A collage of photos of Bill Cosby, Jeff Sessions, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway and R. Kelly.

All the Rage

Do We Really Understand What Complicit Means?

If we don't care whether Ivanka serves as her father's apologist, or we're still buying albums by alleged sex offender R. Kelly, or we dismiss rape jokes as just jokes, then yeah, we're complicit.

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When new allegations against singer R. Kelly surfaced this week accusing him of what equates to sex trafficking of young women, social and traditional media reacted with rage (obviously) and shock (really?). Why is anybody surprised by this? And more importantly, the outrage shouldn’t just be directed at Kelly, who should provoke ire—seriously, fuck that guy—but at every single person who supported him one second past the first time he was accused of abusing an underage girl. And that was 23 years ago.

Throughout his 25-year career, Kelly has sold more than 60 million albums, and at one point he was worth an estimated $150 million. He wrote and produced top-selling hits for Michael JacksonCeline Dion, and Lady Gaga, and was crowned the pied piper of R&B, a pseudonym that would prove to be nauseating. During this time of great career success and adulation by the music industry and the media at large, Kelly illegally married R&B singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time (he was 28), was arrested for battery, and indicted on child pornography charges in two states after multiple videos surfaced of Kelly having sex with minors. Charges were dropped in those cases, and the many accusations of rape against him were settled out of court. At one point Kelly was even on the watch list of the Chicago Police sex crimes unit. Kelly flaunted his reputation, promoting a public image of bad-boy lothario—the kind who winks at the camera while raping, and then peeing on, a teenager. 

Kelly has made a point of targeting not only underage girls, but specifically girls and women of color. This is notable not only because he is preying on his primary fanbase—women still young enough to hold their music idols on pedestals and harbor childish fantasies about them, because, again, they are children—but because Black women are habitually denied equal treatment under the law, and in general. Dozens of claims have been filed against him over the years—all by women of color or their parents—and Kelly has never been arrested. If his victims were white, these statistics would surely be different.

When Kelly was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, after a six-year delay in the trial, the media moved on from the story. It wasn’t long before Kelly was appearing at the White House, touring with Jay Z, performing at the Grammys, and receiving an honor from Billboard. Kelly proves that once you go through the media rinse cycle, it doesn’t care to stick around and see if maybe—just maybe—it missed something, or got the story wrong. And it did. While Kelly was being celebrated and mocked—either way, he remained a central figure in pop culture, kind of like a certain preachy TV dad who likes pudding pops and drugging and assaulting women—he was continuing his cycle of abuse.

The latest accusations against Kelly could be proven false. Kelly denies them. But a consistent pattern of behavior doesn’t lie. Any licensed psychologist not on presidential payroll will agree that repetitive abusive behavior doesn’t disappear. Predators abuse until they are stopped.

Kelly isn’t the only one guilty here. His supporters, the media and its blind eye, and any entertainer who worked with, snapped selfies with, or otherwise supported R. Kelly since his pattern of abuse against children became public, are complicit in his abhorrent crimes.

Complicit: Helping to do a crime or commit wrong in some way.

We’re long overdue for a vocabulary lesson on this word, which is being volleyed around these days, but is largely misunderstood. To be complicit is to be guilty. A person complicit in a murder, for example, may not have pulled the trigger, but he or she was an accessory to the crime. They helped things escalate to a point of no return. They exacerbated the wound, or ignored it altogether. The aftermath of the crime—the proverbial and very literal blood—is splattered all over them. Nearly every day, members of government, the media, the entertainment community, and perhaps every community in America, are complicit in crimes against women.

It’s Ivanka Trump selling faux-feminism to women to get their votes and support for her father, promising affordable child care and paid family leave, pay equity, and a commitment to investing in education. And when Donald Trump signed legislation that disproportionately harms low-income women and children (not to mention racial minorities, low-to-middle-class earners, any kid in public school, and polar bears), Ivanka sat idly by, not only ignoring her involvement, but feigning ignorance to the meaning of complicit.

Oh, Ivanka, I think you know better, we certainly do: Lip service is not service. And goading women into following your promises of a better, more inclusive life—one twinkling with sweatshop-made, mid-range peasant tops and fake gold bracelets, no less—and then abandoning them when the candidate you promised would help them makes misogyny central to his agenda is, in fact, active sabotage against your gender.

The complicit range from global spiritual leaders—I’m looking at you, “cool Pope,” for failing to expose every priest who has ever assaulted a child, stripping them of their authority, and sending them to prison, rather than just sentencing them to a “lifetime of penance”—to the media, which, of course, is complicit every day—whether it’s ignoring stories of abuse until they are buzzworthy (see: Kelly, Trump, Cosby, et al.), or deliberately reinforcing sexist narratives. When the British paper The Sun, owned by sexist oligarch Rupert Murdoch, published nude photos of actress Jodie Whittaker the day after she was announced as the first female Dr. Who—a historic move the paper also deeply criticized in an op-ed that day—it was a very specific statement about women in Hollywood and everywhere else. We are just bodies to be critiqued and manipulated by men. 

Regular people are complicit too. It’s unflinching Chris Brown fans, who continued to attend his concerts and buy his albums after he beat Rihanna so badly that both her eyes were swollen shut. It’s defenders of former NFL player Ray Rice, who beat his fiancée unconscious on camera, and sports commentators who blamed her for it. It’s anyone who praises Roman Polanski as an artist rather than an alleged rapist. It’s every troll on Twitter body-shaming, slut-shaming, gender-shaming, and threatening any woman for merely existing. It’s Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for not treating threats and harassment against women for what it is: hate speech. It’s everyone who says, “It’s just a joke” about a rape joke. It’s every man who throws out “bitch” and “ho” as interchangeable pronouns for women with no context of the oppressive history of those words. It’s every American who voted for an admitted sexual predator to occupy the most powerful seat in the world, and it’s every person in Congress who continues to allow him to deconstruct America’s very core of freedom and justice.

There are so many atrocities to feel enraged about today, but as Andrea Grimes pointed out recently, we must direct that rage in the right way. Rage against the powerful taking advantage of the less powerful, but don’t ignore those who are complicit in their crimes. These accomplices may prove to be an even greater threat.


(photos:R.Kelley/Andrew Steinmetz,  Ivanka Trump, Jeff Sessions, Kellyanne Conway/Gage Skidmore, Jared Kushner/ (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro all CC 2.0, Bill Cosby/ Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock.com)

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