It’s happening more and more frequently. Pop culture aficionados are forced to wrestle with the idea that the actor, director, writer, singer, athlete, or entertainer they’ve loved and supported for years might not be a good person. Recent allegations against the likes of Bill Cosby and Johnny Depp (both of which still have to find their way before the courts) have only illuminated this equally internal and external debate. Filmmakers like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Victor Salva (just to name a microscopic handful) face intense and renewed scrutiny every time they make a new film, both over what can be proven about their past misgivings and what can only be speculated upon until proven otherwise.
None of us are the assigned judges in these real or metaphorical trials, but we’re all members of the “jury” in the court of public opinion. Quite often, most of the people in the argument aren’t the victims or the accused, and outside observers can’t fathom what they’re going through. We deliberate in public and private, passionately arguing the sometimes fine and sometimes well pronounced line between the excusable and the inexcusable. Now, more than ever, we all live in public more than we would probably like to, and misgivings and bad deeds of all kinds will never fully go away. There’s the old adage that if you were to look closely at the lives of the people you idolized long enough, you would undoubtedly find something you hated about them so much that you would never look at them the same way again. I hesitate to say it for fear of touching a nerve, but every human being alive has probably done something that another person can’t forgive them for; personally, emotionally, criminally, or otherwise.
Many of us are outraged, sickened, and depressed when such allegations are levied, and it’s well within our rights as human beings to conduct ourselves accordingly. Similarly, just as many people insist on waiting until the facts are in and the proper authorities have dealt with such matters in legal venues and outside of public, media driven chaos. This is also an appropriate point of view.
You can’t tell people how they should feel about anything, especially traumatic incidents. Say what one might about trigger warnings, no one can ever take away from someone the right to feel upset, threatened, or angry whenever something hits too close to home.
But when it comes to pop culture, there’s a grey area that too often goes unacknowledged. What if someone who has been labeled “problematic” (today’s “polite” term for someone proven or accused of doing something legally or morally reprehensible) made something you genuinely love? How does Mel Gibson’s past make you feel when Lethal Weapon is your favourite action film of all time? Can you not watch any films featuring Mark Wahlberg because you know he almost beat a man to death, and his public attempts at apologizing mean little to you because you went through something similar? Do either of these examples make you a bad person or some sort of cinematic philistine? Emphatically, no, but there are things that both defenders and accusers need to remember when talking about once revered figures with falls from grace.
Let’s start by talking about where those who want to defend the accused or convicted go awry in their arguments.
You can’t tell people how they should feel about anything, especially traumatic incidents. Say what one might about trigger warnings, no one can ever take away from someone the right to feel upset, threatened, or angry whenever something hits too close to home. Some scars can never heal, and our capacity for forgiveness and skepticism often go hand and hand. Everyone has something in their lives that they have walked away from because they can’t deal with it on a deeply emotional level. There’s no guidebook that has ever been provided to someone to tell them exactly when they have to legally forgive someone or to stop being skeptical of them, nor should there be. Just because your favourite actor has answered for a crime they committed in a court of law (or possibly even served jail time or probation), that doesn’t mean a casual observer has to forgive them for what they did. We all bear scars in our minds and on our bodies and know in our hearts what we can’t forgive. When defending someone’s art, just know that the person on the other side of the argument might have a very personal reason to either not engage with the conversation or to disagree with you. Such feelings need to be respected.
Secondly, those defending an artist by using the old chestnut “one needs to separate the artist from the art” need to realize that phrase is not only wrong, but utterly meaningless. All art is personal, be it performance, writing, or otherwise visual. Even actors and filmmakers seen as taking gigs only to earn a paycheque have a personal investment in what they’re doing, even if they don’t look like they’re putting in an effort. Doing something out of contractual obligation or to earn money is a personal motivator in and of itself.
Every work of art taps into something deep inside the person making it. Why do you think Woody Allen’s films feature so many May-December romances? Why does Victor Salva often make dark films featuring young men in tight T-shirts in perilous situations? Polanski’s adaptation of Macbeth might be the most personally charged Shakespearian staging ever made, especially if one were to read between the lines and realize what he was going through at the time. Why do stand-up comics exploit their personal lives for laughs?
There’s something satisfying and cathartic about taking a renowned no-goodnik down a peg, but is it really calling attention to the system of complacency and privilege that often allows the rich and famous to act indiscriminately and without impunity?
