It is likely that you have come into contact with media content involving some of the following people: Rolf Harris, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen, Johnny Depp, or Harvey Weinstein. Even if you haven’t, you probably recognise their names. You might even realise why they’re in that list; all of them have been embroiled in sexual harassment or abuse accusations. Some of them have even been convicted of it. Since the tidal wave of voices speaking out against Harvey Weinstein and his subsequent disavowal from sections of Hollywood, there has been groundswell of kickbacks and new allegations from all sections of the media industry. It’s clear that the Hollywood machine is finally beginning to take a public stance against sexual harassment and abuse within the industry. There have been some questions about whether this is only due to the weight of the public eye, but it is an important step nonetheless.
Yet in the wake of these reveals of sexual harassment claims, where does that leave us? Can we still watch, buy, and engage with art and media featuring people who have been accused – or found guilty – of sexual harassment or abuse? Is it even morally right to do so? Criminal justice research indicates that the certainty of punishment following a criminal offence is what matters most when deterring crime. Following this train of logic, by allowing actors, comedians, or artists to be cast, headlined, or promoted after allegations come to light perpetuates a culture of no ramifications. This encourages the continued silence of victims because no consequences have been laid at the feet of the perpetrators. Allowing perpetrators of sexual harassment to appear in new works diminishes – even approves – of their crimes. If this is so, what can do we do about it? On a question of feasibility – forget about moral reasoning for a moment – it is easier to blacklist a solo producer of content. Louis CK and Rolf Harris, the nature of their crimes aside, can easily be avoided and their work shunned. But for actors and producers, more questions pop up.
A movie or a television show is ultimately a collaborative process – and one where not everyone involved has a say about who they must work with. Blacklisting works involving actors or producers who’ve been accused of assault consequently means sidelining the other actors on same project. Often, they happen to be emerging actors whose careers need the support of audiences the most and who can’t afford to turn projects down. This is where we enter a moral quandary as audiences. Do we support the emerging actor, and by association also support the Weinstiens, Allens, Depps and Spaceys of Hollywood? Or do we shun the perpetrators of harassment and abuse and sideline the emerging actor at the same time? The answers hinge on a question; does patronising productions associated with these aggressors condone their past actions and if it does, what do we do?
When responding to this question, we need to accept that as consumers of media we have the power to discourage a culture that creates safe spaces for abusers to hide, thrive, and be publicly lauded. To do this, hard decisions must made about the media we consume. Encouraging a culture where abuse allegations are taken seriously means hitting Hollywood in its pockets; boycotting movies and being loud about the reason that we’re not seeing the new Woody Allen production is because of his alleged – and murkily horrific – child-abusing past. Tweet that the reason we’re not seeing the new Fantastic Beasts movie is because they cast Johnny Depp, an actor who managed to avoid a court case about his alleged emotional and physical abuse towards his now ex-wife Amber Heard in 2016. In order to support an industry that doesn’t excuse sexual abusers, it appears that we need to blacklist these actors and producers. No matter how it plays out, we must be resigned to the inadvertent negative fallout against actors who had no choice in being cast alongside alleged perpetrators, and hope that this does not amount to more than the positive change that shunning these perpetrators will do.
Action begets action. Movement begets movement. Change starts with individuals making collective choices – and through the power of the people, Hollywood will have to change or die. Fortunately, there are good people out there using the power of their own fame and personal pull to input changes. Just see Brett Ratner being pulled from the Wonder Woman sequel through a collective decision from director Patty Jenkins and her team behind the Wonder Women movie. These are positive steps forward for the industry and for cultural attitudes towards abuse. But if positive change is monetarily motivated, what happens when our decision to watch or not watch a film has no monetary consideration?
If the DVD is already bought and in private possession, the question becomes one of ethics not logistics; can we still watch and enjoy their past works knowing that they’ve abused their positions of wealth and power? Should we watch it and boo whenever they come on screen, throwing popcorn and muting their lines? Should we not watch what they’ve starred in, shunning old favourite movies even at the expense of not re-watching the five other amazing actors who haven’t been accused or found guilty of abuse? There’s a line of reasoning here that asks if the DVD is already owned, does watching it hurt anyone? Well… no. No one profits, no one gets paid, and yet… it feels that continuing to watch the work of abusers and sexual harassers also supports them and their art.
If this is so, don’t watch it. This is a hard thing to do. There are movies I adore and have watched so many times that I know the lines off by heart. Yet watching them now, knowing what I do about the one actor in that otherwise faultless cast, the movie itself has been soured. It’s desecrated. Watching it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and maybe that’s a good thing. The other option is sitting there with that knowledge whilst I watch them, doing something akin to going, ‘Gee’ I know Rolf Harris was a paedophile who abused kids, but ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Jack’ is a banger you can’t not listen to’. Hopefully that thought sits uncomfortably with you because it does with me.
Perhaps the key to ethically consuming art and media lies in deciding how much we want to support a culture within our arts industry where perpetrators of gendered abuse, violence, and harassment have no safe harbour. Once the revelations about an actor’s abuse or sexual misconduct becomes known, it appears that the only ethical thing to do is boycott their work and be collectively loud about why. To do otherwise is tantamount to approval of their actions. But when it comes to their old work, the ethically correct thing to do cannot be dictated by an online article, but worked out according to the demands of the individual moral compass. But at no time should we forget their history or what they’ve done. To do so diminishes the violence of their crimes.
Can art, no matter how good, truly mitigate the actions of a person who takes advantage of their power and privilege to abuse or harm? Perhaps it shouldn’t, even if we can separate the art from their artist. No statement involving, ‘they sexually abused someone’ should have a ‘but their work is amazing’ with a ‘and I support them’. Perhaps we can appreciate their art alone but, to do this ethically, it should be done with the understanding that they must not be lauded for it, given safe spaces, or let their past be forgotten until their victim says so. They might be a great actor or a fantastic artist, but there are better ones out there – both morally and artistically.
The takeaway from this is that collective movement starts from individual choices, and our individual choices about the media we consume has an effect, for good or for ill. It’s down to us, to you and to me, to decide what type of effect we want to have on the media industry.
Words by Taeghan Buggy
Taeghan Buggy is a writer, a poet, and a performer. Her work tends towards emotional gut punches and dangerous words. Taeghan’s immersion within ‘Arts Culture’ includes the New Wave Audio Theatre project, Flinders’ Speakeasy Creative Readings, and Adelaide’s open-mic poetry scene.