David Edelstein has left the building.
Edelstein, a renowned film critic for both the public radio show Fresh Airand New York Magazine, was unceremoniously dispatched from Fresh Air this week after 16 years on the air after committing an apparently grievous sin on Facebook.
Edelstein's crime occurred shortly after the death of Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci this week at the age of 77. In a quickly deleted status update, Edelstein reportedly posted a still from Last Tango in Paris, a 1972 film featuring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. His caption above the image was, "Even grief goes better with butter."
As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir explained in a very cogent analysis, the reason these six words started a firestorm is that in the film, Brando uses butter as lube in a scene that today is considered to be rape. This idea that sexual assault occurred during the filming comes from a 2007 interview, in which Schneider said:
That scene wasn’t in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea. They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry. I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that. Marlon said to me, “Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie.” But during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.
Schneider was humiliated and mistreated, that seems clear, but because this incident has been inflated to Literal Rape through the internet grapevine, it looked like Edelstein was making a Literal Rape joke. The post wasn't up long, but soon after came the demands for his head—from, for instance, the actress Martha Plimpton, who tweeted to her nearly 200,000 followers that critic should be fired.
*warning: rape JFC, David Edelstein. All day I’ve avoided noting this mans death precisely because of this moment in which a sexual assault of an actress was intentionally captured on film. And this asshole makes it into this joke. Fire him. Immediately. pic.twitter.com/NOITGeb7EY
— Martha Plimpton (@MarthaPlimpton) November 26, 2018
Plimpton, soon after, got her wish. Edelstein quickly deleted the offending Facebook post (which was set to "friends only" in the first place) and apologized, writing on Facebook:
"What does one do in this situation. Regarding Bertolucci’s death, I made a stupid joke here on my FB page that turns out to have been beyond stupid—grotesque. The first and only time I ever saw Last Tango was in 1977. I remembered the scene in question as part of a consensual, increasingly s&m relationship that ends with the woman being forced to shoot the man. I didn’t remember it as a rape and I didn’t know the real-life story about Maria Schneider. The line was callous and wrong even if it HAD been consensual, but given that it wasn’t I’m sick at the thought of how it read and what people logically conclude about me. I have never and would never make light of rape, in fiction or in reality."
I don't personally know Edelstein, although we are friends on Facebook. (Perhaps ironically, he friended me after I wrote about the consequences of call-out culture and the increasingly hair-trigger response to behavior deemed problematic. That said, we've never further interacted and I didn't notice this kerfuffle going down on his page when it was occurring.) Salon's O'Hehir, however, does know Edelstein, and he writes in his piece: "I’m not going to serve as a character witness, nor deliver some kind of 'Brutus is an honorable man' speech. But I’ll say this: I believe David meant his unfunny butter joke to be puckish and harmless, and sincerely did not understand why many people would find it offensive. Furthermore, he clearly believed his personal Facebook page was a semi-private space. He was clearly wrong about that."
Fresh Air's reaction to Edelstein's "joke," if that's what his tribute to Bertolucci was, is somewhat, though not entirely, surprising. It is surprising because Fresh Air isn't Everyday Feminism or Jezebel or Mic.com. It's not ideological or reactionary. It's a decades-old public radio show whose actual listeners aren't the sort of people who join pile-ons on Twitter. Most of them, I'm guessing, aren't quite sure what a Twitter even is. Public dismissal and disavowal seems like a highly dramatic step for a public radio.
This firing was not surprising, however, because Fresh Air is still public media. Employees and contractors of public media entities are required to sign strict codes of conduct that dictate your behavior on social media. There's a reason for this, and, I think, it's valid: Public media is supposed to be neutral, unbiased, and if you have reporters covering the White House while tweeting that Donald Trump has the brains of a snowman and the looks of an uncooked turkey, that sense of neutrality disappears. This might not matter on CNN or Fox News, but public media is funded by the public. There's a greater expectation of non-bias.
But David Edelstein isn't a reporter. He's a film critic, and this comment, tasteless as it may have been, wasn't a crime. It was an error, one, apparently, worth taking a man's job over.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Fresh Air said that Edelstein's post was "offensive and unacceptable, especially given actress Maris Schneider's experience during the filming of Last Tango in Paris. The post does not meet the standards that we expect from Fresh Air contributors, or from journalists associated with WHYY or NPR. We appreciate the apology David posted, but we have decided to end Fresh Air's association with him."
The organization didn't specify if there's anything else going on with Edelstein that contributed to the dismissal. He has, in the past, been criticized for being a little too complimentary to actresses' appearances. (Edelstein also started out as a reviewer when actresses were routinely referred to as "busty," but, you know, new rules.) Still, while there could be something else going on behind the scenes, if we take the statement at face value, the man was fired over one ill-advised post.
Instead of firing David Edelstein, Fresh Air could have either handled it privately or even turned it into a moment. Terry Gross could have interviewed him on air, which might have pushed forward the conversation we're having now about the upending of sex, power, and gender roles. All of us, Edelstein included, could possibly have even learned something—which, really, is what public media is all about. But instead of turning this into something positive, Fresh Air did precisely the opposite.
#MeToo started out as a movement that outed men in power for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. The intentions were to upend power structures and uplift women. At the same time, some of us pessimists and naysayers warned that this movement had the potential to gradually twist and mutate so that even small misteps and slights could ruin somebody's life. Does this incident—the firing of a man based on an ignorant but short-lived Facebook post—show that the moral panic is rising? I'm not sure, but I doubt David Edelstein will be the last man to learn the hard way that there's no room, in this world, for error.