Topic: Society

The “Friends” Case: Not Harassment…Just Wrong

A case now pending before the California Supreme Court raises the question of whether creativity requires a more lenient standard of workplace conduct than current sexual harassment laws now require. Amaani Lyle, a former writer’s assistant for the hit NBC comedy series “Friends,” claimed in a lawsuit that the lewd language and sexually suggestive behavior engaged in by the show’s male writers during her four-month employment in 1999 created a classic “hostile work environment.” Her attorneys argued that the writing team’s constant banter about anal and oral sex, “schlongs” and degrading descriptions of women as “bitches” and “cunts”…Strange; I must have missed those episodes… constituted pervasive impermissible conduct that had no legitimate purpose and was simply intended to entertain the writers even as it upset Lyle. The defendants, the writers and Warner Brothers Television Productions, have argued that such conduct, including simulated masturbation…How odd! I missed that episode too!… were legitimate aspects of an uninhibited creative process that made “Friends” a long-running comedy hit.

The legal issue is a messy one. To qualify as sexual harassment, the offending conduct has to be based on a person’s gender, offensive comments inspired by a woman’s presence to make her feel uncomfortable in the workplace. The plaintiff and the defendants in Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions agree that the writers’ smutty talk wasn’t specifically aimed at Lyle, but the question remains whether it is legally permissible for a woman to have to endure “a gauntlet of abuse,” as one of the attorneys put it, in order to earn her living. Similar issues have been litigated in the context of alleged workplace harassment against women in traditionally male workplace settings, like loading docks and construction sites. In these cases, the result usually turned on whether the locker room language was the norm or whether the guys intentionally ramped up the raunch factor to harass their female colleagues.

You never know what a California jury might decide, though it is open to debate whether the court should have even allowed the case to go to a jury as a matter of law. The correct resolution of this suit seems pretty clear. Women are not legally entitled to a more genteel working environment than men. Female sports reporters cannot demand that pro football players censor the jokes in the shower, and if a movie director is foul-mouthed, the actresses have no more power to make him clean up his language than the actors. Sadly, profane and sexually explicit language has infected every inch of our culture, from HBO to co-ed college dorms to political war rooms. By all accounts, Hillary Clinton can wilt the roses with the most potty-mouthed of her colleagues. Could a sensitive plant secretary claim that the junior senator from New York was making her female staff members run an illegal “gauntlet of abuse”? Hardly. Such is gender equality in the 21st Century America. Lyle should lose her lawsuit: the writers’ conduct wasn’t sexual harassment.

But it is still unethical. Gender equality doesn’t suspend one’s obligation to be considerate of others, or to display basic civility and good manners. If Ms. Lyle displayed any discomfort with the writers’ sophomoric shenanigans, they had an ethical if not a legal obligation to tone it down. Their contention in court was that simulating masturbation and referring to women as “cunts” was an essential part of the creative process. What utter nonsense. As one of the judges noted in oral argument, somehow he couldn’t imagine a Sesame Street writer making the same argument. Yet “Friends” and “Sesame Street,” oddly enough, have had exactly the same number of scenes featuring that offensive word and that offensive act: zero. If the producers of “Friends” really hired a group of writers who could only come up with funny things for Joey Trebiani to put on his head while they were simulating masturbation, then they needed to stop recruiting from the mental illness wards. These were obviously a bunch of immature and ill-mannered jerks. They didn’t behave and talk offensively because it was essential to stimulating their comic repartee; they behaved this way because they wanted to, and they didn’t care whom it offended.

Ethics involves doing the right thing when you don’t have to. The law doesn’t require the writers to pay attention to the reasonable sensibilities of the people around them. They should have done it anyway.

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