While the downfalls of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey amplified the power the winning of Oscars or bringing Hollywood cred to the Old Vic has to intimidate, and even to coerce sexual favours, few could be said to have ‘loved’ these personalities. It is more challenging when allegations target our more endearing cultural and political icons. With Louis CK, George Takei and Al Franken among others now facing trial by media, we’re less filled with schadenfreude and more with a sense of dread, guilt and even some attempts at rationalising their guilt in the public domain. Perhaps we’ve learnt nothing, especially if no concrete changes occur as a result of these scandals.
Too often many of us exhibit rationalising behaviour – whether through sheer faith in our heroes’ innocence, pedantically picking apart inconsistencies, arguing dubious justifications or just outright ignoring allegations.
Our reaction is, in part, driven by the triumph of our personal cultural and political tastes over ethical standards. In entertainment and politics, someone who’s created ‘credible’ art or that we personally identify as being associated with misogyny challenges the perfection of our well-crafted bubbles. There’s no greater symbolism of the depth of this challenge than Terry Richardson – who, despite years of consistent allegations of sexual misconduct in major outlets, has only recently been blacklisted by major publications. What’s unique about Richardson is his reach with every flavour of powerful, cool entertainment and politics, even those that proclaim values antithetical to the photographer’s.
“In the end it wasn’t a full-throated public attack that destroyed [Richardson] – it was a commercial decision in the context of current sexual harrassment scandals.”
In music he’s photographed Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Beyoncé; in film and TV it’s Chloe Sevigny, Lena Dunham and the male cast of Girls; and in politics Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Six degrees of sexual allegation. For years hiding in plain sight, we’ve rationalised his raunchy, often objectifying photography as valid under the ironic, dirty, adventurous umbrella of the VICE Magazine that we love. In the end it wasn’t a full-throated public attack against the fashion houses, publications and admirable subjects who took part in his art that destroyed him – it was an entirely commercial decision in the context of current sexual harrassment scandals.
In politics, allegations against politician idols become fake news. Pundits and supporters of socially conservative Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused of committing sexual assault against minors, readily defended thirty-somethings dating teenagers as normal or just called allegations “lies”. Those who have revived discussions about sexual assault allegations against Bill Clinton are often dismissed as gullible Bernie Bros falling for right-wing conspiracies.
My personal test has been Senator Al Franken, someone I’ve considered an excellent politician and potential Presidential candidate in 2020, now accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. Initially, I found myself falling into a defensive spiral in response to the initial photograph. Franken’s denials and willingness to have himself investigated I took as potential innocence. This was perhaps motivated by my unwillingness to accept such stark hypocrisy given his stellar record on womens’ rights: surely his good work and values would be sullied with his guilt?
When past – and to an extent current – Hollywood, Westminster and Washington scandals threatened our heroes, we’ve retreated into a defensive mentality. Call it Terryworld. In Terryworld, artistic credibility and espoused political values triumph because, much like the mixing of politics and sports has been disdained in the past, we have separated creativity and values from ethics. Values can too often become mere expressions of taste that don’t need to be proven, which denies us real consideration of the fallacy of our cultural and political icons.
Even if we mouth values of justice, it’s often only for ‘other’ cases. We tend to protect our own by putting wholehearted faith into the innocence of people close to us. Lena Dunham exemplifies this on a grand scale, contradicting her usual stance of platforming victims’ voices by defending Girls executive producer Murray Miller against rape allegations, claiming that “this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year.” Her reaction is sadly common; a defensive faith in the accused that has historically kept cases of abuse within families, religious congregations and care homes hidden – only to be later revealed as deeply entrenched and widespread.
“Values can too often become mere expressions of taste, which denies us real consideration of the fallacy of our cultural and political icons.”
The challenge is a combined political, media and public culture and cohort of institutions that are motivated by self-interest, rather than a commitment to championing the voices of victims. Where monetised, creativity allows those who bring in money license to sin; media outlets oblige their stars to be photographed by the ‘in’ photographer, and even politicians seek to be touched with cool culture – turning a blind eye to indecencies when it suits.
Only once past their peak (Weinstein and Spacey) or at worst dead (Jimmy Savile) are there consequences. In politics, this would be confirmed if the cabinet power dynamic of Theresa May confidante and David Davis ally Damian Green protects him from any proven allegations. If power can be challenged with ethical transparency from institutions and their fans, allegations can be fought.
Achieving change requires the hearing of victims’ voices to be the means, but not the ultimate end. Many friends I’ve discussed this with feel cynical about what they see as a #metoo mentality that will increase awareness of harassment, but ultimately lose momentum. Real change requires tangible goals, which demands raising public debate on wide-ranging issues, including statutes of limitation in rape cases, and independent, confidential means for victims to come forward. It’s also imperative that, when allegations of criminal activity become public, the judicial process must take place – even if the accused’s culpability seems clear.
We must consider what media coverage is trying to achieve through trial by media, and the adverse impacts that can inadvertently result from exposé. This approach alone tends to shield the most powerful from legal interrogation, wherein the now jobless Weinstein and Spacey will more likely retreat to secluded private islands and – conjuring images of them dueting ‘Money’ from Cabaret – recover on their 14 carat yacht, rather than actually being tried before a court of law. Less prominent people who are tried by the media can also lose their livelihoods without a day in court, and the fairness of this vigilante approach is, albeit in some cases satisfying, very dubious.
If the only outcome of sex scandals is to reinforce our proclaimed values by slaying individual devils while hesitating to harm our own, our values are just nice ideas. By not properly, consistently holding our contemporaries and their associates to account – whether the artists and politicians we love or those who continue working with them post-allegation – or considering concrete judicial and social reform, we’ll forever remain ignorant, hyper-patriotic citizens of Terryland, bouncing from one fad and hero to the next.
Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher and writer, and Politics and Economics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.