Co-CEO of Archie Comics, Nancy Silberkleit, is under fire over allegedly stalking, mocking and sexually harassing male employees. While an erratic CEO taking advantage of their underlings is not generally unheard-of, what’s most interesting about this case is that her lawyer is defending her from the charges by claiming that these employees could not possibly be harmed or be discriminated against, because they’re white men.
In papers filed in Westchester Supreme Court, Nancy Silberkleit’s lawyer says a gender discrimination lawsuit filed against her earlier this year by a group of Archie Comics employees should be tossed in part because white guys aren’t members of “a protected class.”
The embattled co-CEO’s filing also mocked the five employees’ claim that she’d used her “gender as a weapon” by yelling “Penis! Penis! Penis!” during a business meeting.
“Plaintiffs fail to allege that any such comments were directed at any of the plaintiffs in particular, or they could cause extreme emotional distress even if they had been,” her court filings say.
The lawyers for the plaintiffs, who include Archie president Mike Pellerito and editor-in-chief Victor Gorelick, countered that Silberkleit used the anatomical term many, many times.
“[T]he word ‘penis’ became somewhat of a campaign slogan and her preferred method of referring to employees in lieu of their names,” their new filing says.
While it is superficially true that, in general, white men in our society are of such a position of privilege that systematic prejudice against them is generally impossible, if any of these allegations are true — and it seems as though she’s not actually denying the specific actions but instead excusing them, even where she blanket denies “acting this way” — then she is certainly responsible for creating a chilly climate for these employees. One has to remember that she is the CEO here — she has the power in the dynamic at play.
Her behaviour has been evidently erratic enough that her co-CEO attempted to oust her entirely in 2011, settling for having her elect a go-between for dealing with the employees of the company. Said go-between, a man named Levitin, evidently called for her ouster as she apparently grew more erratic, demanding the company “tart up” Betty and Veronica; she countered by filing a sexual harassment suit against him. The employees have gone so far as to hire an armed guard after her “deliberate and disturbed campaign of outrageous conduct”.
Ignoring the more outlandish claims for the moment, if any of these men felt put out by her frequent and apparently liberal use of the word penis, they absolutely have a case that she is creating a terrible and unprofessional work environment — not just for the men, but for all employees in general. And men can absolutely be sexually harassed, despite assertions to the contrary, and absolutely can and should avail themselves of the HR department’s, or if necessary the police’s, resources for such cases. This is the entire purpose of protecting employees against harassment, sexual or otherwise. These resources are for everyone who is being hurt by misdeeds by someone with more power, regardless of their gender, identity or presentation.
It seems profoundly bizarre, though, that these allegations are coming from within a company that represents the most milquetoast, provincial and patriarchal ideal society of the 1950s, enshrined in perpetuity with the World’s Oldest Teenager in his infinite love triangle. It seems surprising and implausible that a company dedicated to teaching every new generation that rigid gender roles — with the exception of Kevin, the newly-added gay guy — are laudable and correct and important and every bit as relevant today as the day Pop’s Choklit Shoppe first opened. Even after over half a century, every character is only as deep as the layer of dust gets on each issue on the supermarket shelves.