Last fall, a student asked me how I negotiated my media consumption practices as a feminist, particularly when encountering “questionable,” “objectionable,” and “offensive” texts. I love when students ask these questions, because it elucidates the stakes of my field. It means I’m doing my job.
I admitted to being more dogmatic than others on this subject. When I encounter a film, television program, or piece of music, I often ask myself whether the artifact in question requires my support. It usually doesn’t. Most media texts with financial support in production, distribution, and exhibition can usually do without my ears, eyes, and dollars. I channel my resources toward the texts that do, and prioritize contributions from people who aren’t white men. Family Guy came up in our conversation. The student was struggling to reconcile fandom and politics. I could relate. During my late adolescence, I liked Family Guy because it flattered my knowledge of popular culture by lacing episodes with references to 80s sitcoms.
A year after its 2005 return to FOX, I couldn’t reconcile the program’s comedic sensibility with its “ironic”, deliberately offensive treatment of race, gender, and sexuality. My feminist education disallowed it. Specifically, I couldn’t stomach the show’s cruelty toward Meg Griffin. So I quit watching.
We tend to pay more attention to points of entry rather than departures. But we can learn a lot from thinking about why we leave a text. Many of my friends are Veronica Mars fans. Yet most of them parted ways with it during its final season because of the show’s insensitive treatment toward sexual violence on college campuses, which some felt betrayed the protagonist’s feminist representation. Several of them also rallied around the program’s second life as a feature film by supporting its Kickstarter campaign. We must account for the reasons people might come to or leave a text, and why they might return to it as well. This makes fandom and anti-fandom into sites of ambivalence. These cultural spaces are further developed by the presence of paratexts, a concept transformed by scholars like Jonathan Gray which describes the surrounding artifacts that inform our engagement with a media text.
I keep wondering if bad behavior is a paratext. There’s been a lot of recent conversation about when to disengage from media. Much of the focus has been on whether to sever loyalties from creative individuals with incriminating personal lives. Can you like a film or a song if you know the director or musician did horrible things? This is trickier, because we can’t always detect traces of reprehensible behavior in the texts they make. Sometimes, this actually makes it harder for me to engage. I can’t listen to Stan Getz’s seductive jazz and James Brown’s affirmative funk without thinking about how they allegedly committed acts of partner abuse. It gets really difficult when I think about how many songs sample Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” though I often credit that song to Clyde Stubblefield. Given the resurgence of concern over R. Kelly, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski’s past grievances against young girls, at least two issues are at play. First, can we separate the text from the creator in a uniform fashion? Second, how do we account for difference when attempting to address the first issue? Because of race, age, class, generation, and nationality, these men do not equally benefit from the same criminal justice system.
I’ll first hazard an answer to the second issue. I’m culpable for turning away from R. Kelly’s well-documented treatment of underage girls. I knew he married Aaliyah when she was 15. I knew there was evidence that he urinated on a young girl. I even laughed about it on Chappelle’s Show, which generated a lot of material out of it. I separated the music from the man for two reasons. First, I thought the music was good. Songs like “Down Low,” “A Woman’s Threat,” “I’m a Flirt (Remix),” “Step In the Name of Love,” and “Ignition (Remix)” were, to use a loaded and insufficient word, “undeniable.” Many of those songs were upfront in their problematic politics. “Thoia Thoing” didn’t bury its Orientalism. “Same Girl” centered on misogynist paranoia. Trapped in the Closet cranked that sexist suspicion to eleven and integrated homophobia into the mix as well. But the music’s undeniability depended on the fan. I always felt uncomfortable with the possibility that some critics regarded Kelly with a fascinated, condescending distance. I feared I might perpetuate such Othering myself.
I was hesitant about whether to cast Kelly as a villain because I wasn’t sure whether the girls would define themselves as victims. So often, society wants to protect children’s and adolescents’ sexualities by denying that they have them. Often queer children are discredited for coming out or transitioning because sexuality is something you can only claim for yourself when you’re “old enough,” whenever that is. This presents a contradiction, as kids are often assumed to be straight, making heterosexuality the norm rather than a range within a spectrum. Relative to their male counterparts, young women and girls are also often denied sexual agency and crudely gathered into coarse categories like “prude,” “victim,” or “whore” for contradictory reasons outside their control. I’m not suspiciously asking “how old is 15 really?,” though I like that Dave Chappelle observes that age differently intersects with race and gender. But I had no sense of how these girls would define their experiences with Kelly.
