Remember way back in the spring of 2020, when everybody was losing their mind over the coronavirus pandemic and clinging to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s slideshows in a desperate attempt to stay sane?
Well, Cuomo decided to revive them, with a twist: On Tuesday, the governor tried to use a montage of photos of himself kissing and hugging people as evidence that he’s not an inveterate sexual harasser.
The slideshow cursed the nation’s eyeballs on Tuesday, hours after the New York attorney general’s office released a bombshell report that concluded Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women, including a state trooper who’d been assigned to his protective detail. Independent investigators, who’d interviewed 179 people as part of the probe and reviewed more than 74,000 records, found that Cuomo had engaged in unwanted groping, hugs, and kisses, as well as made inappropriate remarks to women. Many of these women were current or former staffers.
Cuomo has denied that he ever touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances, and his rebuttal to the report came in the form of a nearly 15-minute speech and an 85-page response from his lawyer. But it was the slideshow that caught fire online, because of course it did: It was jarringly toneless, and yet, in its images of Cuomo touching people from every walk of life, strove to summon up a kind of “We are the world” vibe. It’s the “Imagine” celebrity singalong, but for sexual harassment. It was, in short, perfect for the internet, just as Cuomo’s pandemic slideshows were.
Except it wasn’t just that. Cuomo was trying to use the slideshow to argue that rather than targeting women, he was an equal-opportunity hugger and kisser. But instead, the slideshow, as well as the rest of Cuomo’s speech, evoked some of the most insidious myths about sexual misconduct, the women who survive it, and the men who perpetrate it.
In addition to offering evidence of Cuomo’s tendency to touch, there were other arguments nestled inside the slideshow. Not only is the touching innocuous and everyday, it argued, but it’s public. And if Cuomo is willing to do it in front of cameras, how nefarious can it really be? If he’s being forthright about this, wouldn’t he be forthright about everything else?
Cuomo highlighted this exact line of thinking in his speech.
“I am the same person in public as I am in private,” Cuomo said. He added, “I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances. I am 63 years old. I have lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am and that is not who I have ever been.”
Cuomo also admitted that he would sometimes “slip” and call people names like “sweetheart” or “bella,” which is Italian for “beautiful.” (The report found that Cuomo “almost exclusively” called one former aide “sweetheart” or “darling.”) But Cuomo said he’s now learned that there are “generational or cultural perspectives that frankly I hadn’t fully appreciated.”
In 2017, during the social media swell of the #MeToo movement, critic Lili Loofbourow came up with a term for this type of defense: “The male bumbler.”
“The bumbler's perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men—particularly powerful men—use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts,” Loufbourow wrote in The Week. “The bumbler takes one of our culture's most muscular myths—that men are clueless—and weaponizes it into an alibi.”
“He's astonished to discover that he had power over anyone at all, let alone that he was perceived as using it,” she added. “What power? he says. Who, me?”
After the speech, Cuomo released his lawyer’s 85-page treatise. It does not address every allegation in the report and is much shorter than it originally appears: Only the first 26 pages are a letter from the lawyer. The rest are various “exhibits”—including an extension of the slideshow, in the form of 23 pages of more photos of Cuomo and other politicians touching, hugging, and kissing. (They include some pictures of Cuomo touching his family members, which prove exactly nothing. It is indeed normal to hug your mom in public and no one is saying otherwise.)
Other people touch like this all the time, the slideshow and document argue. And because Cuomo—a man who’s lived his entire adult life entangled in the top echelons of power—likes to cast himself as a political outsider and man of the people, the slideshow also subtly suggests that you might touch like this too. If Cuomo is being attacked for this, are you next? And if this kind of touching is criminal, then what isn’t?
This is not to say that any of these photos depict sexual misconduct, but for the record: It can happen in public and in front of cameras. Sexual misconduct is so pervasive that we frequently ignore it even when it occurs in the open. And the question, ultimately, is not whether someone accused of sexual harassment thinks his behavior is fine, but whether it has left others feeling uncomfortable and silenced. In Cuomo’s case, per the report, it has.
Cuomo’s parade of photos is a kind of male bumbler in and of itself. It came off as clueless. The photo of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cuddling was perhaps pulled from a Google search for “Obama hugging,” which doesn’t quite scream competence. But its riveting absurdity led it to function as a smokescreen for the rest of Cuomo’s speech, which was a grab bag of defenses. He brought up a family member who’d been sexually assaulted. He said would be implementing new sexual harassment training for himself and his team. He suggested that reports of female managers contributing to a toxic work culture in his office were sexist, because they unfairly “villainized” these women.
That last claim obscures the fact that at least one male Cuomo aide was also accused of perpetuating an office culture that was described as “extremely toxic, extremely abusive,” “rife with fear and intimidation,” and “full of bullying-type behavior” at various points of the report. It also conveniently skirts the accusations that Cuomo “personified” this culture as well as essentially leveraged that noxious environment to keep women quiet.
“Many of the complainants described being uncomfortable with the governor’s flirtatious advances while also perceiving such behavior as a sign that they were favored—and spared from being yelled at, ignored, or otherwise mistreated by the governor instead,” the report reads.
Cuomo probably spent the most time in his speech addressing the accusations raised by Charlotte Bennett, a former Cuomo staffer. The report found that Cuomo had made several inappropriate comments to Bennett, including asking whether she’d been with older men, if she was monogamous, and whether she had piercings anyplace other than her ears. Bennett is a sexual assault survivor and, on Tuesday, Cuomo said that he tried to get to know her because “her story resonated deeply with me.”
“I did ask questions to try to see if she had positive, supportive dating relationships,” he said. “I was trying to make sure she was working her way through it the best she could. I thought I had learned enough and had enough personal experience to help her, but I was wrong.”
Bennett and her attorney, the governor continued, “read into comments that I made and drew inferences that I never meant. They ascribe motives I never had. And, simply put, they heard things that I just didn’t say.”
By linking Bennett’s experience with sexual assault to her interpretation of his comments, Cuomo’s comments imply that Bennett was so addled by the assault that she saw danger when there was none. Even though Cuomo—by his own estimation—is very experienced at handling the aftermath of sexual assault, this woman was beyond his help. Not only is this a stunning characterization to make about a sexual assault survivor, but it ignores the report’s findings that other people in Cuomo’s office also saw warning signs in his treatment of Bennett.
According to the report, when Bennett told female staffers about her interactions with Cuomo, they found the situation to be “sufficiently serious to implement an informal protocol to try to protect the governor from being alone with young women on the Executive Chamber staff.”
Cuomo’s slideshow hasn’t stopped the flood of calls for his resignation. Top Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden have said he should step back. The Democratic governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island jointly released a terse statement that read, “We are appalled at the findings of the independent investigation by the New York Attorney General. Governor Cuomo should resign from office.”
After Cuomo’s response, Bennett also demanded on Twitter that Cuomo be impeached.
“We have the facts,” she tweeted. Cuomo “broke federal and state law when he sexually harassed me and other current and former staff. I do not want an apology—I want accountability and an end to victim-blaming.”