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A good man is hard to find
On Ashton Kutcher and patriarchy
In one episode of Punk’d, BJ Kuhns plays a man who has paid $50,000 for a date with the singer Mýa. He takes her to his home, which is decorated with a life-size cutout and pictures of the singer. “This is my shrine,” he says.
She laughs nervously. Picking up a bottle of massage oils, she asks, “What is this?”
“Are you into stuff like that?” Kuhns replies.
She again laughs and makes a joke about him thinking about her while he uses it. You can tell she’s trying to be a good sport. But then he tries to make her kneel to pray, which she does at first, but becomes visibly uncomfortable as Kuhn’s character gets more and more agitated.
“In your song ‘My First Night With You,’ produced by Rick Way 1999, you say, “One look in your eyes and I knew.’ You were talking about me.”
Mya looks like she wants to fold herself into the sofa. She’s leaning in, her body slouched, her hand by her head. “No!” she says.
Eventually, Kuhns kneels before Mýa and kisses her hand. “Will you marry me?” he asks.
“I can’t,” she says.
Just then, Ashton Kutcher comes in. Mya was being Punk’d. It had all been a joke. A big funny joke. A joke.
The show made millions from pranks that simulated actual danger, loss, disaster, and death so effectively that the targets couldn’t tell they were part of an elaborate and cruel conspiracy. One prank made Justin Timberlake think his assets were being seized for back taxes.
In a 2016 episode of The Late Late Show With James Corden, Kutcher revealed that a lot of his targets were really upset — screaming, crying or angry. He talks about Drake curling into the fetal position during a fake earthquake. He laughs when he describes it. That footage doesn’t make it into the show, he explained. Then he tells the story of a hip-hop star whom he doesn’t name. The Punk’d team stopped the star's private plane on the runway and had someone dressed like an officer accuse him of smuggling something on the plane. According to Kutcher, the star, a Black man, took off running. Kutcher chased after him and when he caught up with him the star was telling him, “That ain’t even funny. That ain’t even funny.” Corden shrieks with laughter at the story.
In 2003, when Punk’d was at the height of its popularity, MTV decided to branch out: Punk’d, but normal people. The show was called Harassment, and Kutcher would star in this one, too. For the pilot episode, the show’s team placed a fake cadaver, complete with fake blood, in the room of an unsuspecting couple at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. The hotel was in on the plan, and when the visibly upset couple found the “body,” security refused to let them leave until the police arrived.
The couple sued MTV for Kutcher’s “wanton, malicious and oppressive" behavior. The show was canceled. Kutcher stated that he “wanted to stick to the old adage and leave them wanting more” and walked away from the show. A trial date was set in 2004, but then postponed indefinitely. It’s not clear if a settlement was reached.
Kutcher’s always had a problem with jokes. In her memoir, his ex-wife Demi Moore criticized Kutcher for posting pictures of her drunk on social media, writing, “When I went too far, though, he let me know how he felt by showing a picture he'd taken of me resting my head on the toilet the night before. It seemed like a good-natured joke at the time. But it was really just shaming.”
In Moore’s biography, she writes about how desperate she was to be the cool girl for him. The one who would laugh and shrug off jokes, who’d do shots and look hot. But she was struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse. And the cool girl doesn’t exist — not really. What exists are just women trying to please men by doing what they think men like. Their marriage ended.
In America, it’s hard to know where jokes end and trauma begins.
But if anyone can get away with jokes like that, it’s the puckish white guys — the Ashton Kutchers of the world. Men like Kutcher dominated the early 2000s, with their trucker hats and jackass antics — the men with the jawbone looks, who’d slap you on the ass and say, “Come on, can’t you take a joke?” And you’d laugh because you weren’t uptight, right? You were cool. We were all cool girls then, liberated — convinced equality had come and feminism was a little passe. We weren’t like our moms — tired and overworked. We wanted to be sexy, to know how to give a blow job, and to look hot at the office. And the magazines were always telling us how to please our men, not how to please ourselves.
But we are older now. And in hindsight, back then, tabloids and SNL were calling Jessica Simpson fat for being a size six. Talk-show hosts were talking about teenage Britney Spears' boobs, and Ashton Kutcher was making jokes about wanting to sleep with underage girls. It was a sexual politics that left every woman bloodied and let every man get away with it, as long as he said he was “kidding.”
At least for a while.
Last week, Danny Masterson, Kutcher’s co-star on That 70s Show, was convicted on two counts of felony rape and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Nationwide, less than 1 percent of rape cases result in felony convictions. Masterson’s conviction was an anomaly in a justice system that too often sides with the “he said” in rape cases. Kutcher and his wife, Mila Kunis, who also starred on That 70s Show, wrote letters in support of Masterson during his sentencing. Kunis wrote, “I wholeheartedly vouch for Danny Masterson's exceptional character and the tremendous positive influence he has had on me and the people around him.”
Kutcher wrote, “While I'm aware that the judgement has been cast as guilty on two counts of rape by force and the victims have a great desire for justice. I hope that my testament to his character is taken into consideration in sentencing. I do not believe he is an ongoing harm to society and having his daughter raised without a present father would be a tertiary injustice in and of itself.”
The letters by Kunis and Kutcher weren’t the only ones written in support of Masterson, but they are the ones that incited the most rage. And I think this is because Kutcher represents a certain type of guy we all know.
