clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Instead of mourning great art tainted by awful men, mourn the work we lost from their victims

Some sexual abusers made great art. Countless more of their victims never got the chance.


Of all the recent headlines concerning sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond, the revelations about comedian Louis C.K. sexually harassing women throughout his career have most strongly reignited the age-old debate on separating an artist from their art: whether you can, and whether you should.

Someone like C.K. is different than a typical Hollywood workhorse like Brett Ratner. He’s a celebrated comic whose material has often been hailed as progressive and provocative for how it grapples with what it means for boundaries to become warped beyond recognition; his fall from grace has therefore forced many of his fans to revisit that material through a new lens, one with a context that gives its more disturbing elements a horrifying new sheen.

But at the point when the allegations against C.K. became public, I had already been poring through stories about sexual harassment, assault, and abuse for weeks. And that’s why, after seeing so many people’s default response be to question whether it’s okay to retain their fondness for C.K.’s past work, I can safely say have zero interest in this debate.

All the stories I’ve read about a man who’s been accused of using his power to belittle, subdue, or assault people — no matter who it’s about, no matter which industry it happened in, no matter when the alleged incident(s) took place — have one thing in common. They all feature victims who were intimidated, bullied, or outright forced into leaving their dreams and ambitions behind while the men responsible moved forward. They all feature a graveyard of potential cut short by careless cruelty.

It’s true that a lot of great art will now forever be marred by disturbing subtext concerning its creators — subtext that might hinder your enjoyment of it. But what about the people they targeted, whose resulting trauma affected their chances or ability to advance their careers and pursue their dreams? What about the great art we lost?

Every story of sexual harassment and abuse contains a story of lost potential

The women who’ve come forward against C.K. are all comics or writers who met Louis through work. Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, a Chicago comedy duo who recounted the time C.K. masturbated in front of them during a comedy festival, say that telling people what happened immediately made them radioactive within the comedy community. “Guys were backing away from us,” Wolov told the New York Times. “We could already feel the backlash.”

As they kept pursuing comedy, Wolov and Goodman felt they had to purposely avoid any project C.K. or his powerful manager Dave Becky were producing — which, unsurprisingly, eliminated a whole lot of opportunities right from the start. The day after their account was published, C.K. admitted that the stories “were true” and that he hadn’t realized the horrifying depth of his actions.

On this point, I believe him. Even if he remembered the specific instances described in the Times, he almost certainly didn’t realize these women — his victims — would spend the rest of their careers trying to navigate the lasting impact of his actions. After all, what other choice did they have?

If you look at any other recent story about sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, you’ll find a similar pattern. As the New York Times’s Amanda Hess puts it, “Men like Louis C.K. may be creators of art, but they are also destroyers of it. They have crushed the ambition of women and, in some cases, young men — boys — in the industry, robbing them of their own opportunities.”

Take BuzzFeed’s new exposé on DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza, who reportedly harassed and assaulted lower-level women employees for years without much consequence. “Among the women who reported Berganza to human resources, none still work for DC,” writes Jessica Testa. “None are even working at mainstream comics publishers anymore; they’ve largely put superheroes behind them.”

“We all left,” said former DC Comics editor Janelle Asselin, “and he’s still there.”

Or look at the litany of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who kickstarted this widespread reckoning. Some of his accusers, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Lupita Nyong’o, went on to become A-list actresses after experiencing harassment from Weinstein earlier in their careers. Many others — especially the assistants and fledgling actresses Weinstein is alleged to have targeted — faded from view, stymied by both Weinstein’s widespread influence in the industry and their own trauma.

Annabella Sciorra, who says Weinstein raped her in the early 1990s, says she couldn’t find work for years afterward. “I just kept getting this pushback of ‘We heard you were difficult; we heard this or that,’’ she told journalist Ronan Farrow. Rosie Perez, Sciorra’s peer and friend, recalled the confusion she’d felt over what was going on with Sciorra’s career before she learned about the attack. “It made no sense,” Perez said. “Why did this woman, who was so talented, and riding so high, doing hit after hit, then all of a sudden fall off the map?”

But in the context of how Sciorra responded to the attack, it makes all sorts of sense. She says she spent years dodging Weinstein and the many, many projects he backed, attempting to avoid her trauma lest it swallow her whole. Weinstein, meanwhile, allegedly spent the next couple decades harassing and assaulting dozens more women, women whose lives and careers were similarly changed by their encounters with him, forever attached to his inescapable shadow.

The list goes on and on. Assistants have quit rather than withstand workplace harassment; young actors have left entertainment rather than suffer the advances of predatory men; writers have packed away their dreams and turned to different industries.

Collectively, the common refrain of these stories is that victims had to rethink their entire lives, while perpetrators simply moved on.

It’s time to stop mourning the complicated legacies of terrible men and start mourning what we lost from the people they targeted

After reading the New York Times’s report on C.K., simmering with rage and exhaustion after months of poring over similar stories, and seeing so many people’s first reactions be that C.K.’s past work is now accompanied by an asterisk, I made a questionable decision: I tweeted.

Judging by the way this tweet has taken off, it appears as though I’m not alone in this particular frustration. But I’ve also gotten some pushback on one point I’d like to address now, which is essentially, “Why can’t we do both?”

To be clear: You can. Many of the men accused of doing terrible things have made some meaningful art, or at least inspired others who did. It’s difficult to ignore those contributions, sometimes impossible when considering the larger canon.

But if you do want to mourn the loss of the esteem you had for a certain piece of work because its creator might be a horrible person, all I ask is that you also mourn what’s been lost as a result of his behavior, and fight to improve the broken system that let him get away with it.

Mourn the people whose lives and jobs were jeopardized. Mourn the contributions and commitment to his artistic vision by talented, passionate people who got accidentally swept up in his bullshit. Mourn the survivors who have yet to speak up, who may never feel safe to, who continue to navigate their pain in forced silence. Mourn the creators who never got a chance, the work that was never created, the potential that was crushed, all because too many people were too wrapped up in maintaining the status quo to call out those who abused it.