Megastars Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross defended Michael Jackson this weekend against two men who claim the pop star sexually assaulted them as boys, events they describe in stark detail in a new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland.
Streisand says she “absolutely” believes the men featured in the HBO documentary, but she also points out that the abuse “didn’t kill them.”
“[Jackson’s] sexual needs were his sexual needs, coming from whatever childhood he has or whatever DNA he has,” Streisand told British newspaper The Times. “You can say ‘molested,’ but those children, as you heard say, they were thrilled to be there. They both married and they both have children, so it didn’t kill them.” (The Times interview is behind a paywall. The New York Daily News published her remarks about Jackson Friday night.)
A Twitter wave crashed on Streisand Friday night, setting off a debate about Jackson. Streisand released a statement Saturday, saying sexual abuse of children is never acceptable. Ross weighed in earlier Saturday afternoon.
This is what’s on my heart this morning. I believe and trust that Michael Jackson was and is A magnificent incredible force to me and to many others.— Ms. Ross (@DianaRoss) March 23, 2019
STOP IN THE NAME OF LOVE
The competing reactions mirror the state of the #MeToo era. On the one hand, media has become much more aggressive in covering abuse of power and sexual abuse. There was widespread admiration for the gymnasts who confronted and took down Larry Nasser, a doctor who abused young athletes for many years. Law enforcement across the globe is being praised for taking on the Catholic Church with more robust investigations than ever before.
But at the same time, the forces that have allowed powerful people to get away with this behavior have not disappeared. Prominent allies continue to stand by their own. Donald Trump has faced no Republican-backed inquiry in Congress over allegations of sexual assault. Many prominent figures in the restaurant industry, in media, and in Hollywood have sat on the sidelines silently or defended men in their fields accused of misdeeds. Streisand and Ross aren’t outside of the norm in protecting a man they perceive as more important than his accusers.
The #MeToo era has changed media coverage and social norms. But the debate over Jackson is a reminder of how far the movement still needs to go.
Millions have said “#MeToo” only recently
Victims are stepping forward online to say they’ve experienced sexual abuse or harassment. Pew Research Center reports that between October 2017 and 2018, roughly the first official year of the movement, the hashtag #MeToo was used 19 million times.
Streisand’s and Ross’s comments are examples of why the swarm effect was pivotal in helping survivors overcome the myriad reasons not to come forward. Central to them is the fear that they won’t be believed or, perhaps worse, they will be believed, but no one will care. Ross falls more into the first camp, standing by Jackson. Streisand falls into the latter category. She says the politically correct thing, that she “absolutely” believes the two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who describe horrific, ongoing abuse. But then she dismisses the seriousness of the crimes. Both positions have the same effect of discouraging a victim from speaking out.
The #MeToo movement has forced friends and allies of victims and abusers to reevaluate relationships. Society in general has had to do the same. But neither Streisand nor Ross wants to take a second look at what role Jackson played in this story.
“I feel bad for the children,” Streisand said. “I feel bad for [Jackson]. I blame, I guess, the parents, who would allow their children to sleep with him. Why would Michael need these little children dressed like him and in the shoes and the dancing and the hats?”
Streisand’s position isn’t wildly outside the school of thought on these issues in the very recent past. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Jackson’s high-profile defenders wrote off even mild questions about his relationships with young boys. Often, the King of Pop’s decision to surround himself with children was dismissed as a natural outgrowth of his own celebrity childhood — a defense Streisand continued to allude to Friday.
At HuffPost, Marina Fang runs through the history of how the media missed the story; it reads like a tale of mass denial. The obvious conclusion was there for anyone who chose to see it. More chose to look away.
Rolling Stone, for instance, described nonchalantly that he had the “interests and enthusiasms of a child” in 1983:
Jackson frequently has children over to play. According to his personal spokesperson, Bob Jones (who first worked with Jackson at Motown when the singer was a member of the Jackson 5), these regularly include “busloads” of underprivileged and terminally ill kids (such as the late Ryan White), as well as young personal friends of the superstar.
As his choreographer Vince Paterson put it in that interview with Rolling Stone, “Being with Michael is like being in Santa’s workshop.” In a separate Rolling Stone article, Steven Spielberg described Jackson as “one of the last living innocents.”
All of these excuses were in service to the idea that Jackson was more than a person; he was a star — and one incapable of wrongdoing, at that. As Ross puts it: “A magnificent incredible force.”
None of the big magazine profiles made any apparent effort to talk with the children involved, their parents, or any experts who might question what was going on. They relied entirely on Jackson’s allies to tell his story.
Did you really say that?
The need for a fight over Jackson in the middle of the #MeToo movement is a reminder that #MeToo is just that: a movement. Long-held attitudes don’t change easily or quickly. And when sexual abuse involves powerful people in powerful industries, the challenge is even greater.
Jackson got a pass in the 1990s. Some of his powerful friends still want him to get one. But he isn’t. The very existence of the HBO documentary, the tidal wave of criticism in response to Streisand’s comments and media coverage of them as controversial shows how much things have changed.
It would have been controversial for a celebrity to publicly criticize Jackson in the 1990s. Now it’s now controversial to defend him.