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Dec 05 2013

Trouble in Riverdale

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.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    maudell

    What I find interesting is the language used to cover the story.

    If the allegations are true, and I assume they are here, she’s a terrible CEO and should be fired. I’m not minimizing these types of actions.

    But I notice she is called ‘erratic’ and ‘unhinged’ in reports. She might have been. However, in reports of men acting this way (or in my personal similar experience), the message is different. It’s a boys club, if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen, etc. In other words, men verbally harassing their female employees is usually just ‘part of the job’, a fact of life. Unless the employees have enough support and resources to sue successfully. Yet, I’ve never heard these male CEOs being referred to as ‘erratic’ or ‘unhinged’.

    And finally, of course, the hordes of people claiming that Mrs. Silberkleit represents some sort of ideal of feminism.

  2. 2
    Jason Thibeault

    Yeah, that last is especially problematic, maudell. It’s damning that a woman CEO is behaving erratically, feminism put her there, and thus no women should be CEOs? Really? Agh.

    Becoming CEO of any company requires, in my experience, at least some level of sociopathy. You have to be willing to ignore some very basic levels of empathy for your fellow human being. I’m not saying she’s more unhinged or erratic than any average male CEO by any stretch of the imagination. I mistrust them all, frankly. Only in small scrappy companies is there even a chance that they are less self-centered and self-entitled.

  3. 3
    PatrickG

    OT, sorry. Quick comment on the ad-free option at FTB.

    1) Thrilled to support you, just did the 365-day subscription. Yay!
    2) Startled to not find a prominent link for the ad-free option featured on the sidebar/front page. I may have missed it, but I arrived at it by Google. If there is such a link (I can’t find it now that I’m subscribed!), I didn’t see it on the Donate via Paypal drop-down menu available on the sidebar.
    3) Tried to report this via your Tech Issues link, but was directed to a page that contained the words “Are you sure you want to do this?” and nothing else.

    Also, the PayPal link distinctly failed to yell “Penis! Penis! Penis!” You might want to fix that, too. Ahem.

  4. 4
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    Jason:

    Becoming CEO of any company requires, in my experience, at least some level of sociopathy. You have to be willing to ignore some very basic levels of empathy for your fellow human being.

    Not having met any CEO’s, your perception of them is interesting. What led you to feel this way?

  5. 5
    seraphymcrash

    Saying the word “penis” around the office isn’t so bad. Using the word “penis” in place of someone’s name? That’s unacceptable. Regardless of the relative level of privilege of the person being called “penis”, the point is to dehumanize them and humiliate them. To create a hostile work environment. If that particular allegation is true, then this is a pretty open and shut case of sexual harrassment.

  6. 6
    Jason Thibeault

    Ambition, ruthlessness, and generally putting the good of the company above the good of the individual components of that company — the “human resources” (a.k.a people) involved, Tony. I’ve only met a handful of CEOs, and one of them I think quite highly of, but I’m always suspicious that those are the qualities it takes to get ahead both within a company, and they’re the qualities one expects of a corporation generally, whose ship is steered by the C*O-level folks.

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    Patrick: you’re absolutely right, I’ve complained privately to the powers-that-be that we’re not doing basically anything to advertise the subscription option right now.

    For everyone’s edification — you go to your Dashboard. I detailed the process here.

    Sadly, I haven’t had much opportunity to work on alternate payment gateways as of yet. It’s Paypal or nothing at the moment. Sorry.

  8. 8
    busterggi

    Wait, she yelled, “Penis” three times for five guys? Was this to make them wonder which two she wasn’t including?

  9. 9
    John Horstman

    That sure sounds like a hostile work environment to me. I remember reading a report almost a decade ago in one of my Women’s Studies classes dealing primarily with the professional workplace about how the proportion of harassment complaints filed by men correlated nicely with the proportion of women in upper management positions (both on the rise). As a result, I’m not particularly surprised by this – if one is the sort of person who likes to abuse power to harass others, one necessarily needs power to do so, and will thus be more likely to be attracted to socially-empowered positions like management or political office. Silberkleit’s lawyers are also wrong/lying: gender absolutely is a protected class, and while the privileged position in a social hierarchy is often unmarked, men still certainly have a gender that can function as a vector for discrimination or harassment in certain contexts (like this one, apparently).

    As a side note, are we running a pool on how long it will take for MRAs to start shouting about how this case proves feminism is bad? (Ah, I see maudell beat me to that observation, and hir comments on the language used in the reporting are excellent.)

  10. 10
    drken

    It reminds me of the decision that unpaid interns can’t be sexually harassed, because they’re not paid and therefore, not employees. That argument got shot down in the appeals process, I can’t imagine this even getting that far.

    @maudell: Your right, for a man (which I am) to be called unhinged, they’d either have to completely lose their shit, screaming and ranting at everybody; or go off the deep end, Charlie Sheen style. It’s a lot easier for a woman to get labeled that way. I’m sure MRAs will complain about that, stating that women are getting credit for going nuts despite committing to it far less than men do.

  11. 11
    Pen

    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,…

    You do get this argument, but I think it should be handled very carefully. For one thing the goal is to dismantle that state of privilege of white men with respect to everyone else. It’s reasonable to think that there will be a transitional period during which systematic prejudice against white men will become increasingly possible and their privilege increasingly diminish. It’s also reasonable to suppose that we’re embarked on that transitional period. As such, I think we should be very wary of writing ‘prejudice against white men is impossible/doesn’t count’ in stone. As soon as someone who isn’t a white man gets into a position of power over white men that prejudice immediately becomes possible, regardless of the statistical likelihood of that happening to anyone else in the rest of the world.

    It may even become more likely. In my experience when people from underprivileged groups reach positions of power they tend to gravitate to extremes – either their behavior towards members of other groups is particularly exemplary or it’s particularly poor. When it’s poor that could be due to relative ignorance and inexperience of the issues involved in holding power or it could be due to what I can only describe as a sense of entitlement to be prejudiced, such as that apparently displayed by Ms Silberkleit. Under no circumstances should her argument or her behavior be tolerated.

    Both groups need to learn the new roles they increasingly find themselves in. Members of underprivileged groups need to learn to exercise power without discriminating. White men in particular need to learn to assert themselves against prejudice from the more powerful when the situation arises. They should never be internalizing an idea like ‘I, personally, have to put up with abuse because statistically and in general, white men don’t get as much of it as other people’.

    In any case, who makes an argument like ‘I can treat these people like shit because they have no legal protection?’ Someone who shouldn’t be allowed to exercise power over other people, that’s who.

  12. 12
    Jason Thibeault

    I wholly endorse the expansion and un-over-simplification, Pen. Thanks very much for this comment!

  13. 13
    left0ver1under

    Yeah, that last is especially problematic, maudell. It’s damning that a woman CEO is behaving erratically, feminism put her there, and thus no women should be CEOs? Really? Agh.

    I sometimes wonder if some of the women appointed as CEOs were deliberately chosen for not being the most stable or honest (e.g. Carly Fiorina) to perpetuate the lie that women can’t lead and thus keep qualified people out. There’s a glass ceiling and maybe a glass sanatorium too.

    As for the Archie comic, I didn’t know they still existed. I haven’t seen one in 15 years and I stopped reading them as a kid when I learnt they made christian versions.

    http://comicsalliance.com/archie-christian-comics/

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