Part of why many of us didn’t know about the specifics of this history is because survivors have difficulty successfully reporting the crimes committed against them. They fear that people won’t believe them. Family members may deny such activity, particularly if the trauma happens within the home. Authorities may fail them and compromise their safety, particularly if they have sexist and racist assumptions of who “deserves” or “asks for” this kind of treatment. The intersection of race and gender is undeniable here too, both with regard to Kelly and the girls. They might also feel ashamed or guilty, and thus may prefer to keep their identity hidden or block out the abuse altogether. This provides enough barriers just at the level of filing a report, much less bringing a case to trial.
Recognition of these barriers risks contradicting another stance I take: when survivors come forward, I believe them. In 2009, MacKenzie Phillips revealed that she had a sexual relationship with her father, Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips, as an adult. Her admission was met with revulsion and skepticism, even by members of her own family. I took her side. It’s often hard enough to admit it to yourself, much less to others. But Phillips’ face and name were in front of the story. Such positionality is not universal.
Jim DeRogatis has investigated Kelly’s sexual misconduct at length, and recently spoke with Jessica Hopper about his work as a journalist and activist. I applaud his efforts to advocate for the people affected by Kelly’s behavior. I admire his conviction in putting his professional career and resources toward insisting that we think critically about what it means to support people who engage in this kind of behavior and that we eradicate this kind of mistreatment.
There’s one claim in his interview that continues to nag at me: “Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.” First, I see truth in this statement when I think about the unequal distribution of resources like family, education, health care, food, reproductive choice, technological literacy, professional growth, and legal support. Second, I can’t ignore that DeRogatis occupies a position of privilege as an esteemed journalist and a middle-aged white man when he makes such comments. In fairness, he doesn’t ignore it either. But third, we can’t make such claims without asking “To whom?” So while his intention may be to help create a space of self-empowerment for the survivors of Kelly’s sexual violence and their families, DeRogatis’ ability to serve as an advocate for people who are systemically disenfranchised by the justice system reinforces his white privilege.
At the risk of configuring black people into a monolith and pathologizing them further, denying or vilifying Kelly for his crimes hurts him too. A few years back, I kept thinking about Chris Brown’s idiosyncratic, (self-) destructive behavior. I thought about Rihanna and how I didn’t know whether I could categorize her as a victim or demonize her for allowing him back into her life. The blame really lies with an industry that continues to reward Brown and put Rihanna in a position where she’d have to think about how a restraining order would affect his career. I thought about the neck tattoo. I thought about the forms of protest that took shape in response to his behavior, like the disclaimer affixed to copies of Fortune at London’s HMV stores.
I didn’t know much about Brown’s personal life prior to news of the violence he inflicted upon Rihanna, though he since admitted to reportedly losing his virginity as a child under politically ambiguous circumstances. I don’t want to broadly apply the systematic legal and political disenfranchisement of black men to Chris Brown specifically, but it seems that limiting his options to incarceration or exoneration doesn’t allow him to work on the behavioral problems and deal with the possible traumas at the root of them. It won’t keep him from hurting women. It won’t keep him from hurting himself either.
In the U.S., music and film have different histories and codes of legitimacy. But whiteness is still the norm for each medium when it comes to industry representation and recognition. In addition, all forms of entertainment tend to wriggle out of such debates at the level of reception with a grimace and a guilty shrug. We separate text from person because we’ve established ourselves as fans of their work or because we don’t want to remove ourselves from the conversation. I’ve demonstrated some knowledge about R. Kelly, though I’ve yet to listen to Black Panties and I don’t know if I can.
I don’t know much about Woody Allen or Roman Polanski’s oeuvre. I’ve only seen a handful of their films. I saw Rosemary’s Baby with considerable reservation, despite it being an excellent horror film. I still haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, and I might not be able to do it, no matter how excellent Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins are in it. Recently, Allen was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, which long-time collaborator Diane Keaton collected in his absence. The segment included a reel of Allen’s work. I watched with some friends at a viewing party. As it ran, some noted which films they liked, which ones were underrated, and which ones had noteworthy or funny moments. I couldn’t participate because I’ve only seen a handful of his films. Beyond that, my familiarity of Allen narrows around his early prose, particularly “The Whore of Mensa,” which was a staple in my high school drama class.
My silence wasn’t a protest, but it was a position. Is it a political stance to avoid seeing or hearing something because you can’t disengage from the creator’s loathsome or controversial personal life? The stakes seem too low. Basically, I’m preventing myself from amassing a bit more cultural capital. But my shelves and sentences are already filled with references. Those references are already thick with conflict and contradiction. I’d rather fill them with texts I don’t have to negotiate using moral relativism, regardless of whether it’s a fool’s errand or a feminist act. It means drawing lines. It also means constantly evaluating what those lines mean while holding true to the conviction behind them. Misogyny is one of the media industries’ loose threads. Let’s pull it.