In Neil LaBute’s coruscating black comedy In the Company of Men, two reptilian male executives concoct a scheme to deceive and emotionally humiliate a vulnerable deaf secretary who works at the branch office they’ve been temporarily assigned to. The plan is to shower her with attention, get her to fall in love with both of them, then simultaneously drop her. Why? Because they can. Because they’re angry at women. Because they think women have power over them.
Over the last few days we witnessed a scenario that could have been authored by LaBute, our bard of misogyny, play out in real life, a terrific satire about corporate America, sexual swaggering and contemporary masculine angst, improvised by a couple of executives at Uber. Yes, in case you haven’t heard, another male in a position of power has created another dungstorm by making ill-considered remarks in a public setting; the usual swell of public indignation has ensued.
“His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals,” tweeted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, about Emil Michael, his senior vice president of business. Kalanick was referring to threats Michael issued at a dinner attended by a number of prominent journalists, involving a harebrained plan to do opposition research aimed at Uber-critical journalists. He was going to dig up dirt on their personal lives, their families, and give the media a taste of its own medicine. Michael later said he thought the dinner was off the record, and that he was just venting, not serious.
Why am I so much less outraged than everyone seems to be about the story? To begin with, who ever thought such guys were role models for enlightened masculinity anyway? Social responsibility? Come on. New corporations and start-ups come and go these days in a flurry of mergers, acquisitions and rebranding, in it for a quick payday. They owe no one anything—not in their eyes, anyway. The Great Recession was brought to us by just such swashbucklers, who still believe they earn their unconscionable incomes by taking insane risks with other people’s money and turning the economy into a casino. Ever since Reagan, corporate America’s indifference to any value other than profits has been writ large in their refusal to pay their fair share of taxes. They’re not role models for anyone other than pirates.
The mistake is to regard Uber and its execs are though they’re the exception to something. Indifference to customers? Sounds like the airlines. Silicon Valley corporate greed? It pales compared to Wall Street corporate greed. Misogynist mud-throwing aimed at a threatening woman? Consider the ongoing and deeply ugly Republican war on Hillary Clinton.
In this case it was one woman in particular— Sarah Lacy, editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily—who was the special target of Michael’s animus. Lacy has repeatedly taken Uber to task for what she calls the company’s outrageous sexism, including CEO Kalanick’s boasts that he gets so much “tail” since starting Uber that the company should really be called “Boober.”
Her response to hearing about Michael’s dinner-party threats, Lacy has recently written, was a shocked sense of her own vulnerability, and fears for her children’s well-being. She imagined them at home in their kitten and dinosaur pajamas and felt terror.
The pajamas are a nice touch (heartstrings tugged!). But what Lacy neglects to say is that she has these guys running scared. They’re afraid of her. Lacy should be taking a victory lap. Her opponents are acting like “scared little girls” in the current idiom—they’re simply masking it behind a lot of macho posturing. Which is exactly what most macho posturing generally comes down to: fear of one sort or another. And pathos. And, vulnerability, real or imaginary. We have a habit of forgetting that.
Let me say something else that might be controversial. I’m rather intrigued by Kalanick’s references to how much sex he’s getting just because he’s Uber’s CEO. Here’s another hard truth of the sort that Neil LaBute is so good at exposing: As much as some women protest the kind of misogynist culture that Uber apparently exemplifies, there are plenty of other women who eroticize male power and wish to bask in its aura, even when it comes packaged in buffoonish and objectionable forms. This is a contradiction worth examining. Women, too, play a contributing role in upholding the conditions that also abject us, something we’re in the habit of forgetting.
Memo to the “tail” of which Kalanick speaks: Ladies! You can do better.
For my part, I’d far rather hear what guys like Michael say when behind closed doors than carefully burnished platitudes from some PR firm. When people go off-message, or mistakenly think they’re off the record, or un-mic’ed (don’t forget Mitt Romney uttered the fatal “47%” line when he thought he was among friends), what you usually hear is what they actually think, as opposed to what they think they’re supposed to say. The only thing that was outrageous about this latest episode was getting socked in the face with a few unvarnished truths.
Laura Kipnis’s new book, Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, is out this week.