Why the news about Matt Lauer shouldn't feel surprising — but does to many

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer

The latest household name to be summarily fired after claims of sexual assault and harassment is veteran Today show host Matt Lauer. The 59-year-old has anchored the NBC morning show for 20 years now — meaning that to many, today’s news felt different than some of the other recent revelations about powerful men and sexual misconduct. Instead, it felt especially striking and personal, and incongruous with the understanding of a person who had been welcomed into people’s living rooms and kitchens for the better part of two decades.

The news regarding Lauer only further underscores one of the greatest challenges for survivors of gender-based violence: It is often hard for those who have not been subject to violence or abuse by a person to understand that someone whom they think of as a friend can be capable of committing such acts and harming others in this way, outside the scope and purview of their own relationship with the person. And so survivors are disbelieved, their claims for too long shrugged off as excuses are made and friends are defended.

Matt Lauer on the set of the Today show. (Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

“There’s something about the familiarity of news anchors that makes this latest case of sexual harassment feel even more painful,” Melanie Brewster, an associate professor of psychology at Teachers College at Columbia University and co-founder of the “Sexuality, Women and Gender Project” there, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Matt Lauer was someone who was a daily guest in people’s homes, while they were getting ready for work or eating breakfast, and supposed to be a trustworthy and wholesome figure. We are living in a jaded age where, as women, we almost anticipate or expect that male politicians or Hollywood types will be skeezy, but admitting to ourselves that this isn’t just an issue for ‘some men in some fields,’ but men everywhere, across all walks of life, is disheartening. Perhaps this is the reckoning that will lead to women finally being believed and heard.”

Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the dichotomy of Lauer’s appealing image and the upsetting allegations can fuel denials. “When unappealing characters like Weinstein or Trump are caught acting inappropriately, it makes sense. When someone we actually like is found to have another side, it is understandably disconcerting,” she says. “But our surprise in these moments reveals how fast we cling to the idea that bad behavior is simply a matter of individual character, rather than structural power.”

She continues, “Treating sexual harassment and sexual assault as questions of character denies the reality that addressing these problems is going to take more than rooting out a few bad apples — it’s going to require a reckoning with the structural power dynamics that create the conditions of possibility for exploitation in the first place.”

Denial in the current situation is all the more complex, given the ways that Lauer’s own professional behavior, both on and off camera, has suggested a less-than-stellar treatment of women for many years.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she felt that she had faced undue — and possibly sexist — criticism from Lauer during an NBC-led presidential forum that Lauer hosted. (Lauer repeatedly questioned Clinton regarding her private email server, while both failing to ask her serious policy questions and lobbing softball questions at her challenger, now-President Trump.)

In 2014, Lauer faced criticism for asking General Motors CEO Mary Barra whether she was able to effectively do her job given that she was also a mother. (Lauer himself is the father of three children.)

When former Today show co-anchor Ann Curry was forced out of her job, it was widely believed that Lauer was behind her ouster. (Curry crying and then turning her back on his attempt to comfort her was the burn seen around the world. Shortly thereafter, Today weatherman Al Roker took an on-air shot at Lauer, mentioning his tradition of “throwing one of us under the bus” during an interview with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Rowing Team.)

In 2012, Lauer attempted to shame actress Anne Hathaway after she was photographed from an angle that revealed she was going commando, telling her during an interview that he had “seen a lot of [her] lately.” (Hathaway responded with grace, noting that she was “sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies the sexuality of unwilling participants.”)

That same year, Katie Couric told Andy Cohen during an appearance on his Watch What Happens: Live that while she and Lauer co-hosted Today together for 15 years, he “pinched me on the ass a lot.” (Couric was neither smiling nor laughing when revealing this in response to Cohen’s question regarding Lauer’s “most annoying habit.”)

Some have taken to social media to indicate that they were not surprised by the latest news.

Clearly, there is more to come about Lauer — and more evidence that even the people we think we know and love can still inflict harm and pain on others.

Or, as Williams concludes, “In the deluge of revelations since the Weinstein story broke, it’s easy to lose track of the many significant differences among the various cases of misconduct that have come to light. Is there a difference between drugging women and then sexually assaulting them, versus grabbing a sleeping woman’s breast as a ‘joke’? Definitely. Is there a difference between reckless p***y-grabbing on the job and having a consensual sexual relationship with a subordinate? Certainly. Do I think that some of these actions reflect more poorly on the character of the men involved than do others? No question. But at the end of the day, it’s all unprofessional conduct, and if women are ever to achieve their well-earned equality in the workplace — and in society more generally — it has to stop.”

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