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Friday, January 3, 2014

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"Penis, Penis, PENIS!": The Legend of Nancy Silberkleit

Nancy Silberkleit is, by trade, an elementary school art teacher. She worked with kids in New Jersey, helped set up art education programs in schools and group homes and, according to her official biography, "was instrumental in launching the Hudson Valley Children's Museum, located in Nyack, New York." Additionally—in the parlance of those of us who have taken art classes—she emitted hella art teacher vibes. Silberkleit had long grey hair, glasses, with the air of having been a hippie at one point. Most prominently, her demeanor was kind, engendered trust; she spoke patiently and deliberately.

In 2008, when her husband Michael Silberkleit passed away from cancer, Nancy inherited his position as co-CEO of Archie Comics, the company his father Louis co-founded in 1939. In her interviews, she spoke passionately about education, against bullying, about loving words. In July 2012, in San Diego for Comic-Con, she explained to local news station KUSI that she wanted Archie Comics to "engage [children] in the love of reading." Explaining her anti-bullying foundation, Rise Above!, and the accompanying comic book, she said, "One message is, never let anyone define who they want you to be."  

There is no template for the type of woman accused of workplace sexual harassment, although if modern fictional media is to believed, it is not Nancy Silberkleit. Only 16 percent of all charges are filed by men, who are also the most commonly accused. But in fictional media, women sexual harassers tend to be portrayed through a misogynistic lens: they're vixens, or voracious career-mongers. Wuornos types. Think of Sandra Bullock's character, in the 2009 rom-com The Proposal; lithe in power suits, she wields her position as a publishing executive to force a lesser employee, Ryan Reynolds, to marry her to avoid deportation. (Spoiler: they end up falling in love.) Or Jennifer Aniston, America's sweetheart, who plays a conniving sex maniac in 2011's Horrible Bosses: a toned, ferocious dentist who blackmails her charges into sleeping with her, or else. They are feckless male fantasies of sexual harassers by whom some brohams out there would, in theory only, "want" to be approached. Women who are just out there for some action, whose only true crime is their ambition, but who will either pack it in for lurve or eventually get their slapstick comeuppance.

Nancy Silberkleit, the former elementary school art teacher, has been accused by male employees of Archie Comics for sexual harassment, accusing her of referring to them not by their government names, but as "penis." The $32.5 million lawsuit was initially filed in July of 2011, and led to a restraining order against Silberkleit and countersuit in which Silberkleit and co-CEO Jon Goldwater—son of another Archie co-founder, John Goldwater—battled for the future of the company. In 2012, the restraining order was lifted, but this October, the original harassment lawsuit was reinstated.  

The details are labyrinthine, but the pull quote is writ large: as reported in 2011 by TMZ, the lawsuit stated that in 2009, Silberkleit "barged into a meeting, 'pointed to each [attendee] and said, 'PENIS, PENIS, PENIS, PENIS' and then walked out.' Nancy allegedly pulled the same 'penis' stunt again in 2010—but this time she also screamed out, 'My balls hurt.'"

Silberkleit is accused of all sorts of other sordid and dramatic behavior in the lawsuit, including allegedly dispatching a member of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang as well as a former NFL player to hit up company headquarters and intimidate employees; and various other "destructive, dangerous, and at times deranged behavior"; and telling one employee that, "All you penises think you can run me out."

The complaint is not without its own flair, however; drawing on Archie Comics' squeaky clean image, it reads, "While World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not stop the publication of Archie Comics. The war-like attitude and approach of Defendant may destroy Archie Comics unless this Court intervenes." All hail the greatest fucking generation. Silberkleit has filed her own sexual harassment charges; her lawyer responded to the Archie employees' suit by saying that it has no weight since "white men aren't part of a protected class."

If the accusations against Nancy Silberkleit are true, it's pretty appalling and untenable. No one deserves to be treated poorly in the workplace, especially fearing for their personal safety. And yet. There's something about Silberkleit's story that resonates, a kernel of something under there we can understand. It's not just that her alleged "Penis! Penis! PENIS!" moment sounds like a scripted montage from a feminist movie that counters the mainstream image of the glamorous woman sexual harasser—a sort of workplace answer to Teeth. Silberkleit's story resonates with women because we have seen so much of the behavior that, one suspects, might lead up to an outburst like the "Penis!" incident. Those of us who have been subject to workplace discrimination, harassment or otherwise, have felt the pressure of having to work triply hard and clock longer hours and be eminently smarter than our male counterparts, only to watch them receive the peach appointments and assignments and paychecks. We have felt the humiliation of our ideas being discounted and of being spoken over in meetings; one in five of us has been subject to unwanted advances, to objectification, and other forms of sexual harassment. It culminates into a kind of fury that can bring us to our basest, most animal instincts, the echo of "PENIS! PENIS! PENIS!" resonating in our brains—if not out of our mouths.

