Can we enjoy the art of problematic celebrities?

Content warning: sexual assault, rape.

As you scroll down your Twitter feed, it’s the same nightmarish story over and over again: our heroes are abusers.

On hearing the recent allegations against George Takei, many were distraught. As The Guardian reported last week, Takei has been accused of having groped, and attempted to undress, an unconscious younger man in 1981.

Responses to this have understandably been mixed. Here is a queer icon, an elder in the LGBT community – a scarcity following the tragedy that was the Aids crisis – and somebody whose work many hold very dear.

Clearly, some will now feel that the Star Trek series is somewhat tainted by Sulu’s presence, but it will not disappear from the pop culture landscape anytime soon. It remains a landmark piece of TV science fiction and has spawned a massive industry of merchandise, conventions, and other attractions. But if Takei is proven guilty, will fans be complicit in minimising the effects of rape culture if they continue to enjoy it?

On the one hand, we should take sexual assault seriously. On the other, actors are only one part of the massive team it takes to make a show. Should the reputations of the production staff and a team of writers (and often paychecks, in the cases of more recent programmes – such as Louis CK’s HBO and FX projects) also suffer? Living in a post-Saville world makes media consumption an uncomfortable moral grey area.

The problem feels ever-pervading. There has also been a massive rise in coverage of domestic abuse scandals. But these have not necessarily ruined said abusers’ careers. The Johnny Depp / Amber Heard controversy was massive, but somehow you can still pop down to the cinema and see his most recent blockbuster, Murder on the Orient Express. How do they get away with it?

Maybe it would be simpler to consider the impact of the art that people have produced, rather than the flawed person behind the work. One of the most heinous and infamous abusers that has been unmasked in this wave of sex scandals is Bill Cosby. Aside from his personal life, The Cosby Show remains one of the least stereotypical and was one of the first mainstream depictions of a middle class African American family in TV history.

Undoubtedly it had a massive positive impact on the representation of black people in the media transnationally, and was a massive boon for BME communities. This does not invalidate the fact that what Cosby did was still utterly vile but, like Takei, it can be argued that we can separate his work from the man himself.

This is far, far, more difficult in the case of semi-autobiographical works. For instance, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is upheld in literary circles as being a beautifully written, raw account of a young woman’s battle with depression. It is widely accepted that the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a stand-in for Plath, and that the book chronicles her struggle with the disorder almost exactly. Many relate to the issues surrounding mental illness that are raised in the book on a profoundly personal level.

Again though, there are issues. Plath’s references to the appearances of racial minorities are somewhat troubling, and many are not just unfortunately worded, due to the book’s age, but downright derogatory. Similar racist and anti-Semitic remarks have been found in Sylvia Plath’s diaries. Although this sort of revelation could easily ruin a reader’s enjoyment of her work, it seems unfair to take away this narrative from those who have relied upon it in their darkest times.

Whether you can enjoy the work of a problematic person is deeply personal. It largely depends on your own morals and obviously there are not any clear cut solutions. We can only try to stay optimistic, and hope that one day Hollywood will be a much safer place – and your nightmarish Twitter feed will all be just a bad dream.

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One Response

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  1. Blewyn
    Nov 26, 2017 - 09:13 PM

    Pythagoras had slaves. Should we stop teaching trigonometry ?

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