One person’s fun may be another’s lifelong trauma
Three former backup dancers have filed a lawsuit against singer Lizzo, her production company, and the dance team’s captain, Shirlene Quigley, accusing them of creating a hostile and sexually charged work environment during her recent tour. The suit alleges that Lizzo was involved in acts amounting to sexual harassment (like ‘pressuring’ dancers to eat a banana out of a stripper’s vagina at an Amsterdam strip club) and weight shaming, while Ms. Quigley is accused of making explicit comments and religious harassment.
Generally speaking, it’s hard to read too much into these kinds of lawsuits. Sometimes, there really might be a hostile work environment. But other times, employees may be trying to exploit a weakness in the system, like an unlikeable boss or a poorly understood (or poorly regulated) industry. It is even more complicated when the lawsuit relates to entertainment, which has an unconventional work culture, making it notoriously difficult to establish a hostile work environment. The same fluid culture that might nurture creativity also complicates the process of defining the boundaries of what constitutes “professional” or “appropriate” behaviour.
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For the last decade, this type of cultural confusion has been reflected in the wider corporate sphere. Many white-collar workplaces, especially in technology and creative fields, simultaneously enforce opaque restrictions on what you can and can’t say (in other words, “cancel culture”) while also collapsing interpersonal boundaries, particularly with the rise of casual, West Coast-inspired work culture. Rarely do we reckon with these two cultural shifts and how they might inform one another.
For example, what does “work appropriate” mean in an environment where, according to a friend at one unnamed San Francisco Bay Area company, there is a Slack channel for the sexually-charged furry fandom? Or, less extreme, what about Employee Resource Groups, groups within companies formed around certain identity characteristics, such as race and sexual orientation? Quite often, what one group may view as normal, the other may view as hate speech.
Then there is “radical candour,” a corporate communication strategy that stresses both empathy and directness, but what happens when this leads to a CEO changing clothes in front of employees, as Thinx-founder Mikki Agrawal was accused of doing? Where does “freedom” end and a “hostile work environment” begin? And we haven’t even mentioned social media yet.
This boundary collapse didn’t just affect business, either. It rose in prominence alongside late millennial culture, which included the popularisation of the “overshare” and a push to de-stigmatise mental health conditions. But as time went on, nobody knew what rules to play by anymore. Which brings us back to Lizzo: from at least one perspective, the hostile work environment might have been the product of cultural confusion, even if she is also genuinely at fault.
If the rules are so contradictory and the boundaries so fluid, where do you draw the line? One person’s fun outing (eating bananas out of a Dutch stripper’s vagina) might be another person’s lifelong trauma. In the entertainment industry, the law seems to suggest that people accept lax boundaries and pay the tax of not being able to litigate it when they feel harmed. In the corporate world — we’re still figuring it out. Arguably, #MeToo was at least partially a reaction to the missing script. Remote work may buy us some time, but it’s going to take a lot longer to figure out where the new boundaries should be drawn.