The men of film, television, and radio who have been charged with sexual harassment and abuse are rapidly disappearing from the entertainment landscape.
Minnesota Public Radio has decided to stick reruns of A Prairie Home Companion in the vault following allegations against Garrison Keillor. You will never again hear those meandering tales about Lake Wobegon that either captivated or irritated you — at least not on the public airwaves (and his musical guests are collateral damage). Louis C.K.’s shows for HBO have vanished, and his movie I Love You, Daddy was shelved before it opened.
Kevin Spacey, already fired from House of Cards, was literally snipped out of the new film about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson in 1973, All the Money in the World, and replaced by Christopher Plummer in hastily reshot scenes.
And fans of the animated series Gravity Falls might notice that one character sounds a little different: Louis C.K.’s voice was removed and redubbed with that of series creator Alex Hirsch — a powerfully metaphorical act at a time when there’s so much talk of the relative weight of harassers’ and victims’ voices.
For those who want to go further and take it on themselves to avoid the art of alleged harassers, there’s Rotten Apples, a site that flags films tied to people facing allegations of sexual harassment. Type Good Will Hunting into the site’s search engine and up pops a list including Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, and Harvey Weinstein — with hyperlinks to stories about the allegations against them. Type in any Woody Allen movie and — well, you get the point. (All of Alfred Hitchcock now comes with an asterisk, because he was allegedly abusive toward Tippi Hedren.)
The drive to erase alleged sex predators from the entertainment landscape is understandable. These men built careers exploiting the women and men over whom they had power, but they also involved the rest of us in their predation, turning us into unwitting accomplices who consumed their art and lined their pockets. Part of removing them from streaming services or public radio networks is about ending that complicity; it’s the industry’s response to the audience’s revulsion.
But the decisions by the entertainment industry to pull shows represent a flattened version of an important debate. The industry clearly bears responsibility for making sure the perpetrators are removed from positions of power. But distributors of preexisting works are surely mainly driven by the profit motive: They’re worried that audiences will be offended by any company associated with sex predators and walk away.
Despite the erasures, audiences still have to navigate their relationship to the art that remains available. We all have to evaluate how we relate to it both externally and internally (as I’ve come to think of it). By “externally,” I mean: What is the significance of consuming — and therefore supporting, financially or in terms of prestige — the art of a sexual predator? By “internally,” I mean: How does it change the experiences of consuming that art?
These questions aren’t new. Nor have they gotten any easier.
These aesthetic questions did not emerge for the first time with the Weinstein revelations. Indeed, the question of whether to boycott Allen’s films has generated so much controversy over the years that the New York Times handed it over in 2014 to their ethicist columnist, in this case Chuck Klosterman.
His equivocal answer reveals how difficult of a question it is to untangle. On the one hand, Klosterman argued, you don’t need a logical reason to avoid watching any film; it’s not like jury duty. But if you do revisit Annie Hall or Manhattan, he said, “The obligation of the audience is to watch with a fair mind: to neither deny what you know about its real-world creation nor fabricate a fictional subtext that suits what you want to believe.”
Which is murky advice for a murky quandary: What defines fair-mindedness in parsing subtext of a Woody Allen film, given the obsessive attention given to young women in his work (a theme, moreover, far more evident in Manhattan than Annie Hall)?
It’s one thing to say you don’t want to rent a Woody Allen movie because he’ll profit. But how does it affect us internally to watch a film knowing the (alleged) bad acts of the auteur who created it? Or take the similar case of watching The Cosby Show, long beloved for its depiction of a middle-class black family at a time when such depictions were almost entirely absent from the cultural landscape. When scores of women came forward to detail their experiences of sexual harassment and assault by its star, TV Land pulled reruns of the show (though it’s still watchable on Amazon).
