her at a dinner party, refused to take no for an answer, and trapped her in a bathroom, here's how his attorney Marty Singer responded: "Even if hypothetically this incident occurred exactly as claimed, how is flirting at a party, complimenting a woman on her appearance, and calling her to ask her for a date wrongful conduct?" Singer said.

Look, this is a moment when our cultural myths about men and women are colliding. It's scary and confusing and way too widespread for comfort. But rather than knee-jerking toward normalizing, it's worth taking a minute to parse just how complicated it is to make sense of the different realities in which men and women have been living. I've written repeatedly about the culture-wide phenomenon of "not-knowing," of how our biggest shared cultural muscles are built to repress knowledge about how routinely women's professional lives are derailed through sexual harassment and misconduct. Emma Thompson called the Weinstein revelations "the tip of the iceberg," and she's right: Economists have long and lazily attributed the exodus of women in various industries to their decision to bear children, but now this giant explanatory iceberg is floating up — this absolutely gigantic, widely denied story about how women are routinely driven from their industries because their male colleagues need to be free to use their professional power to indulge their sexual urges.

Most of us know that when a politician sits on the stand and insists that he "does not recall," that it's a political performance, a manipulative pretense intended to obfuscate. Let's apply that intelligent skepticism toward this rash of professions of male incompetence. To put it in pragmatic terms: You can be a bumbler, or you can keep your job. You can't have both.

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