Penn, who is promoting new Hulu series The First, appeared on NBC’s Today on Monday with co-star Natascha McElhone. Interviewer Natalie Morales commented on the “strong women” in the cast and the “visionary” that McElhone plays, then asked her if the #MeToo movement has “informed” the series at all. The actor pointed out that there are women in power in real life, but those depictions are more common on screen now.
Asked his thoughts, Penn said he didn’t think #MeToo had informed the show that much and that the movement was “largely shouldered by a kind of receptacle of the salacious.” Asked what the heck that meant, he, unfortunately, continued: “I don’t want it to be a trend, and I’m very suspicious of a movement that gets glommed onto, in great stridency and rage, and without nuance. Even when people try to discuss it in a nuanced way, the nuance itself is attacked.” He added that “the spirit of much of what has been the #MeToo movement is to divide men and women.”
McElhone added that they did talk about this issue on set “a great deal.” She also attempted some clarification.
“I think what Sean was maybe alluding to is this sort of bubble of actors or people who are in magazines that have gotten a lot of attention from this,” she said. “Of course it’s terrific that they’ve put a spotlight on it. But now, we need to go to the places where this is happening behind closed doors, and it’s not exposed, and those voices aren’t being heard.”
People on Twitter criticized Penn’s comments—and NBC for giving him the platform to discuss #MeToo.
“This is a movement that was, you know, largely shouldered by a kind of receptacle of the salacious,” Sean Penn says to @nmoralesnbc during a discussion about the #MeToo movement pic.twitter.com/O4yGtEZjpk— TODAY (@TODAYshow) September 17, 2018
Or maybe it's a way to unite decent men and women against sexual predators and harassment. https://t.co/lcrYb6jKlB— Jim C. Hines (@jimchines) September 17, 2018
Please stop asking actors, especially those accused of domestic abuse, about #MeToo unless you’re prepared to challenge or push them. Otherwise, you’re giving credence to the idea that there are two equally-as-valid sides to this issue. There’s not. https://t.co/UV2jG6lFLp— Evette Dionne (@freeblackgirl) September 17, 2018
There is no subject requiring Sean Penn’s input.— The Hoarse Whisperer (@HoarseWisperer) September 17, 2018
Hey Sean Penn, #metoo isn’t about “dividing men and women.” Spacey preyed on boys, @terrycrews was assaulted by a man, and 100,000 boys worldwide have been assaulted by male priests. This is about any kind of abuse of power. Bye, dude.— Whitney Cummings (@WhitneyCummings) September 17, 2018
Plenty of people also brought up Penn’s alleged history of abuse. His ex-wife Madonna denied rumors of physical abuse during their marriage in 2015 court documents, which were part of a lawsuit Penn filed against Lee Daniels for comments the Empire co-creator made about Penn’s history of abuse.
A more recent text—Penn’s novel Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff—offers context for his bad take. It includes a poem about #MeToo, which laments the accusations against Louis C.K. and Charlie Rose, and asks: “And what’s with this ‘Me Too’?/This infantilizing term of the day.”