Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Back in the fall of 2017, the MeToo movement was shaking up the old order. Every day brought new names and new accusations of men who were revealed as abusers or bullies or worse and then there was the list.
Speaker 13: There's this online spreadsheet of men in media.
Speaker 14: What they're accused of doing, who they work for.
Speaker 15: It's unverified, anonymous.
Speaker 16: It does raise these questions.
Speaker 17: [unintelligible 00:38:05] started this open-source document where women could list men in media that everybody knew about, but nobody had ever done anything about.
Brooke Gladstone: Yomi Adegoke is a columnist for The Guardian and British Vogue. In 2018, she watched as similar lists proliferated in the UK, anonymous online posters naming actors, comedians, musicians. She started gathering research for a reported article, but it felt almost too soon for what she really wanted to write. This year, Adegoke published her debut novel, The List, exploring the journey of a young woman who finds out her fiancé's name is on such an online document. He says he's innocent.
Yomi Adegoke: I actually found out about the [beep sound] media men list, retrospectively.
Brooke Gladstone: That's amazing.
Yomi Adegoke: I know. I didn't realize that the lists that I'd seen in the UK had an inspiration that came from the United States, essentially. I just remember a spate of lists going out between 2017, 2018 in various different industries. There was no one big list in the UK as there was in the US.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's dive into your novel, which I couldn't put down. Your protagonist, Ola, is a journalist who's focused on gender and racial equality and whose fiancé, Michael, appears on an online list of media people accused of bad acts, ranging from sexual harassment to rape. You didn't center your story on an accuser, but on two people who were swept up in the blowback. Tell me why you made that choice. What were you exploring here?
Yomi Adegoke: Many women who are connected to men accused of abuse of any type, whether that's as a mother, whether that's as a partner, a friend, a sibling, they are either erased from the conversation or they are subject to a lot of projection. We either see them and think, "How did she not know? Why didn't she know? Why was she so naive?" We think maybe she knew about it and turned a blind eye. That's something that we saw a bit of during the height of the MeToo movement, certainly in terms of unfolding online. An example that really stuck out to me was when Scarlett Johansson was pictured wearing a dress designed by Harvey Weinstein's wife.
Lots of people saw her in that dress and said, "Oh, my goodness, why is she showing solidarity with Harvey Weinstein?" I thought it was quite a borderline biblical understanding of marriage in terms of literally one flesh like his crimes and now hers. I felt like I really wanted Ola's perspective and then, as I was writing it, it just honestly felt like something was missing. I think that's when I decided to pull Michael's perspective in.
Brooke Gladstone: We're privy to the thoughts of both Ola and her fiance. Could you turn to page 26? There's two graphs here.
Yomi Adegoke: You want me to read that out?
Brooke Gladstone: Yes.
Yomi Adegoke: "Ola felt embarrassed and after a while, she felt more embarrassed that our initial overriding reaction was one of embarrassment. It was such a self-centered response, but she couldn't help it. Her eyes filled with tears, and her ears flooded with the imagined snares taking place behind her back, the fervent Twitter DMs being exchanged at her expense."
Brooke Gladstone: Then follow some really nasty exchanges about her. Could you pick up with her reaction there?
Yomi Adegoke: Sure. "Could she really blame anyone for thinking like that? That's pretty much what she'd have been saying if this had happened to anyone else. She had dedicated the best part of a decade to rallying against patriarchy, rape culture, and toxic masculinity. Ola had attended more protests, panels, and demos for women's rights than she could count. She'd founded her university's Black feminist society when she was a fresher for goodness sake. Back when the conversation around feminism was unsexy and un-Instagrammable. She wasn't the type of person to miss the red flags and make the mistake of being with someone capable of that behavior."
Brooke Gladstone: Can I ask you to read something from Michael's perspective too?
Yomi Adegoke: Sure.
Brooke Gladstone: It's page 18. Michael has just seen The List and it begins the thumping in his chest.
Yomi Adegoke: "The thumping in his chest was beginning to affect his breathing. He and Ola were getting married in a month. At least they were supposed to be. He couldn't be sure what this meant for the wedding or for them full stop. This list of abusers would turn any woman's stomach, but Ola, this was the kind of thing she had spent her whole career documenting. The kind of thing that made her feel the world she was so desperately trying to change was simply beyond repair. Men like this. What did men like this mean? Now his name was involved. Now he was the type of man she wrote about.
He scoured The List again trying to make sense of his place on it in the context of the others mentioned. 'I can't believe this is happening to me,' Michael thought, but deep down, he had always wondered if something like this might one day come up perhaps. He held the power button on the side of his phone until the screen turned to black.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm wondering without giving anything away, why it was difficult deciding if Michael should be guilty of what he is accused of."
Yomi Adegoke: I was really keen on ensuring that regardless of whether Michael had done what he did or not, that the points I was still trying to make about anonymity and the ability to weaponize it about the importance of believing survivors and lifting the voices of survivors about the unchecked abuses and how they run rampant and why they run rampant in certain industries if not all industries, about our toxic culture of spreading misinformation and loving to tear individuals down. I needed all of that to still be true and resonant regardless of whether Michael was innocent or not.
Brooke Gladstone: You said you wanted to make readers do some work. Regardless of his innocence, you made Michael deeply flawed, even unlikable.