Art and the artist are inseparable because art has never been created in a vacuum. That doesn’t mean that someone who writes about murder has committed one themselves, but that the themes and situations surrounding the murder are unquestionably reflections or perversions of fears, desires, or opinions (subverted or explicit) that are held by the author. These aren’t robots creating these works and performances, but flesh and blood human beings. To say that they can keep their art separate from their personas and personalities is a logical fallacy that people trot out when looking for a way to excuse bad behaviour and end difficult conversations as fast as possible.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as a film critic is that it’s an uphill battle trying to convince people of meaning and merit in art. Sadly, lots of people don’t care about the personal lives of others, and just as sadly, some people care too much. That’s why shouting in public about the most obvious and newsworthy perpetrators of perceived injustices is counter-intuitive. There’s something satisfying and cathartic about taking a renowned no-goodnik down a peg, but is it really calling attention to the system of complacency and privilege that often allows the rich and famous to act indiscriminately and without impunity? For every celebrity that commits an assault against a family member, there are millions of victims around the world suffering the same fate in relative silence that we should be equally disgusted by.
I know it’s touchy and that people generally pay attention to sensationalism more than they do nuance and carefully worded arguments, but instead of linking to the latest news report about the latest motions in the latest celebrity trial, link to something less specific to tell people why these issues matter to the human race on larger levels. Use the incident to talk about a greater issue. If someone famous has been arrested for spousal abuse, there’s no better time to talk about the facts, or all of the voices suffering in silence because they weren’t dating someone famous and the national news and TMZ doesn’t care about them.
What’s most often forgotten about is that the suffering of one person is all too sadly relatable to many. When these situations arise in the media, rather than giving in to trolls and fundamentalist film buffs who callously refuse to acknowledge what their favourite artists did to someone else, use it as a way to forward a larger, more necessary discussion. At a certain point, it isn’t about the art anymore, and dismissing art that has already been made is fruitless.
Our morals and core beliefs are our own, and only you can draw the line on what you find acceptable and forgivable, but know that not everyone has to agree with you.
Similarly dismissive and counter-intuitive are retroactive calls for boycotts of all works from someone accused of doing something terrible. Primarily because nothing will make these past works go away, but also because it sets a dangerous precedent in motion that defenders of free speech and artistic expression will immediately seize upon. If one were to round-up all pop culture ephemera and masterpieces created by people who were less than virtuous or outright criminal and lock it away in a tomb at the bottom point of the ocean, there wouldn’t be much art left in the world. No one would agree on where the line should be drawn, but at some point these kinds of generalizations could be made. Eventually, our outrage culture would lead us down a path where we would have to ask if only those who haven’t sinned in public should be allowed to produce art. It’s scary to think about, but if we allow ourselves to constantly be angered by specific incidents more than we’re outraged by the larger ills of society, too many arguments will end up sounding like this.
I know not everyone is like this on either side of such arguments. There are many intelligent, researched, and nuanced defenses and condemnations of public figures – filled with facts and larger themes rather than rage or petulance – that take into account opposing viewpoints and feelings. It just feels like such opinions get lost because they take too long to summarize. No one has to force you or I to listen to them, but knowing they exist can make one feel a bit more at ease.
So what do you do when one of your personal favourite figureheads does something terrible? I can’t answer that for you, but I can tell you that some soul searching is probably in order before jumping to conclusions in either direction. Human beings have this remarkable knack for thinking rationally even though it seems like fewer and fewer choose to exercise their ability to do so. Our capacity for such rational thought is naturally challenged when placed in opposition to how we view the media and how we perceive art and culture. Our morals and core beliefs are our own, and only you can draw the line on what you find acceptable and forgivable, but know that not everyone has to agree with you. By that same token, when such high profile situations arise, we must never lose sight of the bigger issues being called to light. Incidents like those in the news lately should force us to ask hard questions of ourselves and our society.
Remember the victims and respect the people who want to stand up for them because that work is valid above all else. A movie is just a movie, and if you love the movie it won’t go anywhere. Nitpicking individual works does no one any good, and neither does tearing down those who work alongside those accused of past or current wrongdoing. Their lines are different, and they aren’t the person being accused or convicted. It’s a mess for everyone involved, and a mess that many people aren’t making any easier on the victims. So instead of going online to specifically talk about one specific case or to baselessly defend someone because they made that one thing you really liked, why not internalize the argument before putting everyone else through it? Ask the questions of yourself and of society at large. We should all choose to believe victims and to believe in a person’s right to a fair trial outside of public discourse. Only you can say what you stand for, but please be respectful. More than anything else, that seems to be a lost art. And if it seems like this piece is one lengthy series of hypothetical questions, that’s because it is, and these are the questions we should always be asking ourselves.