“I think an argument can be made, in some cases, for separating an entertainer’s personal life, however messy it is, from how one feels about their art,” wrote Zeba Blay, culture writer for the Huffington Post. “But the fact that Cosby used his Cliff Huxtable persona as leverage for allegedly perpetrating and hiding his assaults makes that impossible for me to do.”
How does an audience member not view a Louis C.K. set differently when he jokes about the danger men represent to women? Having now admitted to being one of those dangerous men, his comedy takes on a darker, predatory tone, as a cover for bad acts rather than a genuine attempt at observational jokes. Humor that was once cringe-inducing becomes stomach-churning.
Make the works available, so viewers can decide
As a historian, I strongly believe that it’s important that we keep these men’s work accessible. Woody Allen films are a genuinely important part of American film history. The Cosby Show is key to understanding representation in media and tangled issues of race, class, and acceptance. But I also can’t imagine watching old episodes simply for entertainment.
Allen’s and Cosby’s work holds little personal weight for me. But I do continue to watch one of my most beloved shows, Parks and Recreation, even though Louis C.K. plays a recurring role in the second season. But now when he appears on-screen, the warmth of watching a beloved character is gone, and instead I find myself thinking not of the character Dave Sanderson but of the abuser Louis C.K., and my sense of escapism is shattered. Now I skip those episodes.
This isn’t simply a matter of personal revulsion. There is a genuine moral problem at the heart of continuing to consume shows starring these men for pure entertainment purposes. Consuming fiction requires people to wall off certain information they have: that these are actors, that there’s a script, that there is no fourth wall on that familiar living room set. That’s not information I can set aside any more, not only because I simply can’t forget, but also because to set it aside is to conclude that my need to be entertained by a particular work is more important than my need to remain aware of, and appalled by, the abuses these men have committed.
Such a calculation necessarily requires diminishing the importance of the abuse to something less than, at most, a few hours of entertainment. That’s a gross devaluation of the victims and their experiences.
But many cases remain complicated, including the movie Frida. The film was distributed by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. And thanks to a recent essay by the film’s star and producer, Salma Hayek, we know that Weinstein used the film to sexually harass and exploit her. (Among other things, he forced her to do a gratuitous nude love scene, Hayek says.) So pull it, right? Scrub it from the universe. At the least, don’t watch it.
Except we also know that the film was intensely personal to Hayek, the result of tireless effort to bring the story of Frida Kahlo to the big screen. Avoiding the film because it is a Weinstein production punishes the woman who endured his harassment in order to bring her vision to life. No artistic product belongs entirely to one person, especially in the world of film and broadcasting — auteur theory aside.
To take the discussion out of the realm of modern cinema for a moment, consider the case of Paul Gauguin. The pathbreaking French artist not only abused his wife but regularly had sex with — abused — the Tahitian girls he painted, some as young as 13. Many of the girls and women in his famed portraits are not just his subjects — they are his victims. Sexual violence abounds in his work. So what do we do with this information? Gaugin remains a crowd favorite. Should institutions cease exhibiting his paintings? Should they warn visitors?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer, though we can probably build consensus on a few absolutes: Banishing a person’s work from exhibitions goes too far; letting living abusers go unpunished doesn’t go far enough.
Beyond that, each case demands nuanced judgment that somehow avoids excuse-making, something our culture is particularly ill-suited for at this moment. And, yes, it does seem unfair to give such patient, careful regard to men who had no such care for the women and men they abused.
But as with most contentious questions, the answer seems to boil down to “more, not less”: more awareness of what these men have done and how it has affected their art and their colleagues, more debate over the best place for their art in our society, more opportunities for their victims and their art. In that light, we might view the Rotten Apples site not as an invitation to never watch a Hitchcock film again, but rather to think harder when we do.
We don’t need to erase these men and their art, but we can no longer see it as unalloyed entertainment or drama, hermetically sealed off from the “real world.” The moral compromise required to view it in that way is too great. And as the last few months have constantly reminded us, we’ve already made enough moral compromises.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.