For celebrities, talent isn’t enough to excuse problematic pasts

by Jackie Roman / Beacon Staff • February 12, 2015

No one wants to be the one to take off their rose-colored glasses and see a situation for the unsavory reality it actually is. Ignorance really can be bliss. But there comes a certain point where we can no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of a situation. Sometimes our favorite stars are #problematic: Director Woody Allen is an accused child molester, and singer Meghan Trainor belittles eating disorders. Maroon 5’s Adam Levine trivializes stalking. #Sorrynotsorry, but your favorite celebrity is problematic, and they often catch breaks they don’t deserve. 

The reality is tough: You might be worshipping a problematic figure. Though it’s easy to fight tooth and nail to assert that your favorite performer or artist does everything right, it’s not realistic. Your favorite is also a normal human being, and it’s okay if they have flaws—as long as you admit and understand that.

When I first heard the Taylor Swift song “Better Than Revenge”off her 2010 album Speak Now, I tried to brush off what made me uncomfortable. I loved her work with the sweet songs from Fearless, but I started to realize she often bashed other girls for arbitrary behavior. In “Better Than Revenge” she sings, “She's not a saint and she's not what you think / She's an actress, whoa / She's better known for the things that she does / On the mattress, whoa.” Whoa is right, Taylor Swift, because that is slut-shaming.

Her hit “You Belong With Me” has the the same problem: Swift croons that “she wears short skirts / I wear sneakers,” as if this sartorial distinction has any bearing on another girl’s character. No matter what feminist epiphany Swift claims to have had recently, we can’t just wipe her problematic history of slut-shaming from her record.

The difficult part about holding our talented favorites accountable for their problematic behavior is that so often, we genuinely admire their work. These are the people who have changed various industries with their thinking and have produced truly meaningful art. These are the individuals who have acted as pioneers for new groups. These are the creative and inventive game changers. These are the award-winners who many of us media-makers at Emerson have said we want to become. It’s much harder for us to look at these people as something other than idols. 

But we can’t let issues of appropriation, misogyny, and sexual assault be swept under the rug just because the perpetrator is an Oscar winner. Woody Allen has written and directed great movies with complex female characters, and we can still admire those past works. What we can’t admire are the accusations of sexual misconduct in Allen’s personal life.

Just before Allen received a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award in 2014, Dylan Farrow, the daughter of his ex-wife, penned a letter published in the New York Times accusing Allen of sexually abusing her as a child. “Sexual abuse claims against the powerful stall more easily,” Farrow wrote. “There were experts willing to attack my credibility. There were doctors willing to gaslight an abused child.”

It’s not just power; stardom gets in the way of our acknowledging and coming to terms with such heinous accusations. As fans and celebrities—ranging from the actress Diane Keaton to my own classmates—flocked to Allen’s defense, there wasn’t a public discussion of why he was defended. His actions aren’t excused by the number of Academy Awards he’s won.

Pop stars like Levine and Beyoncé aren’t exempt either. Maroon 5 has won three Grammy awards, and their music video for “Animals”—which shows Levine touching a woman while she’s sleeping after sitting in a darkroom with developed photos of her—glorifies stalking and sexual assault. In “Partition,” Beyoncé explains that Jay Z has “Monica Lewinski’d all on [her] gown,” a metaphor that unfairly pokes fun at Lewinski’s sexual history instead of President Bill Clinton’s. In an 2014 Vanity Fair article, Lewinski fired back at Queen Bey’s faulty claim, writing, “Beyoncé’s latest hit gives me a shout-out. Thanks, Beyoncé, but if we’re verbing, I think you meant ‘Bill Clinton’d all on my gown,’ not ‘Monica Lewinski’d.’”

Put your praise aside and look at the problems your favorites are contributing to. If you really like them, you’ll want them to be better people.