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‘Will and Grace’ #MeToo episode takes on oblivious bystanders

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In December of last year, two months after the Harvey Weinstein exposé, Matt Damon made the point that “one thing that’s not being talked about is there are a whole s—load of guys […] who don’t do this kind of thing and whose lives aren’t going to be affected.”

His comments were swiftly derided, because no one deserves a pat on the back simply for refraining from abusing someone.

Perhaps, though, in an odd sort of way, he did have a point. What about the guys “who don’t do this kind of thing” – all the well-meaning folks who are neither victim nor perpetrator? How are they part of this narrative? What role do they have to play?

Those bystanders are the focus of Will & Grace‘s latest episode, titled “Grace’s Secret.” In it, Grace explains to her father that decades ago, when she was 15 years old, his best friend Harry – her boss at the time – sexually assaulted her one day at work. 

But this isn’t really a plot about the horrors inflicted on young women. Sickening as it is, that narrative is familiar enough by this point that Grace’s reveal is not shocking in itself.

Instead, it’s a story about Grace and Martin – the caring father who genuinely had no idea this had happened – and about all the responsibility of men like him in stories like these. 

When Grace finally tells Martin what happened, he’s visibly horrified. He reacts as if it physically pains him to hear what she’s saying, yelling “stop” at one point when he can bear it no more. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he pleads afterward.

Rather than accept “I didn’t know” as an excuse and move on, Grace asks, “Why didn’t you see?”

The question is sincere. Yet from the perspective of the viewer, it’s completely obvious why.

In the moments leading up to that reveal, we’ve seen Martin flirt shamelessly with the waitress, telling Grace that “they love it.” We’ve heard him scoff that people are “so sensitive nowadays,” and complain that “men can’t be men anymore” because of #MeToo.

He’s described Harry as a “flirty guy,” a “good guy,” and a product of “a different time.” He’s told Grace to “calm down” when she angrily points out that that doesn’t make it okay.

“How could I?” she responds to his question. “What if you didn’t believe me? What if no one believed me?”

Indeed, Martin has given no indication whatsoever that he’d believe his own daughter’s account over his own impression of a now-dead man. Even before she launched into her full account, Martin was already trying to discredit it – suggesting that she was “misremembering” events, and protesting that he didn’t want to talk about it. 

This, too, is nothing new. It’s Jason Batman leaping to defend Jeffrey Tambor’s abuse of Jessica Walter on Arrested Development. It’s Michael Ian Black wondering how much more poor Louis C.K. must suffer. It’s Roman Polanski’s supporters insisting that things were just different back then. 

WILL & GRACE -- "Grace's Secret" Episode 208 -- Pictured: (l-r) Debra Messing as Grace Adler -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

WILL & GRACE — “Grace’s Secret” Episode 208 — Pictured: (l-r) Debra Messing as Grace Adler — (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

But Will & Grace isn’t done interrogating Martin’s role in all of this. Rather than accept “I didn’t know” as an excuse and move on, Grace asks, “Why didn’t you see?” The show points out the red flags he missed, and the opportunities he had to dig deeper.

Instead, it seems, he assumed that Grace meant Harry was simply “flirty” when she described him as “creepy.” He took at face value Harry’s side of the story, that Grace’s employment with him ended when she stole money from his office. (She had, but only after the assault, in order to get a cab home.) He knew Grace disliked Harry, but until this moment, never got around to figuring out why.

Ultimately, Martin agrees with Grace that he should’ve seen what was going on, and apologizes. That is the point of this storyline – not the information that Grace was sexually assaulted as a teenager.

Too often, the burden of noticing and reporting predatory behavior is put on the victims. It falls on them to share their traumas, to offer up their unhappy experiences so other people can take them to heart or pick them apart. There’s power in sharing these stories, and they can be effective tools for change; look at what #MeToo and Time’s Up have been able to accomplish by encouraging women to come forward.

This is between all of us – including, yes, all those “good guys who don’t do this kind of thing.”

But “Grace’s Secret” shifts some of that responsibility onto all the bystanders in those scenarios, poking holes into the plausible deniability that so many of them – so many of us – hide behind.

How often have we seen people shrug, in response to allegations against a colleague, that they never saw that business going on, and surely would’ve stopped it if they had? How frequently do we hear people try to minimize or excuse allegations by saying that, gee, that doesn’t sound like the good guy they know, so it must all be some kind of misunderstanding? 

It’s never going to be the case that all of us are magically able to suss out misdeeds when they happen. No matter how observant we are, some nasty secrets will be better hidden than others, and we’ll be taken by surprise from time to time.

But it’s not too much to ask that all of us – but especially men who think of themselves as the “good guys who don’t do this kind of thing” – be a little bit more aware. It’s not too much to ask that a father listen to his daughter, rather than leap to his friend’s defense. Or that he ask what it means when a man is described as “creepy.”

It’s not too much to ask that we, in our day-to-day lives, be conscious of the message we’re sending when we make thoughtlessly inappropriate jokes, or complain that others are just being too “sensitive.” It’s worth considering that someone you love might be listening, and deciding silently that you are not to be trusted.

And it’s not too late to try and do better, even if we’ve failed others in the past. Near the end of the episode, Grace goes to the cemetery to visit her mother – the only person she’d told about the incident before. 

“So I told him, Mom, but you were wrong. He did okay,” she says. “You know, I always thought that I needed an apology from Harry. But it turned out I really needed one from Daddy. I feel better.” 

It’s not just the predators who need to take a good hard look at what they’ve been doing. It’s not just the victims who should be seeing and calling out unacceptable behavior. It’s not just women who need to be vigilant about men’s behavior toward women. 

This is between all of us – including, yes, all those “good guys who don’t do this kind of thing.”

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