The week in pop culture has been dominated by two profoundly disturbing stories: accounts of child sexual abuse perpetrated by music icons R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, whose alleged misdeeds were ignored for far too long, no doubt because it was much more convenient to enjoy the genius of “Ignition (Remix)” and “Billie Jean” at weddings and birthday parties than it was to confront those other ugly, distressing possibilities.
HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” — the Jackson exposé — and Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” both speak to the power of the televised documentary to change minds and fuel conversations. But the ensuing discourse has sometimes veered into unproductive and even malicious territory. On the tamer end are the circular, oft-hashed debates about separating art from the artist. At worst, though, the films have been met with a deluge of unhinged apologia. And amid the very fan-centric introspection, a clearer sense of how we might treat victims and deal with abusers in these situations still feels lacking.
Enter Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, the trusted TV hosts and best friends, who both demonstrated a remarkable ability to take stock of horribly sad, fraught circumstances and treat them with nuance and care. Winfrey, herself a survivor of child sexual abuse, hosted an hour-long special following the “Leaving Neverland” premiere in which she interviewed the documentaries’ subjects, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, along with a child trauma psychologist and other victims-turned-advocates. A few days later on CBS, King sat down with R. Kelly in his first televised interview since the premiere of “Surviving R. Kelly.” Both women brought a deft, careful balance of compassion, composure and journalistic rigor.
Oprah’s was done in her signature group therapy style, weaving in personal reflections and audience input. The audience, it should be noted, was made up almost entirely of survivors, all of whom had just watched the 4-hour “Leaving Neverland.” Winfrey began the segment by noting that she had devoted over 200 episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to discussing sexual abuse, and her familiarity with the material shined through — her questions were informed and incisive, sometimes belaboring points to make the contours of the conversation clear to viewers while remaining respectful of the trauma victims she spoke with. All in all, it was low-key, subdued affair.
King’s was the more lurid of the two — maybe you’ve seen the myriad of clips or the GIFs by now. Surely, you’ve seen the photo: R. Kelly, on the verge of tears, sprung from his seat and Gayle King, leaning back in hers, with an unmoved expression that says, “It’s OK, I’ll wait.” It couldn’t have been easy to interview someone who looked like he could detonate at any moment, but she did it spectacularly, with focus and poise. And she navigated the interview with him and his zealous apologists in a way that let her emerge supremely level-headed by the segment’s end.
Neither spends much time on the question of separating the art from the artist — that’s the sort of thorny dilemma that doesn’t make for a compact primetime special. But what Winfrey and King both do well is to give their viewers the tools to make those decisions for themselves. And each host, in her own way, probes at the problem of fandom itself. We might not find ourselves grappling with “cancel culture” had we not filled celebrities with our own nostalgic attachments in the first place. What allowed Michael Jackson to ingratiate himself with his victims, Oprah explains, is the same thing that has kept his legacy mostly intact until now: He was Michael Jackson! He was God. She quotes a Maureen Dowd column that stuck with her: “How can you see clearly when you’re looking into the sun?”