image credit: Associated Press/Thibault Camus
We know who they are. Their work and achievements have become household discussions, we fawn over their genius in academic and social circles, and we present them awards that apparently shine brightly enough to blind us when it comes to truths about them that have been overlooked. They are sexual predators and abusers — individuals altogether undeserving of our attention and respect, and yet their names sit in our mouths with a taste far too sweet. Woody Allen. Bill Cosby. Roman Polanski. Bill Murray. John Lennon. And many more. Some may simply be unaware of what these people have done, but far more insidious than naiveté are those who know and are complacent.
As consumers of various forms of media, it is likely impossible for us to make sure that every film, T.V. show, song, and etc. that we choose to enjoy is untethered people who are problematic. Those who produce the content that we enjoy are human beings just like us, capable of violating others and committing injustices just the same as those outside the eye of public scrutiny. As an avid moviegoer and reader, I’m sure that some of my favorite pieces of work have been created by or have associations with a person who has been the perpetrator of some form of abuse or another. Our nearly unlimited access to various types of entertainment carries with it the disheartening reality that we cannot confirm that we are consuming from ethical sources one-hundred percent of the time. However, this does not mean that we should depart from vigilance in being critical of those who we know have done something wrong. It is too easy for celebrity perpetrators to slip through the cracks and continue on their journey to worldwide renown, and this phenomenon indicates a larger characteristic of the way that society at large is comfortable in the presence of those who have done the unspeakable.
When it comes to celebrities, the aforementioned Woody Allen is an example of a perpetrator that is quite poignant to me because of the way the way that he continues to be revered among colleagues both within and outside of the filmmaking sphere. I recall discussing Annie Hall in a film class during my first year in college; my professor gushed over Allen’s comedic timing and persona and failed to mention the accusations against him of molesting his daughter, Dylan Farrow, who at the time was seven years old. The case was eventually dropped and Allen continues to make movies that receive critical acclaim, like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. It seems to be considered an honor to work with him, and I find myself even more inclined to question actors and producers who see no issue collaborating with him than I do viewers of his films. What conclusions can be drawn about the contemporary atmosphere that survivors of sexual violence find themselves in when people who work with Allen and others like him know of their pasts and don’t appear to give it a second thought? Adrien Brody, an actor who was featured in Midnight in Paris, said in reference to Allen “…people have done things in their lives that may have been inexcusable, but that’s not something to focus on.” It’s relevant to mention that Brody also starred in the rapist Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Brody is not the only one who has been happy working with Allen — Kristen Stewart, Emma Stone, Owen Wilson, Tom Hiddleston, Louis C.K., Blake Lively, and dozens of others have been in his most recent productions. I find it doubtful that they are unaware of the allegations against him and it surprises me that they apparently do not see the harm in associating with him.
So what does all of this mean? It certainly supports resisting the urge to put celebrities on a pedestal and using them as our moral compasses. As I mentioned before, they are fallible and will do awful things just like everyone else, but their frequent lack of accountability for their actions speaks to a larger standard of the silence that survivors of abuse, rape, and etc. are met with when they speak out about what has been done to them. In a previous blog post for the Women’s Center, I wrote about the necessity of trusting survivors when they tell their stories, and I add to that statement now when I say that we must actively reject association with those who have harmed others so deeply as Allen. The spotlight that people like him are afforded by their publicity can be used as a tool to condemn their actions rather than burying them, and we simply are not doing a good job. We should not have to feel guilty about watching our favorite movies and listening to our favorite bands, and if we would put an end to the pattern of allowing our view of perpetrators to remain rosy despite what they’ve done, feeling morally unsound about our interests in media might not even be such an issue. The question at the core of this issue is this: what does it say about our society at large when we see no problem piling accolades on people like Allen? If we are willing to overlook sexual violence for the sake of enjoying quality cinema, the distance we need to cover to become a society that provides total justice for survivors is even greater than one might think. As long as perpetrators are idols in contemporary media, we will continue to struggle to develop a boundary between what pieces of work are acceptable to enjoy and which ones cross the line, when what needs to happen is their erasure from public regard.