With the case against R.Kelly blowing up again earlier this week, people are once again musing on exactly how far of a stand one must take when it comes to suffocating the income streams of celebrities whose private actions reveal themselves to be abusive or exploitative. Is it possible to condemn the creator while appreciating the art they offer to the world?
How does one separate the two?
Take Roman Polanski, a man whose actions have been deplorable. Yes, he drugged and raped a 13 year old girl over 30 years ago. Yes, after admitting to it, he fled America and escaped to an opulent Swiss chalet. Yes, he and his supporters have spent those 30 years bemoaning his loss of status in Hollywood and attempting to rally support so that his return may be facilitated, an exiled champion returning to the city which unfairly thrust him out.
Can one accept all this as truth and still appreciate films like The Pianist, Rosemary's Baby and Carnage, even while reviling the man who made them? Art can and should be able to stand separately from its creator, meaning different things to each and every person who consumes it; understanding the complexities of this necessarily means accepting that there is an immutable space between art and artist that cannot be crossed.
It’s a troubling quandary for those of us whose politics force us to take a moral stand against abuse.
But the lines between ‘art’ and its ability to garner enormous financial dividends are also blurred (as Robin Thicke might have it). In an article, Amanda Hess explores the possibility for backlash against artists like Lady Gaga and Beyonce, both of whom have recently collaborated with men with solid reputations for abusing women.
Lady Gaga is shortly to release a duet with R.Kelly, who the Village Voice reminded everyone had been accused of raping dozens of underaged adolescents (including one whose rape - in which R.Kelly urinated into her mouth and told her to call him Daddy - was captured on video).
Meanwhile, one of the videos on Beyonce’s surprise visual album was directed by Terry Richardson, a fashion photographer accused of sexually harassing models but who seems to be absurdly loved for his ‘edginess’ by female and male celebrities alike. Richardson also directed the video for Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’, while a recent lawsuit against Lady Gaga by a former assistant reveals the singer has on at least one occasion transported Richardson on her private jet.
Why would women who ostensibly sell themselves as possessing a certain fearlessness and ferocity (and I do believe these women to be fearless and ferocious) collaborate with men whose behaviour indicates they have scant regard for women who don’t humour their own depravity?
And beyond these women, why does the entertainment business in general continue to employ and reward people who behave or have behaved horrendously towards others (usually women and children)? People like Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, Sean Connery, Sean Penn, Eminem and every other man whose violent (and often public) behaviour has been at best scolded while continuing to be employed.
Is it a coincidence that the ostracisation of Mel Gibson in recent years has less to do with the violent treatment of his former wife Oksana Grigorieva and more to do with the anti-Semetic apray he issued to police officers in 2006? There are a few things that will get you blackballed in Hollywood, but violence against women generally isn’t one of them. Even Mike Tyson, the former bozer who served a prison sentence for rape, has enjoyed an ironic resurgence since the release of paint-by-numbers buddy movie The Hangover.
Hess argues that it isn’t art or even morality that drives our pop cultural creators to ignore such transgressions. It’s money.
“The record industry doesn’t care about promoting women or ending child rape unless that message is selling this year. It simply requires its stars to keep making money and keep working with other people who do….And what got Charlie Sheen fired from Two and a Half Men? It wasn’t his history of allegedly beating, strangling, and (only once!) shooting women.
It was the fact that he made anti-semitic and otherwise insulting remarks about series creator Chuck Lorre and began turning in a generally unfilmable performance—in other words, it wasn't his major moral transgressions. It was that he directly crossed someone who makes money while diminishing his capability to make money himself.”
The same goes for Chris Brown, who continues to line the coffers of record executives despite his own police record of assaulting former girlfriend Rihanna. For a clear illustration of the priorities of the industry, you need look no further than what happened in 2012.
After being blacklisted from the event for three years, Grammy Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich told reporters that they would be welcoming Brown back to perform. Was it out of concern for Rihanna that the Grammys instigated his exclusion? No. In defending his return, Ehrlich told ABC News Radio, “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.”
The short of it is that the powers that be will always ignore violent and misogynist behaviour as long as they are empowered to by the almighty dollar. As Hess points out, even Jay Z returned to collaborate with R.Kelly in 2004 after the latter proved he was still capable of releasing two successful solo albums. At the time, R.Kelly was still in and out of court on charges of child rape.
And where are women left in all of this, particularly when they face the same pressures to stay not just financially ‘relevant’ to their producers but also physically? When violence against women is considered a private matter or not that big a deal, it becomes easy to sideline moral concerns. As Lena Dunham tweeted earlier this week (and as pointed out by Amanda Hess), “There's still a sense that being down with the predatory behavior of guys makes you chill, a girl with a sense of humor, a girl who can hang.” And that parlays into a lot of financial reward.
The expected complicity of women in their own degradation is essentially one of the problems facing the entertainment industry and its lack of real action against the abusive behaviour of some of its most lauded stars. On the most basic level, it’s an industry that can use lyrics symbolic of rape to sell ‘one of the biggest hits of the summer’; that will forgive and forget the very public abuse of one of its biggest female players by one of its biggest male ones; that will continue to furnish abusive stars with multi-million dollar contracts; and that, in the few times it acknowledges criminal behaviour in its cash cows, will paint them as ‘troubled’, a descriptor that can only add to the exotic allure of a much lusted after star.
In the entertainment industry, women can lose contracts and endorsements through all manner of things. Getting too ‘fat’, sleeping with too many men, behaving too provocatively without the approval of management, accidentally tweeting a half nude photo. But men? Well, who cares what they do to women as long as they keep bringing in the money. After all, when it comes to unfortunate matters of domestic altercations, everyone knows that the biggest victim is the industry.