A trip to pop culture’s grey areas

We all cling to our pop culture darlings — those things we love intensely because they speak to us in some way, connect with us on a level that’s meaningful and important. Maybe it’s a musician, a film, a television series, an author, a visual artist. These are things that feel intimate and powerful for us, and it’s deeply unsettling when they’re disrupted, disturbing the bonds of our relationship to them. Maybe it’s finding out that a director was a serial rapist, or reading a critique of an author’s body of work that highlights some issues you hadn’t previously spotted, maybe it’s reading that your favourite actor was arrested for domestic violence, or finding out that the musician you love is actually a raging racist.

There comes a point when you have to step back and reevaluate how you relate to media, and whether you want to keep consuming it at all on the basis of what you know. It’s a hard decision to make, especially if it’s media you deeply enjoy, and unfortunately, the way people tend to deal with that decision is through deflection, and this is a culture that facilitates that.

Actor accused of rape? Well, innocent until proven guilty, and anyway, that girl’s probably making it up for attention, or, I mean, look at the way she dresses, she was obviously trying to seduce him. Director in the press for domestic violence? We shouldn’t jump to conclusions, maybe it was just a single argument that got a little heated, or she’s overstating what happened, I mean, yes, that bruise looks bad, but maybe she bruises easily, who knows! Anyway, it was probably a one-time thing, and I bet she won’t even press charges. Author caught making horribly racist statements? Well, she probably just didn’t think her words through very carefully, I’m sure she doesn’t actually feel that way. And now that everyone’s piling on her, she can’t figure out how to apologise while saving face.

There are always more excuses for acts of violence and hatred when you dig deep enough. This framework is used culturally to excuse people for the horrors they inflict on each other, to create more and more allowances for people who want to absolve themselves, for people society wants to absolve. I expect this is a broader sense, but it’s deeply dismaying when it comes from people with more of a social justice inclination, clinging to fig leaves to justify their continued consumption of media from creators with deeply troubling characteristics.

Some of this seems to be a result of absolutism: Either you think Roman Polanski is a rapist and thus you eschew all of his work forever and ever amen, or you don’t, in which case you watch his work and talk about how great it is. And if you’re talking about his work and how great it is, then obviously you think Polanski isn’t a rapist, but he is, and your refusal to recognise that makes you a bad person. Is it possible that Polanski is a rapist and that he made some important contributions to 20th century film? Can a rapist both be a terrible person and make important art that we should probably at least talk about, though whether you want to view it is entirely up to you? Is there room for nuance here?

This absolutism runs rife through almost every aspect of society, and it’s incredibly damaging. There’s an either/or, acknowledge truth/wear willful blinders situation here that isn’t at all beneficial to anyone. It shuts down important conversations about the actions people commit, and it also makes it difficult to talk about pop culture, which is bad, because pop culture weaves throughout our lives to inform the way we think about the world.

An author could be racist, but also a good author. And maybe we can make calculated personal decisions to not read that author on the grounds that we don’t want to contribute to a racist’s career, but we should also be able to talk about that author’s books and what they mean. Because it creates a place for that conversation — we can say ‘yeah, I like his books, but also, he’s a racist,’ instead of ‘yeah, I like his books, ergo he’s not a racist.’ Or we can say ‘Orson Scott Card contributed some tremendously important stuff to science fiction, but also, I’m not going to read any of his books ever because he’s a raging homophobe.’

Like, people do horrible things. And right now it sometimes feels as though we shine it on so we can keep on liking them, or we take a scorched earth tactic and refuse to deal with anything that person has ever done, ever. Both of these tacks are wrong. I firmly believe that people who do bad things should be called to account for them, and that trying to excuse their misdeeds away is unjust not just to their victims, but to other victims of similar crimes. Every time we make up excuses to keep watching a domestic abuser play sports, or a rapist act in movies, we’re telling victims and survivors that their experiences are invalid and unimportant so long as the people who harm them are making things that society likes.

But by the same token, every time we throw someone into the oubliette, we’re missing out on an important conversation. We miss out on the chance to have a serious discussion about how good works of art, or athleticism, or whatever, can emerge from someone who did a terrible thing. We miss a chance to talk about that person’s influence on society. We miss a chance to discuss whether it’s impossible to enjoy work produced by someone who does terrible things. I choose not to consume art from a lot of creators whom I think are terrible people, but that doesn’t stop me from talking about them, and their art, because these are important conversations to have.

Image: 35mm movie projector, Hans Splinter, Flickr