It culminates into a kind of fury that can bring us to our basest, most animal instincts, the echo of "PENIS! PENIS! PENIS!" resonating in our brains—if not out of our mouths.
While many of the stories on the Archie suit are more than happy to cast her Silberkleit as the crazed villain, objectivity demands imagining the other side of things. For the sake of speculation, imagine the hypothetical alternate scenario: art teacher is widowed and inherits deceased husband's high-end position at male-dominated company; male co-CEO Goldwater doesn't like sharing his job; woman does her best to apply her experience with children to elevating comics geared to children; male employees don't like being bossed around by a woman, who—this part is real—they accuse of aspiring to be their "Dictator." (Fill in your own penis joke here.) Silberkleit's countersuits have barely been reported, perhaps because plain old, man-on-woman sexual harassment doesn't grab the same kinds of headlines until it's large-scale and undeniable, a la the US military. But the statements in her court affadavit are telling: 

Mr. Goldwater insults me both privately and in the presence of others. He has called me 'stupid,' a 'moron,' and 'despicable.' He has told me and others that I am hated by everyone in the company…. Mr. Goldwater long ago and repeatedly has told some employees and also people within the industry that he would get rid of me one way or the other.

And, according to Comics Bulletin: "Silberkleit maintains that Goldwater refused to seek her advice in company matters, that he 'hates the requirement.' Her affidavit goes on to say Goldwater 'chauvinistically seeks to undermine, exclude and not engage in any meaningful consultation with me.'"

Midway through 2013, Silberkleit launched an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Rye, N.Y., against two city council members. The only woman on the mayoral ballot, and with no prior government experience, she was inspired to vie for the position after speaking to residents who went without electricity long after Hurricane Sandy. She ran under the dual platforms of environmentalism and government transparency. In November, she told the Rye Patch, "I am a creative thinker, love people and respect one’s personal perspective. Further, as a teacher I naturally understand one's thinking and am adaptable to all kinds of situations."

 

Photo via tom1231/flickr.

Previously: Hard Out Here for a White Feminist

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.

14 Comments / Post A Comment

Danzig!

Could an And Yet article about "prison sex" be close behind? Found out on the Hairpin in 2014.

PistolPackinMama

@Danzig!

Are we talking prison rape? Or prison sex?

If rape this brief comment implies it's more a man's issue than a woman's (or at least gets the same kind of media reporting this sort of harassment case gets compared to others). And for sure, prisons are one environment in which men are more likely to be assaulted than others. For sure.

And yet. There is an And Yet here. That and yet is that it's not exclusively an issue affecting men. It's not an important issue only because it affects men and that we make that visible in our public discourse.

We know assault and rape of women in prisons is a serious issue if only because the federal law that makes it a felony for a prison staff member to engage in a sexual relationship with an offender stems from serious, systematic, abuse by staff of women incarcerated in the GA prison system.

Prison rape affects more men than women because many more men are incarcerated in the US than women. But in terms of prison percentages, the idea that there is a huge difference is questionable at best.

Not only that, but the And Yet, to me, about this article is *not* that Silberkleit was allegedly harassed and so her alleged harassment of others is relatable and therefore justifiable. The And Yet to me is that these sorts of work environments are as common as dirt. They can be headed by dudes who talk a really good game about social responsibility. AND YET the gigantic kerfuffle over one CEO's behavior is an exception to the rule example. Not one of the ones we stumble over every day in the workplace, where men in executive positions and the men under them in power do this every day all the time. And that women have developed systems to cope with and manage because bringing a lawsuit is, again, going to have questionable outcomes.

Why might that be, one wonders?

The fact that Silberkleit might have learned how to act she did by absorbing the acceptable standards of behavior around her is by the way. And it was foolish, since of course she couldn't get away with it. AND if it is true, it's wrong.

Unlike the case brought against Silberkleit, which I expect will do fuck all to make it easier for women to bring harassment charges against employers, the Georgia case HAS benefited men. The rules about staff-offender relationships applies in men's facilities, too, and is enforced.

Danzig!

