Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Getting hands-on with the #MeToobin Dickscourse

The story of #zoomdick is awful. It’s also, inescapably, very funny.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore
By: Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Never in the history of journalism has the first sentence of a story been this inadvertently hilarious: “The New Yorker has suspended reporter Jeffrey Toobin for masturbating on a Zoom video chat between members of the New Yorker and WNYC radio last week.” I say “inadvertently” because it is in fact quite sad. Sad for Toobin’s esteemed colleagues, among them Jane Mayer, who co-wrote (with Ronan Farrow) one of the publication’s groundbreaking #MeToo articles. No one should have to see that. Sad, too, for Toobin himself, whose apparently inadvertent (if reckless) behaviour has — as Conor Friedersdorf correctly notes — turned him into a laughing stock and harmed his professional reputation, perhaps irreparably.  

It’s awful. It’s also, inescapably, very funny. Something about the combination of self-seriousness (the New Yorker and New York public radio) and all-too-human foibles is just too much. Also the double meaning of the word “masturbatory,” given that the meeting in question had been an election-night role-play among prominent members of the New York media. The story presented an opportunity for all of Twitter to independently come up with the phrase, #MeToobin, and, of course, the cylindrical (“tube”) sound of the name itself spoken aloud. Seinfeld memes and references abounded, with the writer Jonathan Malesic correctly noting the sheer George Costanza-ness of it all. (Think “The Contest” or Elaine’s date who “took … it out …,” or any ep where George attempts to act normal in an office setting.)

Toobin himself, remember, is not a fictional character but a real person, with feelings. He’s also a longtime public figure who has previously made the news for caddishness. His behaviour was, as Barbara McClay put it well, amusing from its mix of universality and specificity. And the story is relatable, insofar as anyone who works from home or shares a household with someone who does has worried about accidentally doing or saying something inappropriate, if not quite that inappropriate. The sudden visibility of everyone’s home life to colleagues, classmates, doctors and so on hasn’t completely ended privacy as a concept, but has certainly altered it beyond recognition. 

The early-pandemic admonishments to professionalize your living space were annoying, in part because not everyone has the means to do so, but also because it meant a new order where no one’s ever truly off the clock. What if your partner just got out of the shower and didn’t realize you were at a conference? What if you and your roommate have a nickname for a colleague and you didn’t realize this colleague was in the room with you via the computer? I recall an online forum debating whether it was perverted — or a logistical necessity — for a teacher to hold virtual meetings with students from his bedroom. Poor Jeffrey Toobin! I guess?

If it’s unethical to laugh at #MeToobin, it’s also fraught to treat this debacle with too much generosity. I’m thinking of philosopher Kate Manne’s concept of “himpathy,” or the benefit of the doubt given to important men who get themselves into trouble, but also of Maya Kosoff’s point about “a stark stratification” in journalism: “There are people who feel totally fine literally jerking off at work and collecting a comfortable paycheck, while the media underclass writes SEO posts in a permanent stress-crouch position for barely enough money to cover rent.” The Toobins of the world are usually untouchable (so to speak) because they seem like people with whom it would be foolish to burn a bridge. And yet, behold, a downfall. When those with enviable careers screw up, there are many who’d gladly take their place. It’s not just that laughing about this feels acceptable as a punch up, although that is, I think, a lot of it. 

In trying to make sense of what had happened and the state of the discourse (dickscourse) du jour, I tweeted a hypothetical, asking what the reaction would be if a woman were putting on nail polish during a Zoom work meeting. My point was not that women achieve orgasm via the application of nail lacquer, but rather that female frivolity gets less of a pass, or perhaps just less respect, than male lust. Men, powerful ones especially, are assumed to have needs. Having a sudden, irrepressible need to jerk off at an inappropriate (not to mention unexpected) time is just part and parcel of the same masculine life force that drives men like Toobin to become massively successful authors and media personalities. 

The more powerful the man, the greater his presumed needs. Not so for the ladies. A serious, career-driven woman results from a girlhood spent nobly resisting (or not eliciting) the attentions of boys. A man is viewed as that much more robust and, well, virile if he combines a high-powered professional life with sexual conquests. Armchair evolutionary psychologists will explain that this is simply about testosterone. Men can’t help themselves from being the horny, risk-driven beasts they are. Feminists such as yours truly will counter that women are no less horny, no less capable of being turned on by a stray thought or tab during a lull in a meeting, but risk more by acting on their urges.

It’s not simply a matter of how cancelled a grown woman New Yorker writer would have been in equivalent circumstances, but rather a question of how girls are socialized. The low chance of a woman ever finding herself in a Toobinesque boat is the silver lining to this double standard.


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