Another Uppity Woman

BOSTON — Boston.-- I suppose we have Ruth Bader Ginsburg to thank for this one. Back in the '70s, as a strategist in women's-rights law, she decided the best way to impress male judges with gender discrimination was to show how it affected men.

She paved the road to equal protection under the law with male plaintiffs. It was the widowed, divorced and other men who helped win equal rights for women.


Fast-forward to the 1990s when the hot discrimination issue is sexual harassment. In the most celebrated cases, Clarence Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court and Paula Coughlin was hounded out of the Navy. Now the poster child for sexual harassment is none other than Michael Douglas!

In "Disclosure," the mega-hit at the mega-plex, the domesticated Mr. Douglas, a family and company man, is jumped by his old girlfriend and new boss, Demi Moore. This predatory single woman regards him less as a sex object than as a business perk.


Mr. Douglas escapes from her clutches and her cleavage with his virtue intact but his job at risk. She then accuses him of harassment. He countercharges, and spends the rest of the movie trying to convince everyone that men too can be victims. In this task, he is given all the proper role-reversal lines like, "Sexual harassment is about power."

This act comes courtesy of author Michael Crichton, who has piously insisted that seeing a man in this situation will help us to understand women who are harassed. A man makes the woman's case better than a woman. Thank you, Ruth.

If you assembled all the characters Michael Douglas has played in the past few years around one table, you would have a perfect focus group of beleaguered white men. Ever since he was the king of "Wall Street," it's been downhill. He's been the victim of a "Fatal Attraction," of a world "Falling Down," and of a truly "Basic Instinct."

Now he's the symbol of a world in which men are losing "their" jobs. Not to Third World labor, GATT or downsizing, but to undeserving women like Demi, who, he says, "doesn't know the difference between software and a cashmere sweater." As a bitterly unemployed Everyman on the ferry intones to Mr. Douglas, "We used to have fun with the girls. Now she probably wants your job."

It's pretty clear that the movie makers expect the "angry white male" in the audience to identify with Mr. Douglas. The AWM is invited to share the identity and anxiety of a Seattle computer executive who speaks CD-ROM as a first language and worries about stock options. Mr. Douglas is not master of the universe. He's just another male, available for bonding.

Demi Moore on the other hand, is the latest in a long line of bitch-bosses in mini-power-skirts -- the women that Hollywood loves to present as an equal-opportunity hate object. The setup might have been more subtle if she had been older and plainer. But then again, in Ms. Moore's last movie, Robert Redford of all people had to pay a million dollars for sex.

The movie's lips say that sexual harassment is about power, but its eyes say it's about sex. The camera pans Ms. Moore's legs and lingers on the virtual reality of her Wonderbra breasts. The ads promote the encounter as steamy, not scary.

So in the end, the movie is not really a role-reversal case study of male sexual harassment. It's not even the portrait of a complex he-said, she-said dispute. It's he-said all the way.


Sexual harassment is indeed about abuse in the workplace. And yes, men can be harassed too. But on the whole, the issue raises different specters for women and men.

For women, the underlying fear is of male violence. The overbearing boss, the hands-on superior, the wolf whistles and the pinups on the locker door carry the threat of verbal and physical assault.

For men the most resonant threat is not of harassment and not of female violence. It's the fear of false accusation. The belief that a law designed to balance the power between men and women actually gives women power over men.

In "Disclosure," Mr Douglas charges sexual offense only in self-defense. It's less a story about a man harassed than a man accused. Falsely, of course.

This isn't role reversal. It's role playing. I'm afraid Michael Crichton is no Ruth Ginsburg. His cutting edge is as old as a fairy tale. In the happy ending, the evil uppity woman always gets her comeuppance.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.