- Sex & Drugs
- 20 Feb 18
Condemnation of actors, film directors and rock stars for what are thought of as sexual indiscretions has become almost a default position. But was the transgressive behaviour of bohemians and artists not an intrinsic part of upending gender stereotypes?
The last Johnny Depp film I saw was The Tourist. It is, as all right thinking people agree, a pretty terrible film. There’s the ridiculous plot, which takes itself far too seriously to be enjoyably camp, Angelina Jolie in full femme fatale mode, and a truly dire performance from Depp. After that, I refused to watch anything he was in, even his older films. It just made me angry to see talent being wasted. Johnny Depp – what a disappointment eh? When it came to light that Depp wasn’t simply an overpaid alcoholic with an expensive wine habit, but prone to phone-throwing, verbal abuse and alleged domestic violence, it was no hardship for me. I’d been boycotting his work for years.
But how should you react when someone whose work you love and admire gets outed as a sexual predator, a violent drunk, racist, homophobic, transphobic or abusive? Should you boycott them — or separate the art from the artist?
This is a question that has become more pressing in recent months, although rock stars, actors and Hollywood players, have been misbehaving – and engaging in criminal actions – years before the Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis CK revelations came to light.
For a long time, however, the consuming public turned a blind eye or lived in blissful ignorance. We wanted our rock stars and celebrities to be larger and more colourful than life – colossi through which we could live out our fantasies of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
There may have been rumours of sexual shenanigans, predatory behaviour and entitled tantrums, but without the 24-hour news cycle and swift social media condemnation, it was possible for many stars to bypass any real consequences. That celebrities engage in bad behaviour is no surprise. Wherever there is money and influence, there’s power. And wherever there’s power, there’s the abuse of power.
The Tumblr blog, Your Fave is Problematic, has been cataloguing celebrity misdeeds for years. Granted some of the entries border on the ridiculous. John Slattery is in there, accused of going ‘blackface’ – although that was his Mad Men character Roger Sterling and the scene was written to be shocking. Zooey Deschanel is listed too, condemned for taking on too many roles as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. If these were the worst celebrity crimes we had to worry about, life would be simple.
If the past few months have taught us anything it’s that charming, and harmless-seeming celebrities have committed far worst acts than starring in New Girl.
Some transgressions – and transgressors – are easy to denounce. Other times, it’s not so clear cut.
It’s easy to condemn a sexual predator like Ian Watkins. Firstly, his crimes were so heinous that there is no way we would want to excuse or justify them. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Lostprophets were just not that big a deal to most people. Popular, yes; award-winners, sure; a cultural force that defined an era, no.
When someone’s body of work is influential, important or simply meaningful to us, it is a lot harder to jettison it from our lives or our culture.
Take David Bowie. He’s an artist I have admired since childhood, but there’s no denying he slept with underage girls. Same with Iggy Pop, Elvis and just about every other major rock star of the 1970s. The Beatles changed popular music forever, but John Lennon was a wife-beater and a terrible father. The Smiths helped countless teenagers through their angst-ridden pimpled years, but Morrissey is a xenophobic, Brexiting tosser.
If you never hear Lostprophets’ ‘Last Train Home’ again, you’ll be no worse for it. But what about songs like ‘In the Ghetto’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Lust for Life’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, and ‘This Charming Man’? These artists, whatever their misdeeds, helped shape contemporary culture. It would be impossible to argue that the world would not be a poorer place without these songs. It would be.
For rock stars from the classic era, we have the convenient excuse that what it was a different time and place. That’s true. Our attitudes to consent, and the age at which one can give consent, have shifted significantly since the mid-20th century. Plus there is the fact that the ‘Baby Groupies’ like Sable Starr and Lori Maddox don’t regard themselves as victims. On ‘Look Away’ Iggy sings about having sex with 13 year old Starr – but we don’t condemn him the way we do Gary Glitter.
Then there’s Roman Polanski. Polanski may be a fugitive from justice for drugging and raping a 13-year-old, but he has plenty of influential friends willing to publicly support him. From today’s perspective, it’s hard to believe that, in 2009, over one hundred film stars, directors and artists signed a letter of support for him. Signatories included – unsurprisingly – Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen, but also Tilda Swinton and Asia Argento (herself a Weinstein victim). Mia Farrow, Meryl Streep and Whoopi Goldberg have all made statements of support, with Farrow testifying on his behalf during a libel trial.
How many of you think that what Polanski did was inexcusably wrong? Almost all of you, I’ll warrant. And how many of you have seen a Polanski classic like Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist or The Ghost Writer? Again, almost all of you – myself included.
Sex and sexuality – particularly transgressive sexuality – have been an intrinsic part of rock ’n roll since the beginning. The flaunting and transgression of gendered stereotypes are in part why we love stars like Bowie, Marc Bolan, Madonna and Peaches. They offered us new ways of understanding what it means to be a man or a woman and a sexual being. Actors become major stars in part because of their ability to elicit desire, and sports stars who are sex symbols get far more attention than those who are merely talented. It is impossible to divorce sex and sexuality from popular culture. Nor should we want to.
Is Aziz Ansari a low level sexual predator or merely a terrible date? It depends who you ask. Did James Franco commit an unforgivable sin trying to seduce a 17-year-old? Again, it depends who you ask. And if you watch Master of None or The Disaster Artist are you partly to blame for enabling their behaviour?
We are at a cultural crossroads – without a consensus about how to move forward or where exactly the line is between forgivable and unacceptable behaviour. These are conversations worth having, even though – or especially because – there are no easy answers.