By Jenny Paul
When I auditioned for ‘The Looming Tower’, I had no idea what kind of show it was or even that it was going to be about 9/11 (the show auditioned and shot under a psuedonymn). After I was hired to play CIA Agent/”Manson Sister” Maureen and fully realized what the show was going to be about, I dug in my heels and read as much information as I could get my hands on– including “The Looming Tower” (the Pulitzer Prize winning novel the series is based on) and the episode scripts as they trickled into my inbox.
One of the first things that struck me about the television pilot was the representation of the lead character FBI Special Agent John O’Neill (played by Jeff Daniels). In the pilot, it is made clear that John’s character is very redeemable and perhaps the show’s protagonist in regard to his job– a good guy and fair boss– protecting the people in his department and, it is assumed, the people of the US as much as he is able.
In the same breath, we learn that John is quite the philanderer and is involved in a very tangled web of committed relationships with multiple women. It is clear that each of these women thinks she is his only lover (possibly with the exception of his devout Catholic wife, mother of his twin daughters, who, based on her attitude toward him, may suspect his infidelity).
Apparently, I am not the only one that noticed John O’Neill’s character duality, but as it turns out others had a much stronger opinion than I did. In the wake of the release of the series, much to my surprise, I have been consistently made aware of one overriding judgment about John O’Neill’s character– that he is being received as a “really bad guy.” But the most interesting thing about these opinions aren’t just that they exist or the strength of their conviction, but who the opinions are coming from: millennial men.
A large number of my millennial male friends that have watched the show have mentioned to me that John O’Neill’s character is “a skeevy dick,” “ just, like, a gross stereotypical white male,” “a douchebag,” “he’s an asshole– that’s the point of his character, right?” all delivered to me with a clear sense of urgency, unease, and with a vague question mark underriding the comment. As if they were saying, “he is really bad, right?”
After a few separate instances of these encounters– very intent and specific opinions delivered to me as a cast member from the show– all from men– and all entirely unprompted, I thought to myself, that’s funny, shouldn’t it be the women having that reaction? But we’re not– or we’re not to the same degree. The women in my circles hadn’t, to that point, said much of anything at all regarding that character.
They liked the show and had lots of things to say about the action packed parts of the show, the elements of tragedy, the talented cast, and specifics about some of the show’s characters, but not specifically much of anything about John O’neill’s character. Curious after hearing a number of strong male opinions, I asked a millennial female friend what she thought about John O’Neil’s character. She said, “whatever, it’s fine.” And another “meh…well…” And another “what about him?” And another “he’s kind of skeezyish, but clearly he’s supposed to be the good guy in the show, so…”
Fascinating. Are these women that desensitized to these issues? Am I? I hadn’t really given it a second thought until the men started saying something to me about it. But they were right. I immediately started backpedaling and thinking about why I hadn’t had a strong reaction. I finally came to a hard thought conclusion: I realized that I’m so accustomed to that kind of character on TV, that it didn’t occur to me to even bother developing a strong opinion about his moral character based on just his infidelities.
Now that my attention had been called to it, I did indeed have a strong opinion. He’s a total jerk for doing that to those women. They all love and trust him, making it that much worse. The opinion is not really actionable, but it’s there. I’d be willing to bet that the other women, if prompted to dig deeper, would feel similarly.
But the real story here, an even more fascinating one to me at least, was the guys’ response. Each of the guys seemed to be of the opinion that John’s behavior wasn’t acceptable, but each guy was independently convinced enough of the character’s wrongdoing that he was willing to ‘put it out there’ and look for agreement from another person (in this case, me). They felt the need to weigh in and have someone else corroborate their already existing feelings of disapproval.
I wonder if the same set of guys would have thought something like that 10 years ago. 5 years ago. Or even a year ago. And if they did think it, would they have been compelled to say it out loud?
I’ve been with my fiancee for almost 4 years now and we’re getting married in May. He and I have watched hundreds of shows together at this point, including a documentary about the wrestler Ric Flair. Ric doesn’t just talk about, but jokes about his dozens if not hundreds of infidelities. “When will women learn? You cannot tame Ric Flair. Woooo.” My fiance didn’t have anything to say out loud about how gross that was. Knowing him, he probably thought it. I certainly thought it and hated it.
But he felt strongly enough about John O’Neill’s character to be one of the people to say something to me and with conviction. What changed from a few months ago to now? Maybe #MeToo, #TimesUp, and this current wave of women and human rights’ movements are actually working. Maybe our men are finally getting woke.
Jenny Paul is an award winning actress and producer New York City. Follow her at @jennypennypaul on Instagram and www.imdb.me/jennypaul and check out her website at www.JennyPaul.info. She is currently playing recurring character “Maureen” on Hulu’s ‘The Looming Tower’.