@Danzig! There's no implication of statistical difference in my jibe, which would be immaterial in any event. The statistical difference is in fact the thrust of the and yet in the article, and in your reply. The notion of turnabout is not so uncontroversial, certainly not here, and not in the case of prisons either. Here and elsewhere there was giddy joy in response to the harassment charges with only the most cursory murmurs of ~thatz not okay~ talk, when they first surfaced. To suggest that the and yet is otherwise motivated is specious at best.

This comment reminds me of those Sandusky articles, the ones about speculative female victims. Harassment is a softer form of violence in some sense but it is violence, and then as now there is an impulse to stake boundaries around it and claim that which falls outside said boundaries as rhetorical hay to advance the real, important dialogue. Silberkleit was heroic for her novelty, and she remains so.

Danzig!

@PistolPackinMama More to your point, that jibe is / was directed at the visceral thrill of turnabout that is couched in soft thinkpiece language in the article. The notion being that you would look at "prison sex" (as it is gingerly referred to within the general media, so as to not call attention) and see some measure of poetic justice in the inversion of power, as Shepherd does with Silberkleit. That's fairly common.

The GA ruling is important and good, yes, but I don't know why you would conflate the nature(s) of violence among sexes within prison populations. Prison staff do not prey upon male populations the way they do female populations, the problem of violence for them is internal to the carceral system and a state that governs the limits of where bodies can wander but little else (to suggest that rape's increased incidence is statistically distorted and therefore immaterial is, well, there's nothing to say to that). The lizard thrill commonly felt with regard to violence in prisons is more a symptom of dehumanization within that system than anything else, but the dehumanization placed on prisoners by the state is separate from dehumanization placed upon them by people who would contend that offenders lower themselves to the status of caged animals. The notion is that those who have committed offense (or would have, or could have) leave themselves open to offense. Which is, ultimately, the and yet. You can be nominally bothered by such violence and yet comforted by the irony inherent to it.

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

Anyone have a court and case number? Among other things, I'm interested in the legal authority for saying that white men aren't part of a protected class.

PistolPackinMama

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll

I think that protected status is called "male privileged."

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@PistolPackinMama
Haha, for sure!

But I'm actually seriously interested in this because it's my field and I spend a fair amount of time defending against bogus discrimination claims, so if this argument is a winner then I'd like to know so I can use it myself.

Megasus

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll Is this a joke?

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@Megasus
No, it's not. I'm sorry, it seems like I've been unclear somehow. I really just want to read the underlying court papers. I'm not trying to make any larger point, or to imply something about this pretty great article. I'm sorry about the misunderstanding.

Looking a little further, the Daily News article says the case was filed in New York Supreme Court, so it might be a little hard to get the papers unless someone has already posted them online.

all the bacon and eggs

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll Not sure what the quote in this article is referencing, but there is a modified (i.e., stricter) test to establish a prima facie case of "reverse" discrimination under Title VII - “when a plaintiff is a member of a ‘majority’ – for instance, a male plaintiff alleging gender discrimination – . . . he must set out ‘background circumstances’ that show that the employer discriminates against the majority, or he must show there is something ‘fishy’ going on.” Farr v. St. Francis Hosp., 570 F.3d 829 (7th Cir. 2009).

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@all the bacon and eggs
Thanks! I'm in the 7th Cir., so I read Farr at some point, and thanks for the reminder of it. I agree that the quote in the article is apparently going beyond what Farr says. Perhaps it's a matter of New York law, or a matter of journalistic misunderstanding?

themegnapkin

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll you may be able to access the materials filed just by going to the NY state court website. I've accessed briefs filed in the NY Supreme Court in NYC that way.

dcski

This sounds like a case of an unqualified individuals ending up in leadership and failing. Silberkleit was in a very powerful role that she inherited rather than earned. She should have anticipated resistance from long term employees and had a plan for addressing it. If the alleged "penis, penis, penis" comment is true, she handed Goldwater the bullet to shoot her with. Whatever the lead up, she behaved inappropriately. Wildly so. If Goldwater's alleged comments are true, he needs the get the boot too & it seems a shame Silberkleit didn't seek legal/HR action against him before she so unprofessionally flipped her lid. They both sound like workplace nightmares.

staywithmeherefolks

@dcski Amen. It's impossible to know what kind of provocation was dished out on either side, and Silberkleit should have kept her cool. Nothing on her CV looks like it would have prepared her for being CEO of a corporation. While I don't doubt that her accusers were behaving unprofessionally, I, too, would react badly to being ordered about by someone with zero experience.

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