Trigger warning: sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, misogyny, victim-blaming
Everyone has their celebrity idols, icons, muses, faves. Everyone has one or two people that they all but worship. In the starstruck eyes of members of fandoms, the idols, gods and goddesses can do no wrong. What happens when these idols fall from grace? What happens when they prove they’re not only mortal, but capable of inexcusable acts? It’s a difficult concept to process, but I am going to walk you through it. It is time to stop idolizing those who do not deserve our respect, let alone our reverence and devotion.
It is time to stop idolizing those who do not deserve our respect.
In April 2016, “Lakers’ Legend” Kobe Bryant played his last game. I refused to watch and actively avoided fans all night. Turns out, you can’t avoid such a strong fandom. At midnight, the halls were screaming about what a great game he played. The press was having a field day reporting his stats and talking about his legacy. Among the roar of statistics, nicknames, fist-bumps, and cheering, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was only thinking about a girl whose life was also changed by the so-called legend. The man everyone was praising had allegedly sexually assaulted a woman in 2003 and no one seemed to remember or care.
I get it. As a theater nerd who was only eight years old at the time, it was easy for me to look back and withdraw my support of any Kobe-related thing. For many, it was easier to turn a blind eye. For others, Kobe was their idol and was incapable of such horrible acts. For others, painting the survivor as an attention-seeking liar provided a distraction from the truth: Their idol is a rapist.
Despite losing a few endorsements and having a picture of him in court plastered on every tabloid, magazine and news outlet, Kobe managed to get back up and slam dunk his way into people’s hearts. His then 19-year-old victim was swept under the proverbial rug and forgotten.
But she doesn’t forget, and neither do the 198,850 people who were sexually assaulted in the United States that year (and that doesn’t include survivors who did not report).
The same narrative can be found over and over again in the celebrity world. The world was shaken when allegations of sexual assault were issued against comedian Bill Cosby. Just as Bryant was an athletic icon to many, Cosby was a television icon, particularly in the Black community. His sitcom added Black representation to TV without the tropes or stereotypes. He played an educated physician and a family man with a loving wife who also happened to be a successful lawyer. His stand-up routines were also family-oriented and genuinely funny. But this is the persona he had built up for himself. We fell in love with the man on the screen. So when survivors started coming forward in 2014, revealing the abuse Cosby inflicted upon them, they were met with opposition and disbelief. Let’s entertain the idea that we shouldn’t believe when one or two survivors come forward (which is extremely wrong and problematic because we should always listen to their narratives and never ignore or invalidate the voices of survivors.) If one or two survivors weren’t enough to convince the world that their favorite actor was a predator, surely nearly 60 survivors would be heard, right?
Apparently not. Even after nearly 60 women came forward with their stories, some diehard fans still, to this day, refuse to believe that Cosby could be guilty.
Let’s say for a moment that I had created a persona, like Cosby. Except let’s say my persona was that of a quintessential bully. Let’s say everyone hated me and was scared of me and thought I was mean and rude and inconsiderate; bear with me here, I have a point, I promise. Let’s say I have this horrible persona built up, but then one day a little kitten goes to the press and says, “Armaity saved me! I was starving and I had nowhere to go and she saved me!” Chances are you wouldn’t believe that kitten, because there is no way a meany like me would save a little kitten. Now let’s say that another kitten comes forward and says the same thing. And then another and another. After sixty kittens come forward, the world would believe that I actually am nice to kittens, despite being a generally horrible person.
If we are more inclined to believe talking animals than actual human beings, what does that say about our humanity? It says that we live in a society in which survivor’s stories do not matter. In which celebrities are infallible and perennially innocent. Let me just clear something up again, as I have in previous articles. According to the FBI only about 2% of all rape and sexual assault allegations are determined to be false, the same percentage as for other felonies. In fact here’s a list of things that are more likely to happen than being falsely accused of rape. It is eleven times more likely for you to be killed by a comet or an asteroid than to be falsely accused of rape. So I do not want to hear about how survivors are faking it or seeking attention. LISTEN TO THE SURVIVORS! BELIEVE THE SURVIVORS!
