When it comes to sexual assault, it’s time to stop thinking we can separate artists, politicians, and media makers from their work.
The “silence breakers” did it. Those who’ve spoken up and out about sexual abuse, harassment and assault—whether taking on their abusers in court, or the court of public opinion, or using the #MeToo hashtag—are Time’s “person of the year.” That is significant.
It’s also significant that the runner-up for the “person of the year” distinction has been accused of sexual harassment, abuse and assault by more than a dozen women. His name is Donald Trump and he is the president of the United States.
Which is why, if I read another (junior) high-minded post-Harvey Weinstein thinkpiece about whether it’s possible to separate art from artist, or media from media-maker, or policy from politician, I’m going to separate myself from planet Earth.
No, it is not possible to separate these things. Nor is it probable, as Trump’s celebrity, his candidacy, and election, and person-of-the-yearing show clearly. When we consume, appreciate or purchase the work of people who have done terrible things, we are supporting those people. We are not even close to doing otherwise.
I know that’s hard to hear for a lot of folks, because culturally speaking, we think of sexual predators, abusers and other creeps as being monsters, easily identifiable by their tendency to hide in the bushes and wear shifty disguises. But the shiftiest disguise of all is the one that works best: Talent and charisma. We want our creeps to be miserable, sad, desperate and lonesome. They are not. They are famous, wealthy, rich, adored, and powerful. They are people of the year.
It is not possible to appreciate art without, in some way or another, appreciating the artist. To pretend like this separation is possible is to misunderstand how and why humans create art. Creative work is borne out of the totality of the human experience, and some humans who create and give life to the movies, music, television shows, podcasts, plays, characters and other cultural artifacts we love also have experience sexually abusing, assaulting or harassing other humans.
We can’t know for certain just how, or to what extent, the predatory and abusive behavior of people who create art has influenced or affected their creative output, but it would be downright foolish to presume that it hasn’t, period. For some, the influence is clearer than others. Louis C.K., for example, joked often about sexual abuse and assault. Woody Allen has a not-at-all-veiled tendency to sexualize teenage girls and romanticize the relationships they have with older men in his films. On the other hand, Bill Cosby, who has been accused of drugging and raping dozens of women, cultivated and perfected a role as America’s beloved dad on The Cosby Show.
Can we separate art and artist? A better question is, why should we? Why should sexually predatory behavior be exempt from consideration along with all of the other qualities, traits and values that make up the whole person—whether they be performer, athlete, journalist, or president?
We know why. Because we are looking for a justification that will let us keep enjoying the things we love without accepting that those same things can be deeply hurtful to others. Because we are lazy and it is a hassle to find a new favorite comedian, a new favorite director, a new favorite football team. Because some jokes, some premises, some stereotypes, some plot points, some characters, just plain don’t really bother us because they’re not about us. It’s easier for us to overlook transphobic material, and transphobic behavior, if we’re cis. It’s easier for us to write off racist remarks if we’re white. It’s easier for us to ignore crappy material or cracks about disability if we’re able-bodied. And it’s easier to enjoy the work of people who commit sexual abuse, harassment and assault if we don’t perceive their behavior as a threat, or take victims and survivors seriously.
If you have never had to wonder which part of yourself you’re pushing aside or shutting up in order to enjoy a movie or album or meal at a celebrity chef’s restaurant, consider yourself lucky. This calculation — will this piece of art bring me more pain than joy? — is one that many people who live at intersections of oppression—whether because of their race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, or a host of other factors—make every time they tune in, turn up the volume or buy a ticket.
We have to accept that people we love and adore, and whose work we love and adore, can do, say and believe horrible things, and that often they are given a pass on those horrible things because we love them, and because we refuse to confront the privileges that allow us to decide what matters, and to whom, when it comes to consuming art and media. How much healthier we’d be, how much closer we’d be to truly confronting systems of oppression and marginalization, if we were able to say to ourselves: My privilege allows me to enjoy this. If we could admit, I can ignore the hurtful things this person did because they didn’t hurt me or people like me.
Instead of twisting yourself in knots trying to find a way to enjoy the work of creeps and cads and criminals, just be honest with yourself. You loved The Pianist and you want to keep watching it periodically despite the fact that you know its creator drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. You will sing along with all the words to “Ignition,” fully aware that the guy you’re emulating has been accused of sexually assaulting teen girls. You know Louis C.K.’s bit about the awesome opossum shirt by heart, and you are going to keep quoting it at the bar even though you know that the comic, by his own admission, repeatedly coerced his subordinates and co-workers into watching him masturbate without their consent.
But please, whatever you do, don’t pretend that you are being a friend to victims and survivors of sexual assault and gendered violence by pretending that there is some magical combination of mental gymnastics that will allow you to hang on to your Two-and-a-Half Men DVD collection, or your best-of Saturday Night Live tapes, or your MAGA hat, with a clear conscience.
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