The overlap in the sets of ‘Good People’ and ‘Famous People’ seems to diminish every day. Chip by chip veneers of morality in the film and music industry are fragmenting to reveal the darker reality of the human capacity to cause pain. It’s this process that reminds us that bad words and actions are ubiquitous, with the entertainment industry only serving as a zone of magnification for how temporary illusions of virtue are.
This is not to say that we are inherently bad, but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, unavoidably, all of us have said or done bad things of a different scale- the mistakes of the rich and famous just have a greater staying power. In many ways, the deconstruction of the notion of artistic genius that obscures much judgement of problematic or criminal actions is a blessing.
A year on from Rebecca Hall, Timothée Chalamet and Selena Gomez’s denouncement of Woody Allen and declaration that they would donate their salaries from his (now shelved) film A Rainy Day in New York to more formal campaign movements such as Time’s Up, we can begin to recognise the force of good that public scrutiny can be in amplifying the voice of survivors like Dylan Farrow.
With our words we don’t hesitate to condemn abusers, promoting #MeToo posts on social media and tweeting ‘Sis, you’re cancelled’ when we come across celebrities’ offensive Facebook statuses from 2012. It makes us feel like we are pulling our weight in the march for a more equal society, and I think it is fair to say that most people find satisfaction in being perceived as morally dignified. Nevertheless, we still engage in the artistic creations of abusers and those accused of morally reprehensible statements and actions- the $650 million worldwide gross of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a testament to how our principles don’t always align with our patterns of consumption.
J.K. Rowling, a writer who captivated generations with illusions of the latent magical power that every child possessed, polluted the enchantment of the wizarding universe for many with her relentlessly active social media presence and poor casting choices. Her ‘likes’ on Twitter of transphobic posts scorning trans women of not occupying a proper place in the supposedly accepting community of womanhood last autumn provoked a fierce outcry from social media users, and for good reason. The Harry Potter franchise taught many the values of compassion, loyalty, and empowerment of the underdog, which is why the perceived transgression of these lessons elicits so much disappointment. To what extent should we ‘cancel’ her for this action? Is complicity as harmful/ morally reprehensible as active participation?
Luckily, Rowling has taken the liberty of entangling herself in a range of moral discussions to help us inform our answers to these questions. Her penchant to retroactively represent minority groups in her franchise has sparked much criticism; empty and unsubstantiated statements like ‘Dumbledore was gay’ or ‘There were plenty of Jewish people in Hogwarts’ or ‘Hagrid is a practising Sunni Muslim’ (the latter a prediction) are blatant attempts to continue to capitalise from a pretty white-washed franchise using an increasingly intersectionality-minded audience. However, a questionable piece of representation that Rowling actually delivered on was the almost comical ‘The huge snake in Chamber of Secrets was actually an enslaved Asian woman’ in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Whether Rowling’s publicists are enamoured with her genius brain or perhaps at this point too far gone to question her decisions is not our issue to discuss. However, what is interesting is Rowling’s choice to defend this casting decision, justifying it through citing the ‘Naga’ as inspiration for Nagini. This is probably sincere, yet indicative of a cultural sensitivity yet to be learnt by many, regarding the portrayal of already woefully underrepresented groups.
More sinister is Rowling’s defence of her choice to maintain the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald as not only being ‘comfortable sticking with the original casting, but genuinely happy’.
Despite Amber Heard’s accusations of physical and emotional abuse, this unapologetic endorsement of Depp by both writer and audience is emblematic of the fact that we live in age where we maintain a facade of social justice online whilst simultaneously fuelling an abuser-ridden box office. ‘Wokeness’, initially a term referring to self-awareness among African American communities, has now become a key constituent of the self-righteous illusions we perform on social media. What use is empowering rhetoric if it changes our minds but not our habits?
Perhaps a while ago a great amount of people would have insisted on separating the ‘art’ from the ‘artist’, yet now, with a greater appreciation of the fact that the two will always constitute each other, it becomes harder to engage in what once would have been great pieces of media. The hands with which Depp so convincingly gestures could have been the same to have purposefully caused physical harm, and the issue is that as a society, we selectively choose forget the latter.
Watching Weinstein movies like Pulp Fiction, or as more recently discussed, listening to music by R Kelly, in a way are acts of undue forgiveness. Through perpetuating the cultural hegemony of the artist by virtue of their art is to grant artists clemency that we do not have the authority to grant. Recent tides have shown that our behaviour has changed towards the consumption of media produced by abusers and that social media outcry has had an impact on the visibility of victims that cannot be overstated.
However, there are still blurred lines between what we consider redeemable and irredeemable. We cannot overestimate the harm that ‘cancel culture’ can cause, through retroactively punishing people for ideas they have now changed, or holding celebrities to standards of consistent perfection that we would not expect of ourselves. After all, who are we to judge people’s past actions when we might find similar content upon scrolling in the unforgivable depths of the accounts of our online infancy?
We could perhaps find a balance between maintaining expectations of celebrities to uphold the common moral virtues, and being willing to concede to the fact that nobody in the history of fame, or indeed the world, has been perfect. We are, after all, ultimately all human beings. But to what extent do we refuse the works of people who have ruined lives of other human beings through their actions? Do we stop singing along to ‘Ignition’ in the club, or stop going to see the next installment of the Fantastic Beasts series in the vain hope that Rowling is going to adequately follow up Harry Potter?
Most importantly, to what extent do we perform righteousness to ourselves and the world by condemning the art of these people? Whatever the answer, the truth remains that in order to limit the power of hurtful actions of ruinous people, we must wake up from the illusion that artistic genius is exclusive to the rich and famous.