In the introduction to his recent interview with the cast of Arrested Development, New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb describes the conversation as “freewheeling, at times emotional” with “the air of a family Thanksgiving dinner.” That emotion was sparked by Deb’s question concerning allegations made by Jeffrey Tambor’s costar and assistant that he had sexually harassed them on the set of Transparent. (The allegations emerged during the final days of filming Season 5 of Arrested Development; Tambor has since been fired from and written off of Transparent, which will end after its next season.) Tambor denied any sexual misconduct but admitted, in a Hollywood Reporter interview, to “lifelong anger issues” and behaving improperly on both sets, including one incident that hadn’t been previously reported: a “blowup” on the set of Arrested Development with the actor who plays his estranged wife, Jessica Walter.
Deb asked Tambor whether, given the allegations, he’d be part of future seasons of Arrested Development — to which he responded: “I’d certainly hope so.” At that point, Jason Bateman declared he wouldn’t do another season without Tambor and that “there’s no reason” he shouldn’t be invited back. Bateman downplayed Tambor’s yelling at Walter, despite her repeatedly mentioning how upsetting the experience had been, suggesting, “This is a family and families, you know, have love, laughter, arguments — again, not to belittle it, but a lot of stuff happens in 15 years.”
For many, families are indeed a source of warmth and support. But many families, including the fictional Bluths depicted in Arrested Development, use words like “love” and “loyalty” to mask all matter of toxicity and aggression, both passive and overt.
When a workplace is facing cuts — job cuts, salary cuts, benefit cuts — the boss will often make a speech to keep up morale. “We’re a family here at [WORKPLACE],” they’ll say. “We stick together.” This is a different sort of messaging than, say, a union — where sticking together becomes a means to argue against, and demand relief from, exploitation. When the message comes from a manager or a boss, “sticking together” means enduring sacrifice. Almost always, that type of sacrifice ensures a better situation for the company rather than the individual.
In cases like these, invoking “the family” of the workplace becomes a means of blunting anger, of sublimating resistance. If you push back, it suggests, you’re not harming a company that benefits from your labor. You’re harming your family. The guilt — the natural responsibility we feel toward family members — is generally sufficient to keep workers in line and resigned to their new fate, whether it means the loss of wages or pension, an increase in hours, or the removal of mechanisms like tenure meant to ensure job stability. Speaking up for yourself? Hurting the family. To call a workplace a family is to elevate the loyalty one should feel to the idea of the company and its members and simultaneously excuse, or flatten, any bad behavior or damage inflicted within its confines.
At its most extreme, the invocation of family has been used to explain why parents ignore sexual abuse, why grandparents look the other way when their child is beaten, why no one told police when a serious crime was committed. In this way, “family” covers for the degradation of children and of elders, wielded as a sort of pass to behave horribly toward one another. Family is an alibi (“I could never do that to him — he’s family”) and an excuse (“Things happen — it’s family”); it is taken up as a shield when convenient and disavowed when not.
Above all, family is a construct, and like all constructs, it covers for something darker, and more complex, than we’d like to admit: that family ties are not the same as love, that blood or legal relation does not necessarily induce compassion, that we are often our worst selves with the people who are automatically, unquestionably bound to us.
Bateman was gesturing toward that darker side, I think, when he described the cast as family: that for all of the laughter and love that passed between them, there had been some inexcusable shit as well. But that’s the thing about the word: It can be, and has been, used to excuse the inexcusable. It’s one of the ways that Bateman has explained his enduring loyalty to Tambor to himself: He’s the “difficult” member of the family, the one everyone else is always apologizing for. “Families come together and certain dynamics collide and clash every once in a while,” he said later in the interview, after Walters repeatedly attempted to describe how singular the interaction had been in her career.
Bateman considers himself part of this family, but he is a bystander to the larger dynamic of abuse. As he said in a tweeted apology for his comments, “I shouldn’t have tried so hard to mansplain, or fix a fight, or make everything okay. I should’ve focused more on what the most important part of it all is — there’s never any excuse for abuse, in any form, from any gender. And, the victim’s voice needs to be heard and respected. Period.”
Bateman’s use of the term “family” was, as he explained in his apology, smoothing things over — and, by effect, making both himself and others “feel okay.” Yet the ones most harmed by its use are often the victims of the family dynamic — the ones who internalize its logic as a means to excuse their abuser and blame themselves for continued dysfunction. See Walter’s comments, later in the interview, regarding a realization she had as they spoke: “I have to let go of being angry at him,” she said, referencing Tambor. “He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go.”
At that point, Walter turned to Tambor. “And I have to give you a chance to, you know, for us to be friends again,” she said. Family means always giving someone a second chance. Family means letting things go. But so often, it’s the person who’s been injured — not the aggressor — who’s asked to move on for the greater good of the family unit. It’s the child, or the woman, or the teen that’s easy to tease, and it’s their fault that the family doesn’t feel good or natural, that it’s falling apart. It blames the victim not for what happened to her but for her refusal to forget about it.
A television set is not a family. A university is not a family. A startup is not a family. An agent is not your dad. A supervisor is not your sister. And even if they were, that doesn’t excuse shitty behavior that devalues you or your work. Loyalty can be a powerful force, but it is not always a beneficial or productive one, especially when it involves anyone who wields power over you.
In the New York Times interview, Bateman repeatedly spoke for, or cut off, his female costars, all while pandering to the patriarch, in life and fiction, of the family: Tambor. Another male costar weakly chimed in. Yet another stayed largely silent. The matriarch attempted to make herself heard. Her youngest costar tried to assist her. Two cast members were absent altogether — a statement in itself. The dynamic was indeed, as Deb said, like that of a Thanksgiving dinner, in which the sublimated tensions of the family unit, loosened by alcohol or the right instigating question, come to the fore. But that doesn’t excuse Tambor’s actions on set, or Bateman’s within the interview. Instead, it suggests that the dominant family structure — literal or metaphorical — remains patriarchal, frequently manipulative, and, especially to those victimized by it, incredibly (if often invisibly) toxic.
The next time someone describes a situation, or a workplace, or even a group of friends as “like a family,” listen carefully: It could be a tribute to a loving, supportive unit of people not in fact related by law or DNA. But it could just as easily be a red flag that someone has acted, or will act, badly — and an attempt to excuse it. Actually loving someone, and treating them the way “family” is supposed to suggest, doesn’t mean making excuses for them. It means demanding radical accountability. The #MeToo movement has changed the way so many people understand complex, emotionally fraught concepts like abuse and consent. But when it comes to family and the way that idea is wielded, some things have not changed enough. ●