I once had to make the difficult decision to give up on one of my faves. I was a love-struck pre-teen when “Run It” and “Wall to Wall” were my jams. Chris Brown was, like, the cutest! He could dance like no other and had a voice that made girls melt. Then, on February 8th 2009, he physically assaulted his girlfriend, Rihanna. I had choices to make. I could ignore it and continue screaming like a little girl every time “Kiss Kiss” came on the radio. Or I could make the decision to stick to my morals and completely dissociate from all things Chris Brown. I chose the latter, but I still had other choices to make, and I didn’t always make the right ones. After disbanding from the Chris Brown fandom, I immediately looked to Rihanna to speak out about and use this incident to empower others. When she didn’t follow the script I had in my head for her, I dismissed and disliked her. As a teenager, I thought I was socially aware, but I had a very narrow “girl-power” view of what feminism meant. I expressed my disdain for her lyrics as slutty and disempowering, especially songs like “S&M” where she talked about sadomasochism and violence. College would teach me that BDSM, when safe and consensual, can actually be empowering. In college I started seeing things through an intersectional feminist lens that would show me that Rihanna was empowering others the whole time with the reclamation of her body and sexuality. I learned that you not only have to listen to and believe the survivor, but also that recovery and empowerment look different for everyone.
After three years of loathing Chris Brown for what he did to Rihanna. After three years of publicly berating those who still supported him, I saw that my efforts were futile. Three years after my decision to stop loving and start hating Chris Brown, he performed on the Grammy stage in front of millions of fans. The fandom wasn’t dead. Chris Brown was still performing and being nominated for awards. Chris Brown, despite being a criminal, was still the heartthrob he was before the incident. Nothing had changed. It made me sick.
The latest incident of domestic violence by a “good guy” was when actress Amber Heard came forward with allegations against her then-husband, Johnny Depp. She says that he physically assaulted her and threw a phone at her, giving her a black eye. Knowing the culture of not believing survivors, Heard released photos of her bruised face. That was still not enough to convince Depp’s fans who continued say she was falsely accusing him. I once again refer you to this list. Johnny Depp was another one of my favorites. I identify particularly with his carefree, sarcastic, rum-guzzling Captain Jack Sparrow. I also have always loved his eccentric acting choices and how he refused to fit a mold. I appreciated his ability to adapt to any role. These allegations do not make him less of an actor, but they do mean I can and should automatically withdraw my support because he is an abuser. Shortly after the allegations, Depp’s film “Alice through the Looking Glass” was released. Although I had highly anticipated the Tim Burton sequel, I refused to support him.
I refuse to support rapists and abusers. I refuse to support rapists and abusers. I refuse to support rapists and abusers. Say it over and over again. Make it a mantra, a slogan, a personal motto. Let the phrase become a part of your moral compass and it will make ditching your celebrity faves much easier after they royally screw up. I refuse to support rapists and abusers. I refuse to support rapists and abusers. I refuse to support rapists and abusers.
I refuse to listen to Chris Brown, watch Johnny Depp, praise Kobe Bryant, laugh with Bill Cosby. I refuse to pretend that Woody Allen supports strong women’s roles after he sexually abused his daughter. I refuse to ignore the fact that Sean Penn tortured his then-wife Madonna only to go on to win two Academy Awards. There are many people I refuse to endorse because they don’t deserve a bit of my time or respect. And it’s not easy. That means consciously deciding not to consume certain music, film and television. It’s hard to dismiss the people you once held in high regard. But it’s the right thing to do. I am tired of hearing praise for people who aren’t worth anyone’s respect. I am tired of the worship of false idols and treating rapists like legends.
There are plenty of athletes, performers, actors, and singers who have not yet beaten their partners or sexually assaulted anyone. There are even celebrities who have actively spoken out against domestic violence and sexual assault. There are even celebrities who have managed to get back up after being blamed for their own assaults. These are the people worthy of your admiration and praise. I know I am asking you to give up on those you have loved and worshiped. I know it’s hard, especially when everything in our society tells us to slut-shame, victim-blame and put celebrities on an untouchable pedestal. But it’s the right decision to make. Now is the time to work together and take a stand against perpetrators of sexual violence and domestic abuse. If we all refuse to support rapists and abusers, we can collectively end the worship of false idols and give our fandom, devotion, praise and support to those who truly deserve it.