When James Franco appeared on CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in January 2018, I was prepared for typical late-night fare — jokes, perhaps a good-natured ribbing, some softball questions. I assumed Colbert would ignore that Franco had recently been accused of sexual misconduct. But Colbert surprised me by calling out Franco, albeit gently, on the allegations.
Franco denied the accusations, saying, “The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate, but I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice.” However, Colbert didn't drop the line of questioning, pressing the actor on how he was going to do better in the future. Colbert’s actions shouldn’t have seemed notable, but they were. He attempted to do what most men in the entertainment industry wouldn’t: hold another man accountable.
I was reminded of the exchange when I saw that actor Seth Rogen had recently spoken with the U.K.’s Sunday Times about Franco, who in February settled a lawsuit in which former students at his acting school accused him of “widespread inappropriate and sexually charged behavior.” His lawyer said the allegations were false.
Rogen has had a close friendship with Franco, and their professional careers are inextricably linked after they rose to fame together in multiple collaborations, including the TV series “Freaks and Geeks” and the movie “Pineapple Express.”
The Times asked Rogen about his fellow actor’s behavior and his thoughts on enabling abuse, to which he replied: "What I can say is that I despise abuse and harassment, and I would never cover or conceal the actions of someone doing it, or knowingly put someone in a situation where they were around someone like that.”
Rogen also apologized for a tasteless joke he made on “Saturday Night Live” in 2014 about Franco’s pursuit of underage girls in the wake of news that Franco, 35 at the time, had propositioned a 17-year-old girl and pressured her into a sex act. (Franco later said he had “used bad judgment” and was “embarrassed” by the incident.)
During the sketch, Rogen read from a pretend journal: “To make myself feel better I decided to prank James Franco. I posed as a girl on Instagram, told him I was way young. He seemed unfazed. I have a date to meet him at the Ace Hotel.” Franco then appeared on stage, included in the joke and thereby sanctioned from rebuke.
Most significantly, Rogen said that he no longer was working with Franco. He told the Times: “I also look back to that interview in 2018 where I comment that I would keep working with James, and the truth is that I have not and I do not plan to right now.”
There's no doubt in my mind that Rogen’s early defense of Franco on “SNL” normalized Franco’s behavior and trivialized the pain of his alleged victim. Rogen’s later silence about Franco can also be seen as enabling. So are Rogen’s recent comments too little, too late? A positive step or a teachable moment?
If it feels like we're always reading too deeply into statements male celebrities make about sexual misconduct, it’s because we have to. Along with political figures, celebrities largely set the tone for how we as a culture perceive this issue.
Jennifer Pozner, media critic and author of “Reality Bites Back,” parses the Franco-related comments this way: “Franco’s response was classic gaslighting. Colbert used his platform to break the usual code of late night by questioning his guest.”
What about Rogen’s statements? He qualified his stance on not working with Franco as something he doesn’t plan to do right now. Does that caveat weaken the sentiment? Somehow make Rogen’s admittance of culpability insincere? Or leave hope that Franco can be rehabilitated?
“Seth Rogen's approach is complicated. It is very human to rationalize and wrestle with finding out that your friend might be an abuser,” Pozner explains. “There is a chance that his current statements are an honest evolution and reflection of his understanding.”
Many men in Hollywood benefit from enabling abusers; sometimes it feels like the entire structure of Hollywood is predicated on a delicate system of abuse and enabling. Of course, men have participated in the #MeToo movement, which has shaken up the system a bit, and are not exempt from being abused (see Brendan Fraser’s disturbing experience). But it unfortunately feels like women largely are doing the difficult work of exposing creeps and lifting up survivors, often at the expense of their careers and reputations.
As a survivor myself, I think of my own abuser. He has siblings, friends and a strong social network. Why didn't anyone stop him? Didn’t they realize what he was doing? With more awareness of the dynamics of abuse, we know now that abusers can be charming and appear functional, hiding their sickness.
And people will twist their brains in any way possible to preserve their deep faith in a friend, mentor or celebrity they don’t even know but who has meant something to them. Witnessing enablers spin their stories — or just blatantly live under a delusion — can make a survivor feel crazy.
It takes a lot of courage for survivors to speak out. There is shame, fear and humiliation, coupled with the expectation that you will be blamed for your own abuse, not believed at all, or some weird combination of both. We see this most currently with the slew of abuse allegations being brought against musician Marilyn Manson, which he has denied.
Survivors should feel like they can count on a wide network of allies instead of running the gantlet trying to be heard and taken seriously. The truth is that enabling abusers allows them to keep abusing. If we’re going to earnestly tackle the problem of sexual abuse in Hollywood, we need men to step up and call out abusers, too — and to apologize for their own complicity in a system that silences survivors.