Editor’s Note: The following piece includes some intense and potentially triggering material, including discussions of sexual assault, childhood abuse, exploitation, abuses of power and abusers who are public figures. Please consult the Rape Abuse Incest National Network or National Center for PTSD if needed. You are not alone and there is someone out there to help you. Please proceed reading with discretion.
Repeat after me:
Not a single person is so talented that they and their abusive, inexcusable behaviour cannot be replaced by someone equally talented, creative, capable and qualified--if not more--. No art is so good that it is worth the expense of someone else.
No one is so talented that their abuse of others can be excused. No one is so talented that terrible behaviour can be excused.
Last, but not least: No one is so talented that it makes their insufferable attitude “worth it.”
Regardless of their “talents,” we have to stop rewarding people who do bad things.
I am talking about how we as a society let “talented” people get away with just about anything because they’re “talented.” I am also talking about “talent” used as an excuse for bad attitudes or actions.
I’m tired, y’all.
I am tired of the Sean Penns, the Woody Allens, the James Barbours, the Bill Clintons, the Thomas Jeffersons.
I am tired of people who have committed horrible acts against others being continuously rewarded just because of people like consuming their “art.” I am tired of these “free passes” society keeps giving to artists who are abusive. As tired as I am of the “free passes” given to those who commit abuse, I am also pretty fed up with other bully behaviours (which are, spoiler alert, also abusive, but we’ll get into that a little later).
I am so glad that culture is changing, but we still have a long way to go. It’s easy when it’s someone we can villainize, but it’s not always a conveniently mustache-twirling villain. It’s much harder to digest when it’s someone that we like. Suddenly, excuses crop up, suddenly it can be argued away. If they do something we like, suddenly any of their transgressions can disappear. It’s amazing to see what transgressions we can forgive if it’s someone we like or agree with, like Al Franken.
We’ve reached the precipice. Victims are no longer here to bear your burden; they were never meant to. That time is no more, and we must be consistent if we are to have meaningful and lasting change. It’s time to tear down these walls that protect abusers--whether they be Al Frankens, or if they be one of our own in the arts, like James Barbour or Woody Allen, because we have for far too long valued what we can consume from abusers rather than the protection of those who they have hurt.
Talent ≠ goodness, and this dangerous conflation needs to stop. Projected goodness isn’t just limited to “talent,” it can also be dangerously found lurking in proximity to good looks. If you pair the two, an abuser could be practically unstoppable.
First of all, why do we assume that talented people are automatically good people? John Lennon was an abusive scumbag, and even his long-suffering first son, Julian Lennon has spoken out against these cheery, pastoral lies that surround his late father. Why, even though we now know he wasn’t a good person, hold onto these myths of him being some kind of peace icon? (Think about it: his naked lie-ins were attention-seeking nonsense that enacted no real or actual change, but brought Lennon lots of media. Imagine isn’t anything what most people think it is).
“Separate the art from the artist!” the objections ring out.
The Grape Vine Youtube roundtable, has not one, but two, episodes breaking down this concept of “art vs. artist,” as it pertains to R. Kelly and his decades’ worth of predation and abuse of young women. It comes down to this: If you support someone’s art, you are still supporting that person because you are putting money in that person’s pocket. You cannot separate “art” from “artist” because they are the ones that made it. Most importantly: you are being complicit. I disagree with the closing statements of the Noisey article. Art does not exist outside of the context of the person who made it, because they’re the damn one who made it.
Secondly, are John Lennon and R. Kelly really that talented? (Ehhhhhhhhh). Even if they were, that’s immaterial. They’re still abusers. No one on this earth is so talented it can justify their abuses. If this “art” comes at a high cost for someone else, then it isn’t worth supporting, and there are a dozen, hundreds,--- a million--- more places your support can find itself that isn’t attached to the abuse of someone else.
It is nothing short of a privilege to be able to be able to separate the art from the artist. Their victims don’t have that privilege. Their victims don’t get to separate the supposedly “great art” from the people who hurt them.
