Reconsidering Idols in the Era of #MeToo

We should strenuously condemn celebrities who abuse their power. But how far do we have to go?

By Soham Mall

The freight train of the #MeToo movement has brought issues that had been eclipsed for far too long to the forefront, oftentimes coming in the form of assault allegations made against high-profile celebrities, typically household names. Casual fans have begun to confront their own complicity in these abuses, and thus consider what needs to change to prevent more people from misusing their fame and power. The answers to these questions are often frustratingly gray, but confronting them can be a productive means toward navigating the boundaries of acceptability.

I explored one such quandary during a lunchtime debate with my friends about the greatest basketball players of all time. We wondered whether Kobe Bryant’s assault allegations should affect his perceived legacy as a basketball player. Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003 by a hotel employee on a charge that was dropped after the accuser refused to testify. She then filed a civil lawsuit that was ultimately settled by the parties involved. While Bryant evaded legal reprimand, his public apology belied his claimed innocence.

He said, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Here, he relegates the accuser’s claim of lack of consent to a matter of “feel[ing],” while somehow maintaining his belief that the incident was consensual. Despite sidestepping responsibility, Bryant kept his multimillion-dollar NBA contract, and while Nike stopped promoting his brand for two years, he still retained his sponsorship. It is difficult to reconcile my suspicions of such wrongdoing with the murky legal conclusions that absolve such people of blame. Derrick Rose, my favorite NBA player growing up, was cleared in 2016 from rape charges against him and two of his friends. All three defendants claimed that the encounter was consensual, despite Rose’s admission that he did not understand consent.

To this day, I believe that Bryant and Rose both were guilty. For one, the possibility of false allegations is slim. According to a US study, an estimated 2–10 percent of rape accusations are proven to be false, while the number of assault cases that go unreported is around 65 percent according to the Department of Justice. Nevertheless, making the leap from doubting someone’s innocence to assuming their guilt can be a dangerous one, and I struggle to dispassionately consider merely the facts of the case and not their personalities. Without having experienced these incidents firsthand, and having only complicated verdicts on which to base our opinions, it’s exasperating to accept the bleak idea that we may never know what really happened.

Assessing someone’s guilt is one thing; questions of separating the art from the guilty artist are more contentious. I don’t think that appreciating Kobe’s game makes one an apologist for his actions off the court. I’ve never seen anyone stop dancing when R. Kelly’s “Ignition” comes on at a party. We also cannot retroactively change our opinions that existed prior to abuse allegations. We can’t unlisten to songs, unwatch movies, or unbuy Derrick Rose jerseys. Even if we could, I don’t know whether that would be the right thing to do. I do not consider such people to be role models and no matter how well they can sing, write, or play basketball, nothing will ever excuse what they have done.

The moral stain on the artist makes separating their art from their actions a questionable and probably chimerical endeavor. To buy their products and give them continued limelight is to fuel their ability to abuse their power. But I do not think that moral policing is the answer. Spotify earlier in the year implemented a short-lived “hateful conduct” policy wherein it stopped promoting the music of artists who were accused of sex crimes, a move that was rolled back after industry backlash. Today, XXXTentacion’s music remains on some of Spotify’s official playlists, and a “This is XXXTentacion” playlist was created after the artist’s death in June. Spotify has even promoted the November album of rapper 6ix9ine, convicted of sex crimes against a child. That’s not the answer either.

Grappling with these issues means taking nothing for granted and revisiting those we pardon and those we don’t. It’s perfectly fine to be unsure and uneasy—the easy answers to these problems are often the wrong ones. I don’t know what the solutions are, but I do know that it is wrong to idolize and glorify abusers. There may be no silver bullet, but as the movement continues to out abusers, we need to figure out what to do with what remains. We can hope that those we look up to steer clear of such vile behavior, but when they don’t, we need to be prepared to cut the cord (and figure out what that means).

Maybe it means that we don’t buy the Kobe sneakers that Nike will inevitably continue to produce. Maybe it means avoiding 6ix9ine’s music (which is already terrible) and petitioning Spotify and other media companies to stop promoting abusers and their products. Maybe we need to consider whether we can watch Derrick Rose play without rooting for him. Even though we know that any celebrity could be exposed as a predator, it’s impossible to be on our guard against all the people we look up to. Even if we can’t, we need to decide how we can interact with celebrities in a more detached way. Regardless, when it comes to those who are known or suspected predators, the one thing we cannot do is continue to engage with them as if nothing happened. We cannot let our attachment to them be a suture for their misconduct.

Soham Mall is a second-year in the College.