Yomi Adegoke: If you don't know whether, A, he is innocent, also, you don't even like the guy, I hoped that it would make people question if he then at the end of the book turns out to be innocent, are we allowed to feel sorry for him? Are we allowed to feel that what's happening to him is undeserved? I think a lot of online justice is given out based on likability. Yes, I wanted to make people work. Also when it came to Ola as well, she could have been this absolute virtuous, non-hypocritical character but she also was deeply flawed. It's interesting because I've had lots of people say to me, "I can't tell if they're supposed to be likeable or not."
It's up to you whether they're likeable or not. The point is, they're people and I don't think we go into life or exchanges with human beings weighing up what they deserve based on likability or not, or certainly we shouldn't do that.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote in your author's note that it would be straightforward to say that this book is about MeToo or "cancel culture". It's really about the internet, where MeToo was able to take off and so-called cancel culture is rooted. You wrote that, "it is about what humans are capable of when given the superpower of invisibility. It's about hypocrisy, appropriation, grey areas, and the double-edged sword of online life." Ola for instance, benefited greatly as did Michael from success online prior to this,.
Yomi Adegoke: I like Ola and Michael would likely not be where I am right now in terms of my career had it not been for the internet, for platforms that are equally as toxic as they are brilliant, so many incredible and important movements. Everything from MeToo to the Black Lives Matter movement would not exist in the way that we know it but for the internet. Simultaneously, the internet as a double-edged sword is something I've definitely personally grappled with. It played such a big part in the MeToo movement, which in many ways has been so positive and important, but can also be used for a lot of bad.
I think because the ways in which the internet intersected with that movement and could be taken advantage of, we weren't given enough time to unpack that, because it felt like a criticism of the movement. Which is why I'm always quick to say, this could be about a false TripAdvisor review, this could be about a false Yelp review, could be about anything. Brooke Gladstone: Those stakes are a little low.
Yomi Adegoke: It would have made a really boring and short book.
Brooke Gladstone: That happens on the micro and macro scale.
Yomi Adegoke: Precisely. This is the most macro way it could unfold probably in the book.
Brooke Gladstone: It was about maybe page 32 when I knew that this book was going to be adapted for HBO, which you confirmed before we started the year with you. You told our producer that people can handle these kinds of characters whose innocence is up for debate better when they're on our screens. How come?
Yomi Adegoke: I think it might be because when you are reading, you're really in the characters' heads, which I think often leads to greater empathy, but then sometimes matters more if they're likeable. You spend so much time with a character when you're reading from their perspective as you are with Ola or Michael. Therefore, if they're really annoying and frustrating, I think people struggle with it more.
Brooke Gladstone: You're saying the screen depictions are shallower.
Yomi Adegoke: You know what, I'm not. People just engage with it very differently. As an example, if Succession was a book, everybody would hate Kendall Roy, and everyone would hate Shiv. Everyone would especially hate the racist and misogynist, that is, of course, that could be anyone in it, Logan and Roman. One of my favorite shows on the planet is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, very similar humor and divisive characters. There's another show I love called Peep Show, which is also by Jesse Armstrong who wrote Succession. All these characters are terrible in every single one of those shows.
I think it's interesting that when you look at really famous, brilliant shows, nobody thinks Tony Soprano is a good guy. Same with Breaking Bad. I think people really indulge in and like not only difficult characters on screen, and anti-heroes, but also really like difficult conversations. Another good example would be I May Destroy You, which gave me permission to in many ways write The List. First without it being a book, it would have been-- It was an absolute work of genius anyway, but I think it'd been a lot more divisive but also, it really showed that people were ready to have slightly different conversations in this space because it was certainly not an easy watch.
Arabella even the protagonist was not a likeable character. Lots of the situations were very murky. I've had people say, "Oh my gosh, I really liked your book, but the characters aren't likeable." I just wonder why you need to like characters. You're depicting life and you don't like everyone in life. I think people want to have work that tells them what the moral lesson is in books, but with TV, they're more open to working out what they think on their own.
Brooke Gladstone: What about MeToo? You are able to write this wonderful book because the movement has reached a moment when it can perhaps scrutinize itself?
Yomi Adegoke: I like to think so. I don't think we're all the way there yet. I remember seeing someone tag me in a review and been like I'm giving this five stars, it's amazing. Then they came back and said actually I'm going to knock off some stars because I went to a book club and they said it's problematic and now I agree. I think that's kind of where we're still at a bit. That being said, this physically could not have been published four years ago, there's no way. Let alone been adapted for TV by HBO, and A24, and BBC. That just wouldn't have happened.
On the flip side, when I spoke to my German publisher, they said well actually we had a big debate about whether we'd even publish this because people felt uncomfortable with some of the conversations it raised. I know we're not there yet, but I do like to think that a book like this having difficult conversations from a well-meaning thoughtful, I hope, place, I hope that a book like this will give people more space to just be more critical generally because I never think that's a bad thing.
It's important that people with good intentions are the ones that are being critical because if not we leave it to people who don't want women to have a voice to be making those critiques. It should be us that are looking inward and seeing what works best rather than allowing other people to wrestle that conversation from us and undermine our attempts at Progress.
Brooke Gladstone: Yomi, thank you so much.
Yomi Adegoke: Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: Yomi Adegoke is a columnist for The Guardian and British Vogue whose latest book is The List. That's the show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang, with help from Shaan Merchant. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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