There is a TikTok trend where women don a filter that puts a mustache and goatee on them and talk about what type of guy they look like. The guy who is always asking for hugs. The guy who is gonna colonize an island nation. The types of guys are endless, specific, and relatable. They are mostly harmless but also make up the bulk of women’s toxic relationships with men. The guy who watches you sleep. The guy who says that isn’t his baby.
For Kutcher, who faces the bulk of the backlash for his support of Masterson, it’s not about what he’s done, exactly. It's about the type of guy he represents. He is not the toxic bro, but he’s friends with him. He supports him. He calls out the nameless, faceless bad guys, but not the ones he’s friends with. Phantoms are easier to fight than buddies, after all. He’s the type of guy who benefits from patriarchy while still being the good guy because he’s not as bad as the rest of them. It’s building a life to look good, without actually doing the radical work of being good. He’s #NotAllMen, the ones who don’t actively do harm, but maybe don’t actively do good, either.
It might be unfair to lash out at these kinds of guys. But in so many ways they create the environment where the others thrive. This type of guy is the cytoplasm of the patriarchy, the fluid that holds it all together.
Since Punk’d and That 70s Show, Kutcher’s brand as the himbo you drank a lot with in college has shifted to that of the savvy tech investor. In 2011, the New York Times ran a fawning profile of Kutcher’s exploits with his firm A-Grade investments. He invested in Skype, Flipboard, Airbnb, Foursquare and more, and made a lot of money.
A 2020 piece in Business Insider works hard to paint Kutcher as a bootstrapping investor who succeeded through his own ingenuity. But it’s hardly a rags-to-riches situation. Kutcher turned $30 million into $250 million with his first successful investment. And he survives through failures simply because he had so much money to begin with. Now, with his company Sound Ventures, he invests other people’s money, too.
In that American way, Kutcher succeeds simply because he can afford to fail. He has the money and capital to throw around and lose. But can the rest of us afford his failures? Can we afford his success?
In 2015, seven years after historic flooding destroyed Iowa, Kutcher’s home state, he founded the Native Fund to help Iowa rebuild. The nonprofit, headed by former Hawkeye football player Dallas Clark, threw two huge concerts to raise money for the fund. It was praised by local media and politicians. But in 2019, when I looked at the fund’s tax returns, it had paid out far more in executive compensation than it ever did in charitable giving.
At the time, Kutcher’s PR representative told me that he was no longer involved in the fund. In a 90-minute interview, Clark told me, “Those events brought Iowa together, and doesn't that count for something?” The day my story ran, the Native Fund shut down operations. But in a letter to the Des Moines Register, board members were defiant, “In our view, it is better to have tried and ‘failed’ than to never have tried at all.”
But is it? Especially when in the process, some men got richer off money raised to help others?
In 2020, Kutcher got involved with a public/private partnership with the tech company Nomi Health to test people for Covid. The company ended up partnering with governors in several red states, including Iowa. According to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, it was a tip from Kutcher that led her to the partnership with Nomi. Kutcher was friends with one of the CEOs contracting with Nomi. But my reporting at the time revealed that Nomi Health’s testing was inaccurate. A later investigation by USA Today found that the company made a lot of money in the pandemic using questionable covid tests. That wasn’t Kutcher’s fault — but he wasn’t scathed by it, either. And who knows how many people were harmed by faulty testing? There will never be an honest reckoning.
This type of guy is the cytoplasm of the patriarchy, the fluid that holds it all together.
Kutcher and his then-wife Demi Moore also founded THORN, an anti-sex-trafficking software, which claims to have identified nearly 20,000 victims of child sex-trafficking since 2014. In 2017, a Reason article pointed out that the number of children THORN claims to have saved far outpaces actual investigations by the FBI. THORN’s 2020 report claims to have identified 2,000 child sex-trafficking victims, but a DOJ report notes that the FBI investigated only 220 cases of human trafficking total (not just children) in 2019.
Watchdog groups and privacy advocates have questioned how THORN’s technology might negatively impact sex workers. Engadget published a long-form investigation raising concerns about the technology and how much good it actually does.
In an unauthorized biography, Ashton Kutcher: The Life and Loves of the King of Punk’d, author Marc Shapiro writes, “Ashton seems to walk through life without a discernible clue and yet comes out smelling like a rose.”
And maybe he’s about to come out smelling like a rose through all of this because he’s that guy. The platonic ideal of a white man. Strong jaw line. Hair a little rumpled. Clothes aren’t too fashionable nor too unfashionable. With his trucker hats and goofy pranks, his partying, his dating, his roots in Homestead, Iowa, he’s aggressively normal. Just a dude. A guy.
Maybe he is a good guy, and maybe he is trying. I don’t have any way to know. What I know is how I feel about the guy who didn’t commit the crime himself — but backed the one who did.
Kutcher doesn’t come off like a monster. I don’t think he is one. He’s just some guy. That guy who gets to float unscathed in a world that scathes so many of us. The guy standing just off-camera snickering while he waits to tell us we were Punk’d.
Leah Remini’s newsletter has the full text of the victim impact statements in the Danny Masterson rape trial.
And here is another deep dive into the human trafficking software like THORN that claims to help victims, but raises a lot of questions about what is a victim and who should be tracked.