I love when someone tries to tell me that, because they aren’t victims, they can “understand” the situation(s) “better.” The fact that you don’t have to look at this person as an abuser doesn’t mean that you possess any sort of enlightened, more “educated” opinion (yawn); not having these experiences doesn’t mean that you have “more clarity” (eye roll) of the situation, in the same way that those who don’t experience racism aren’t blessed with any miraculous insight of it those who do aren’t. It means that you are so encased in privilege that you’d rather prioritize your own enjoyment of something over someone else.
We as victims know exactly what we’re talking about. We know who these people truly are. I know exactly the person my biological father is, on a level that no one else will ever be able to. My biological father violently sexually, physically and emotionally abused me until I was six years old and my parents divorced, and then proceeded to terrorize us for years afterward. My biological father was also apparently one of the best guitar players anyone ever knew. How “sad” for him that his life took a sour turn, what “wasted” potential and talent. I don’t give a f*ck about how “talented” my biological father was. I don’t give a fuck about how “legendary” his skill proposedly was. I don’t have the luxury or the privilege about being able to separate the two. I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder I get to carry for the rest of my life. I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was six years old. There is no cure. This is my lived reality. This is my normal. This lived reality and disgusting kind of “normal” isn’t exclusive to me. I am sure that R. Kelly’s, James Barbour’s and Woody Allen’s victims all feel the same way. I don’t have the luxury or privilege to say, “Oh, but my biological father was such a good guitar player!” Barbour’s victims don’t have the luxury or privilege to be able to “appreciate” his singing voice.
I know it can be difficult if you already have an emotional relationship with that material, but your emotional relationship with that Beatles’ song or Phantom of the Opera really doesn’t deserve precedence over the victims of abuse. My biological father was someone who was well-liked. My abuser was a “likable” person, who possessed some degree of talent. Now, imagine how that is magnified for someone if their abuser is a public figure, with art that lots of people can consume and get attached to.
I notice a lot of men (and it is mostly men) I encounter, in theatre and other places in the arts, defend men like Woody Allen, James Barbour, and even Bill Clinton, as having “made mistakes” but still being “good guys.” I am sure that stems from their own gross predations and abuses of power, and that they also want to see themselves as “still a good guy.” I wouldn’t in the least bit be surprised if they hadn’t done some of the same shady sh*t to someone. I ask you this: how much consent can you really give someone who has exponential power over you? That’s like trying to spin the repeated rape and exploitation of Sally Hemings as an “affair.” Get the empathic f*ck out with that. It doesn’t matter of Barbour’s victim(s) “consented” at one point or another because they were exploited by someone who used gross imbalance of power over them to violate their trust.
People (notice how I said “people” and not just “men”) who commit these heinous actions know exactly what they’re doing, and they don’t care. They know they can/could get away with it (until most recently), they know they have a gross imbalance of power over those who they are exploiting and can control the narrative. One of the most disgusting things that you can do someone is to exploit them, especially if you are exploiting how much they might care about you, and then use your greater social capital after-the-fact to try change the narrative in your favour, instead of owning up to the fact that you f*cked up and hurt someone else.
Oh, I am sure that they’d rather “move on,” and because they’re “over it;” they can’t understand why the person they exploited can’t do the same. It’s a much different story actually dealing with the consequences of someone’s actions, especially if you’re the one who the victim of someone else’s hubris, greed, selfishness and cowardice.
What do we do? Really, what can we do?
Let’s start off with you, abusers:
I do think that there are people who can, and do change. I think if you are willing to make those necessary changes and to hold yourself accountable, that it is possible. It will also never take away the damage that you may have done. You have to, as an abuser, accept that, but you must be willing to do that hard work anyway.
I also don’t think it happens very often, and I certainly don’t think it happens often in the arts, because it largely comes down to money; if someone makes them money, it’s amazing what can be forgiven; there’s no incentive to change.
What does that mean for the rest of us?
Stop rewarding bad behaviour.
