The Women In Animation group brought together an all-star panel of attorneys, a psychiatrist with experience in employment law and the co-founder of a non-profit organization that works to combat harassment to discuss the ever-widening scandal that has engulfed Hollywood and Capitol Hill.
But it was one animator’s account of sexual harassment while working on the Disney Channel show Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil in 2012 that gave Wednesday night’s discussion emotional resonance.
The woman said she initially confided in a manager, who discouraged her from reporting the harassment to human resources. The Animation Guild’s former business agent offered no help, saying, “At least you have a job.” Once she finally met with human resources, and sought assurances that she would not be backlisted or fired for pursuing a complaint, she was told: “I can’t guarantee your job.”
“I’m a single mother with two girls. I couldn’t take that risk,” the woman said, her eyes welling with tears. “So all these years I kept it to myself until this person got caught. Finally, I thought I would come here today to get healed.”
Privately, the woman identified the alleged harasser as Kick Buttowski’s director, Chris Savino, who was fired from the Nickelodeon hit animated series The Loud House after as many as a dozen women accused him of making unwanted sexual advances and threats of blacklisting. He has issued a public apology, saying, “I’m deeply sorry and ashamed.”
The woman said Savino showed her a photograph of his penis and repeatedly propositioned her. The experience was so emotionally scarring, she has actively discouraged her youngest daughter from pursuing art as a career. She requested anonymity because she has yet to recount the ordeal to her eldest child, who’s now a teenager.
Animation Guild President KC Johnson said the union has formed an anti-discrimination and harassment committee to discuss the union’s role, and where it should go from here. “We have a lot of work to do, because obviously we haven’t played a supportive role in the past, as evidenced by what we heard tonight,” Johnson said.
Civil rights advocate Kimberle Crenshaw traced the evolution of sexual harassment since Anita Hill forced a national conversation about abuse of power in the workplace in 1991 with her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
“I saw first-hand the cost of courage, and I saw the depth of denial,” said Crenshaw, who was a member of Hill’s legal team.
Crenshaw said what some people misunderstood a quarter-century ago as “misplaced attraction” is now clearly, even starkly, defined in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein disclosures, and the #MeToo movement that was launched by an African American woman, Tarana Burke, seeking to help victims of sexual assault feel less isolated.
Tammy Cho, co-founder of the BetterBrave organization, said the problem is widespread, with as many as one in three women suffering on-the-job harassment. Most of these instances — roughly 71% — go unreported for a variety of reasons, including distrust of human resources and fear of consequences, she said.
“Human resources, by and large, is not your friend if you’re an employee,” said Jason Oliver, who has spent the last 20 years representing employees who’ve experienced sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. “They’re not there to help you through what you’re going through. They’re there to protect the company.”
Oliver advises writing complaints in email, and sending the correspondence “to everybody in power that you possibly can” to try to protect against retaliation.
Oliver noted that the animation community is small and insular, and a lot of hiring is based on popularity. He advised formulating a game plan before lodging a complaint, including getting advice from an attorney or non-profit like BetterBrave.
Harassers often pick “soft targets,” those who are accommodating, sensitive to rejection or who avoid conflict, said Anthony Reading, who works on the faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Once ignored or rebuffed, the harasser’s perceptions of the employee changes, making them more harshly critical of the individual’s work.
“The person is suffering anxiety, stress,” Reading said. “Then, there’s a downward spiral.”