Sam Rosenberg: Kevin Spacey and the complexities of online apologies
People make stupid, awful mistakes — and celebrities are no exception. But when it comes to living in the limelight, actors, athletes, musicians and politicians are much more vulnerable in how they handle themselves underneath a cultural magnifying glass.
Usually, whenever celebrities do something wrong, be it an illicit affair or an inappropriate, regrettable soundbite, they address it during awkward talk show segments, embarrassing press conferences and uncomfortable TV interviews. Some apologetic celebs are met with praise for their honesty and conviction to learn from their errors, though others ultimately become shunned in the public eye. Given how social media offers a transparent virtual platform for the famous to interact with their fans, most apologies from celebrities nowadays take place through the Internet.
What exactly can be said of the “online apology”? Is it better or worse than an outright public apology? Does it allow a celebrity a better opportunity to articulate themselves in their wrongdoings or does it just makes things worse?
For Kevin Spacey (“House of Cards”), attempting to apologize online made things worse for everyone involved. Last week, the actor issued an apology on his Twitter account for making a sexual advance toward Anthony Rapp (“Star Trek: Discovery”) when Rapp was only 14-years-old. The incident was brought to light in a Buzzfeed article just a few days before Spacey’s apology, in which Rapp described his encounter with Spacey in full detail
“If I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior,” Spacey wrote in his tweet. “I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years.”
In my mind, there is a correct and incorrect way to apologize to someone, period. This, folks, is the incorrect way. Even if Spacey’s sexual misconduct with Rapp is technically considered "an allegation," recusing oneself from being involved in such a crime seems like a rather insincere and questionable gesture (i.e. saying “if I did behave” rather than “I did behave”).
What’s even more infuriating is how later in the statement, Spacey conflated his pedophilic actions with his coming out, suggesting the age-old homophobic trope that homosexual men prey on young boys. This particular moment in his apology ignited immense backlash from the Hollywood community and the media at large, and rightfully so.
It’s entirely possible Spacey and his PR team managed to craft this tweet as a “coming out” statement in order to deflect the real problem at hand, or that Spacey simply felt the need to justify his actions by coming clean about his sexual orientation. Thankfully, online users are quick to cut through the bullshit, posting tweets and articles about how we should amplify the voice of the victim instead of the perpetrator. This method has worked to the users’ advantage. Since Spacey’s apology, more young men have come forward with sexual assault allegations against the actor, inevitably pressuring Netflix to fire Spacey from “House of Cards” and write out his character for the upcoming sixth and final season.
The difficult thing, though, about an online apology is that a celebrity may be deemed lazy and cowardly whether or not they publish an apologetic tweet or a Facebook post. If they don’t say anything, then they’re an asshole. If they apologize on TV, then they come off as self-righteous. If they apologize something online, then they seem impersonal, as if they’re purposefully hiding behind social media to help maintain their credibility. No matter the context, a celebrity will always have to confront the idealized expectations of the public, especially when their mistakes aren’t super harmful to begin with.
Take, for example, Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (“Passengers”). Late last year, she caught flak for wiping her butt on sacred Hawaiian rocks and then joking about it on TV. She posted an apology on Facebook and since then, her reputation hasn’t been totally destroyed — Lawrence starred in this year’s “mother!” and recently guest hosted on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show. A few months before that, Noah Galvin (“The Real O’Neals”) apologized on Twitter for several egregious remarks he made about the queer community in Hollywood during a Vulture interview. Like Lawrence, Galvin is continuing to thrive in his relatively young career. Though “The Real O’Neals” was cancelled after two seasons, Galvin is scheduled to replace Ben Platt in the lead role of “Dear Evan Hansen” after Platt’s Broadway run ends later this month.
At the time, these kinds of faux paus may have been insensitive. But do we really expect celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence or Noah Galvin to be perfect all the time? Had they not apologized at all, then maybe it would seem fair to hold a grudge against them. But having the capacity to apologize for their blunders in the first place seems like a good first step toward attaining forgiveness.
That being said, everyone should be held accountable for the mistakes they make, regardless the magnitude of one’s actions. Should all celebrities be held to a higher standard than everyone else? Not really, unless you happen to be the President of the United States. But does a celebrity deserve attention if their actions holds much greater weight when they involve something as horrible as harassment or even rape? Absolutely. Considering the powerful ripple effect enacted from the series of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a celebrity who has committed similar offenses must deal with intense retribution. It may ruin their careers and livelihoods, but if they hadn’t done such horrible, irrevocable things in the first place, then they wouldn’t be in such a situation.
Whether you’re famous or not, we can all learn from how people present themselves in public and in private, and how they approach the people they hurt. It seems rather simple, but an apology, let alone an online one, is not just enough to rectify the repercussions of one’s actions. One has to work hard to make right what they did wrong. If that means educating yourself on systemic racism after making a racist remark, so be it. If that means working at a women’s clinic or a trauma center after sexually harassing and assaulting someone, so be it. An apology isn’t just a statement or a promise; it’s a responsibility.