When Our Icons Betray Us

What a week. There were terrorist attacks in Jakarta and Istanbul, there have been more disappointing results in the cases of law enforcement officers who injured or killed people, those discontents are STILL holed up in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the environment…well, let’s just not go there.

And we lost David Bowie AND Alan Rickman. (Rest in peace, Metatron — I guess God wanted his Voice back.)

And then, because we all needed the emotional whiplash, a story emerged (re-emerged, really) that Bowie (hardly even cold yet) committed statutory rape with underage groupies back in the 70‘s. And he was accused of rape once in the ‘80s as well.

So what is anyone supposed to feel, morally, about that?

First, if you have strong feelings about this kind of thing already, you are totally entitled to them. Sex crimes are, by their very nature, a highly emotional topic. If you are most comfortable spending the rest of your life avoiding the creative works of Bowie or any of the many, many singers, musicians, actors, writers, directors, artists, etc. who have committed a sex crime, I understand.

But for me, it’s getting more complicated than that.

Like many people, I do have what I’ll term an “Ick List”, a set of celebrities whose works I try to avoid. Some are known sexual predators or abusers (Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Chris Brown, R. Kelly, Terry Richardson). Some have done legal but icky things (JD Salinger used and abandoned a series of college-age English majors; Katy Perry wore some very derogatory Jew-Face for her “Birthday” video).

But I haven’t put Bowie on my Ick List. Or Michael Jackson. Or Woody Allen.

So why? What’s my excuse? It isn’t just because I happen to LIKE Bowie, Jackson, and Allen. The Catcher in the Rye meant a lot to me as a teenager because I could identify with Holden Caulfield’s struggle with depression. I suspect I’d like Polanski’s films if I saw them. Full disclosure — I even like a few of Perry’s songs.

It isn’t because Bowie, Jackson, and Allen were cleared by the courts. Rape is notoriously hard to prove, and while I would like to believe that those three men were innocent of rape (or that Bowie’s underage partners were, as Lori Mattix insists, so willing they can’t possibly be victims) I don’t know that. No one knows but those men and the people who might or might not have been their victims.

It isn’t contrition. Allen has continued to say creepy things about his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. I don’t know if Bowie ever publicly regretted his statutory rape, and his flat denial about raping Wanda Nichols may have only earned him more distrust from the Femterweb if it was a current event.

Seriality has something to do with it — Salinger’s many misused girlfriends, the many accusations leveled against Cosby. Character definitely has something to do with it. Richardson always comes off looking like a sleaze, Polanski fled the country, and Perry does have a penchant for very problematic lyrics. Kelly and Brown just strike me as bad men, certainly not the kind I want serenading me.

Meanwhile, I saw/rode Captain Eo again last time I went to Disneyland, and Jackson seemed so sweet and pure-hearted while fighting that crazy spider woman with the power of love, dance, and muppets.

So I have my own moral algebra — I make no excuses for it, it is what it is — but it gets more complicated than that. Because one of my favorite current pop stars, Lady Gaga, decided to work with Kelly and Richardson. And I really liked the song she did with Kelly, and the clips of the abandoned video with Richardson intrigued me. My understanding is that Gaga decided to work with these two known abusers BECAUSE they were abusers and she was working through her own rape. But she still funneled more money and fame their way, empowering both Kelly and Richardson in a way that they did not deserve.

That’s really the problem with watching, listening to, looking at, or otherwise supporting known abusers. Whether the creator is a separate entity from their creations or not*, sexually abusive creators don’t deserve all the money, power, and fame. They don’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing that millions are enjoying their work. They don’t deserve to be lofted up above their victims by society. They don’t deserve to be legitimized while their victims are de-legitimized.

So the question becomes, “Does your personal boycott matter?”

Maybe? We’ve come to the point where at least 95% of our society has condemned Cosby. His reruns have been pulled off the air, he lost gigs, and media-wise he’s very rarely anything but the butt of others’ jokes now. This only happened because a lot of individuals personally refused to watch him perform.

But unless the members of your particular Ick List reach Cosby-esque proportions of wrong-doing — unless guilt is certain, chronic, and unrepentant — society probably isn’t going to care about your personal boycott. It will not, in the long run, make one jot of difference.

Yet I maintain my Ick List. I’m not about to go buy myself a copy of Black Panties, even though Kelly’s voice was so beautiful on Gaga’s “Do What You Want”. Why? Because I want to feel like I have some control in this sometimes awful, always chaotic world. I can’t stop terrorism, or decrease the endemic racism in our justice system, or teach rural ranchers about the big picture, or end climate change.

But I can change the channel, flip the station, put down the book, click elsewhere, and get away from the art that represents a person who has transgressed.

The moral of this blog post? Avoid or enjoy any media that you want, because your relationship with the media you consume is all about you.


*I wanted to say more about this philosophical question here, but I had to kill that darling for sake of flow. I’ll just have to write another blog post about it.


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