“Jesse Williams looks like a specimen,” said “The View” co-host Sunny Hostin. “He looks gorgeous, he looks beautiful, his body is beautiful, and — this is serious — I have at least 20 friends that have now bought tickets because of what they saw.”
The ladies of “The View” are not known for their tact, but Hostin’s comments and the many other inappropriate ones from people on social media touched a nerve as veterans on Broadway try to grapple with the disturbing footage leak featuring Williams performing a nude scene in the play “Take Me Out” produced by Second Stage Theater.
The fact is, Williams was at work when he was sexually harassed by a customer who took a video of him without his consent.
The leak, which has been called “sexual harassment and an appalling breach of consent” by the Actors’ Equity Association, is an alarming example of an audience member disregarding the boundaries of a performer and trampling the ethics of a performance space. Unfortunately, when it comes to celebrities, this kind of violation occurs all too frequently. The difference is that instead of a prurient paparazzo peering over a gate in Cabo, this is an audience member using a cellphone during a paid performance — and cellphones were supposed to be placed in locked containers provided by the theater.
Kate Shindle, president of the Actors’ Equity Association, summed up the key issue at hand: “As actors, we regularly agree to be vulnerable onstage in order to tell difficult and challenging stories. This does not mean that we agree to have those vulnerable moments widely shared by anyone who feels like sneaking a recording device into the theater.”
Williams’ co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson also spoke out about the incident, criticizing those who participated in the leak: “I’m appalled by the disrespect shown to the actors of our company whose vulnerability on stage ever[y] night is crucial to “Take Me Out.” Anyone who applauds or trivializes this behavior has no place in the theater which has always been a safe space for artists & audience members.”
The word that keeps surfacing is “vulnerable” — and it’s a good word to use in this situation. Because in a live performance setting, actors are vulnerable. The screen is gone. You can rush the stage if you’re unhinged enough. And, in the Williams situation, you can make a video of a naked actor so you can objectify him on the internet.
For actors, who make a career of being outward facing and public, sexual harassment unfortunately comes with the territory — and it shouldn’t.
For actors, who make a career of being outward facing and public, sexual harassment unfortunately comes with the territory — and it shouldn’t. Being a performer either gives the audience the sense of sharing an intimate relationship with the actor — or it reduces the actor to an object without feelings or a life outside the performance space.
The backward rhetoric we’re seeing on some social media threads — “Oh, well, he’s naked on stage. He should know this kind of thing could happen,” — sounds like the old, familiar misogynist standard “She was asking for it.” The fact is, Williams was at work when he was sexually harassed by a customer who took a video of him without his consent. Then, that footage was disseminated over the web, making that violation global.
This happens to women all the time. Recently, according to a viral TikTok, Sydney Sweeney was goaded by a cameraman who seemingly yelled, “Show us those boobs!” while she was attending the 2022 Met Gala. Sweeney, who appears topless on HBO’s “Euphoria,” is obviously not her character and she has no obligation to show her breasts to anyone despite the fact that viewers of the show might think they have some kind of ownership over her body.
It’s similar with Williams. His performance in “Take Me Out” as a gay baseball player requires him to be nude in key scenes taking place in a locker room. In theater, nudity can be very powerful and enhance the performance, creating a shared intimacy between the audience and the actors. An actor’s choice to appear naked on stage is not an implicit agreement to be naked everywhere. In taking that video and spreading it, the cameraperson took that choice away from Williams.
In a conversation with Andy Cohen that happened before the leak, Williams spoke about how nudity was just a part of the role he was playing: “And everybody makes such a big deal. It’s a body. Once you see it, you realize, whatever. It’s a body. I just have to not make it that big of a deal.”
It shouldn’t be a big deal for a performer to be naked on stage. But it should be a big deal to violate the boundaries put in place by the theater and production company to keep an actor safe and comfortable — and able to do his job without worrying about being sexually harassed and victimized by the audience.