No joking matter
When I was nineteen years old I worked at Walmart. There was an older man who worked at the store every weekend handing out samples in the grocery department, and we all knew him really well. One day as I reached over a counter to get something he leaned over to me and whispered that he wanted to slip an ice cube down the back of my pants to watch me wiggle. I was shocked.
I immediately went to my manager and reported the incident, telling him that I was no longer comfortable working with this man. As frequently happens, my manager initially brushed it off. It was inappropriate, sure, but he was an old man and it wasn’t nefarious, right? On my lunch break I mentioned the incident to a friend, and she said, “Oh my god, I thought it was just me!” It turned out he had been making jokes like for a long time.
By the end of the day at least six other women had gone to management to tell them their story about how they had been sexually harassed by this one employee. He was fired and I was empowered.
As a young woman new to the workplace, that was a key moment for me in learning my strength, the power of my voice, and the importance of speaking up when someone harrasses you in the workplace. It was also the day I drew the line in the sand about laughing at misogynistic jokes.
I’m sure at this point you’ve heard about the Zoom background Rep. Bruce Bickford (R-Auburn) had up when he signed into not one but two legislative meetings last week. The background showed a joke about Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer whose sexual assault cases were a major catalyst for the #MeToo movement.
Bickford left the meetings when he realized it and signed back in with a scenic backdrop. Later he issued an apology with this statement: “It was a total mistake and as soon as I realized it, I took it down… It never should have been in a public setting.”
This is where I take issue, because this implies that Rep. Bickford felt this was acceptable in a private setting.
To be clear: it wasn’t. If Rep. Bickford hadn’t had the misogynistic joke on his laptop to begin with, he wouldn’t have accidentally put it up when signing into this meeting.
I’m not saying we need to start dictating what people are and aren’t allowed to have on their personal laptops, but I am saying that we need to stop brushing these things under the rug.
House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town) and Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) released a joint statement on March 25. “We are glad that Rep. Bickford has issued an apology, but that apology did not demonstrate an understanding of why these actions were so problematic,” they wrote. “His actions require consequences and must serve as a reminder that no one should have to put up with sexual harassment and offensive behavior, especially not in a work environment, and especially not in the Maine State Legislature.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Clearly, Rep. Bickford doesn’t grasp the real issue here, nor is he worried about what may come of this. After all, it simply didn’t belong in a public setting, according to him.
Like my coworker who was making inappropriate jokes for years, too many men in political positions of power are also being allowed to make these jokes and then have them forgotten. This results in a man being allowed to talk about how he could “grab em by the….” on tape and still end up in the highest political position in the country, right?
It’s time to take misogynistic jokes from people in positions of power seriously and stop brushing them under the rug. We can’t dismiss Rep. Bickford’s joke as being ‘in poor taste’ and simply forget about it. We, Maine voters, need to raise the bar on what is acceptable behavior for our elected officials.
Photo: Rep. Bruce Bickford appears before a Harvey Weinstein joke during a meeting of the Maine Legislature. | Screenshot