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In an ironic twist of fate, a Brazilian soap-opera star known for playing dauntless Lotharios has been suspended indefinitely for his sustained sexual harassment of a female co-worker. In a country where victims have long suffered in silence, the case has caused a major stir. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)
In an ironic twist of fate, a Brazilian soap-opera star known for playing dauntless Lotharios has been suspended indefinitely for his sustained sexual harassment of a female co-worker. In a country where victims have long suffered in silence, the case has caused a major stir. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Brazilian actor Jose Mayer’s apology, suspension in sexual harassment case causes major stir Add to ...

One of Brazil’s most famous actors has been indefinitely suspended from a television contract and forced to make an unusual public apology after sexually harassing a costume designer on the set and triggering an angry campaign for justice by her female colleagues. The case has caused a major stir in Brazil, where women who experience sexual harassment are often dismissed with the suggestion they can’t take a joke and offenders are rarely sanctioned.

Susllem Tonani, 28, was harassed on set by Jose Mayer, 67, who has starred in internationally broadcast telenovelas such as Lacos de Familia, specializing in the role of a lothario who relentlessly preys on women he decides he wants.

Ms. Tonani says Mr. Mayer waged a real-life campaign of harassment that began eight months ago, and which was carried out in full view of colleagues and managers, yet no one intervened to stop him. In a blog post for the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo published on March 31, Ms. Tonani said Mr. Mayer first persistently flirted with her, peppering her with compliments as she tried to do her job; then began to make explicit sexual comments about her body; then, when she did not respond, grabbed her genitalia. The day that happened, other crew members in the room just laughed, she wrote. Then, when she stopped speaking to him on the set, he yelled in front of a stage full of witnesses that he would assault her again if she did not reply to him, and hurled insults at her.

Ms. Tonani said she complained to human resources, to the network ombudsperson, to the employees’ association and any other authority she could find. The human-resources department told her the conduct was inappropriate, but would not tell her how it intended to respond. “I wondered who would protect me, and how,” she wrote.

The way such cases typically play out in Brazil, Ms. Tonani had little reason to think there would be any intervention – and might even have expected to be fired, says Lola Aronovich, a feminist commentator and professor at the Federal University of Ceara who has been following the case. “Things turned out differently this time,” she wrote.

Ms. Tonani’s female crewmates took up the cause – they wore T-shirts printed with the slogan “Mess with one of us, mess with all of us” and started a social-media campaign with a hashtag that translates as “we’re done with harassment.”

Mr. Mayer had been publicly denying the accusations, suggesting Ms. Tonani had confused him with one of the characters he made famous.

But the staff pressure forced a rare admission of guilt from both Mr. Mayer and Globo, the country’s largest network. The incident culminated on Tuesday in a remarkable five minutes on the national evening news, in which anchors related all the details of the case and apologized on behalf of the network.

Mr. Mayer, 67, released an apology of his own, and while he started off by referring to his own conduct as “jokes,” he went on to acknowledge that he “erred badly.”

“Sadly, I’m the product of a generation that learned, incorrectly, that sexist, exploitive and abusive attitudes could be disguised as jokes or teasing,” he wrote. “They can’t. The world has changed. And that’s a good thing. And I need and want to change with it. This is my undertaking. This is my commitment. The only thing I can do is to ask forgiveness from Susllen, my colleagues and all of society, and their understanding of my effort to change.”

Nana Soares, a columnist for the newspaper Estadao, said that Mr. Mayer’s apology was what should be expected from anyone who commits such an offence, and no more than he was obliged to do. But such an apology is so “rare that he may end up getting laurels he does not deserve,” she added.

Ms. Aronovich said it was “exceedingly rare” for a man accused of harassment to apologize, and more likely that he would call the accuser a liar, or even sue her for defamation. She praised Ms. Tonani, her colleagues and activists who increasingly spoke out about sexism for the unexpected ending in this story. “Cases of harassment are always swept under the rug, but we won’t let that happen – in that, Mayer is correct: the world has changed.” In 2014, the World Bank reported that 52 per cent of Brazilian women report experiencing harassment at work.

Ms. Tonani’s blog post is a powerful evocation of what it is like to go to work frightened – of a colleague’s physical assault, and of possibly losing your job. “The job of my dreams had become a nightmare,” she wrote. “To keep myself together, I told myself that, after the hand on [my genitals], nothing worse could happen.”

She said she looked at the wildly famous Mr. Mayer, with his storied career and his high-price contract, and her own status as one of dozens of journeywomen costume designers, and was sure she would be accused of trying to extort him through a lawsuit. “He would be untouchable – because they let him do as he likes, he’s the golden goose.”

In a statement, Globo said it “strives every day to offer an environment of absolute respect and professionalism” and regretted the harassment Ms. Tonani suffered. The statement also called Mr. Mayer an “enormous talent” who has “rendered great service to Globo and the arts in Brazil.”

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