I’ll give a good example. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has struggled with this for a long time: love of The Smiths, hate of Morrissey. Morrissey is a jackwagon. There is no separation of Morrissey from his music, because every bit of Morrissey is all over his music. We as Smiths fans have struggled with this for decades. Even if he didn’t defend Kevin Spacey, and even if we hate the Royal Family as much as he does (and with good reason), enough is too much. He notoriously cancels shows (beyond any limits of reason) that we’ve traveled great distances to see (lots of places closer to us will no longer book him because of his history of cancellations),--- and for what? For maybe, maybe two or three Smiths’ songs? Because we loyal Smiths’ fans rewarded his nonsense for that glimmer of hope we’d get to hear “This Charming Man,” we put up with it for all those years. That is literally the definition of an abusive relationship at this point. We kept going back, hoping he’d change. We as consumers have more power than we realize; if we don’t buy into it, we stop rewarding it. Morrissey won’t be getting any more of my money ever again, because I am never again going to buy into his sick game of what is basically leading fans on. (Although he hates it when you buy The Smiths’ records because it means that Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke get royalties, so that’s a bit of an incentive to stick it to him).
Phantom of the Opera will also never get a dime of my money, because not only did they cast Barbour in the first place, the way they handled it was a colossal disaster. They knew what they were doing, and they didn’t care.; they stuck with Barbour for almost three years. They will never again get any of my money because of it. In some way, it doesn’t matter if I never give them my money again, because, for God knows whatever reason, that show is the longest running musical of all-time. Someone will buy their tickets, regardless. Not everyone is a killjoy moralist like yours truly with strong convictions. That’s the problem: if people who don’t care keep giving them money, there is no incentive for them to change their ways.
Does that mean I’m saying you should only support artists who are also good people?
On some level, I understand that can be difficult, because we (probably) don’t actually know these people; we’ll never know who truly is a good person or not, but we can take the information we do have--in this case, James Barbour and Chris Brown, and use it to make informed, mindful decisions.
We’re going to need consistency, even if it’s difficult or challenges us, in order to have any kind of meaningful progress. That means, like I said before, we’re going to have to hold people accountable, even if we really like what they give us, if we know that they have a history of abuse.
It’s not just sexual misconduct.
No level or “amount” of “talent” justifies bad attitudes or being garden variety nasty to other people, either. I hate to break it to you, but “diva” moments are abusive in their own right. Being nasty or shady isn’t funny, cute or endearing. No one has “earned” the right to be an asshole. It should never be tolerated, no matter who it is. No one is so talented they can “get away with” treating other people badly or acting unprofessionally.
“Bad behaviour” might not be on the same level as sexual abuse, but it’s still a brick in this abuse pyramid. Just as no #MeToo is too small, because it all contributes to a brick in the sexual misconduct pyramid, no BS of any other kind should be let to slide. It’s all inter-related and relies on the other to thrive.
If you see someone who treats other people badly, and you say or do nothing about it, you are complicit.
If you see someone who treats other people badly, and choose to stick by them, say or do nothing, because they’ve “never done anything to [you],” know they’ll get around to doing you dirty eventually, I promise; it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a “when.” Just like if someone is nice to you, but is terrible and cruel to a waiter, they aren’t actually a nice person.
Stop defending these people.
“But they’re so talented!” “Who cares, we all make mistakes?” “What about that voice?” Or, my fave: “Poor So-and-So, their career is now ruined! What a waste of talent!”
They ruin their own damn careers. No one made them to drug and rape that someone, beat their wives, girlfriends, or children,---you get the idea. They did that to their own damn selves. You may be right on one thing, though. It is a waste of talent, but it was a waste on them in the first place.
Last, but not least: Why are you caping for people you don’t even know? Patti Lupone doesn’t give a sh*t if you exist or not, so why defend her terrible comments? Why are you wasting your energy to defend James Barbour when you know what he has done? What points do you think you’re going to earn?
None. None, whatsoever.
But I can tell you what you will earn: the distrust of those you know who are victims of abuse. We may not always say anything, or comment, but we see you. We see you defending these scumbags,--the Chris Browns, the R. Kellys, the James Barbours.
And we remember.