Elena Hubbell: Recognizing the evil in our icons

Wednesday, June 1, 2016 - 6:57pm

It seems that society has a sort of rule of thumb in which artists are forgiven by history for their “strange behavior” because of their ability to create celebrated pieces, such as movies, books, etc. By “strange behavior,” I don’t mean the unusual oddities exhibited by geniuses, such as Nikola Tesla’s supposed habit of flexing his toes one hundred times a day. I’m talking about the more heinous crimes that were either not considered morally wrong during the artist’s lifetime or were simply ignored by those around them. Artists who are convicted or accused of rape or assault are, more often than not, forgiven, their actions are forgotten and they become idolized within their field by history. In contrast, the people who have accused these artists are oftentimes criticized by society — ostracized for daring to tarnish the reputation of such a respected person. Perhaps it is a desire to be able to enjoy the works of these artists without the distastefulness of knowing that this piece was created by a terrible human being that prompts the forgetfulness in regards to these crimes.    

The situation, in one case at least, appears to be changing. Recently, Bill Cosby has suffered a very public fall from grace, and though various celebrities still support the ex-comedian, it seems that his once-respectable name will forever be tarnished. Even if Cosby’s health were in a better state, I doubt that he would be able to find the same opportunities for work as he once had. Though I remain hopeful that Cosby’s downfall will eventually lead to the downfall of other celebrities who have been accused of sexual assault, I remain doubtful. Roman Polanski, who fled to France after being accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl, is still making critically acclaimed movies. Woody Allen, whose film “Cafe Society” will be released this year, has garnered favorable reviews and featured an A-list cast, in spite of the fact that his adopted daughter, Dylan O’Sullivan Farrow, has accused him of sexually assaulting her (let’s also not forget the fact that Allen is married to a girl whom he met when she was not yet a teenager and was the adopted daughter of the woman Allen was then in a romantic relationship with). There’s a slew of other artists who have been convicted of predatory behavior, yet these actions are often forgotten by the media.

Since the mere fact that Bill Cosby has been indicted seems to be groundbreaking, it is interesting to consider what the future holds for other perpetrators who are now being punished. This is something I have thought of a lot recently, especially in regards to the publication of a piece by Dylan O’Sullivan Farrow’s brother, Ronan Farrow, “My Father, Woody Allen, and the Danger of Questions Unasked.” Though this piece appears to be a call to action to the media, it remains debatable what the role of critics, movie-goers and academics must play in response to respected men being recognized as perpetrators. I myself have decided to boycott any future film that Woody Allen decides to make. Though I enjoyed “Midnight in Paris” and “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s work is now effectively off-limits to me. I have never been a fan of Polanski’s work — I thought “Chinatown” perpetuated and minimized rape culture — so boycotting his work is obviously not going to be as hard as boycotting Allen. Though I enjoyed the “The Cosby Show” as a child, I have now decided to avoid it altogether in any way, shape or form.

I’m not asking for everyone to do what I am doing; I am instead hoping that the crimes of these men will not be swept under the rug by critics, academics or movie-goers. I hope that in the future, these artists are looked at holistically — that their actions outside of their creations be evaluated as well. Though I do believe that boycotting these artists’ newer works is the least we can do for the people whom they have allegedly assaulted, I wouldn’t expect others to subscribe to my actions outside of that, especially because it will be hard to try to ignore the huge effects that these men have had on their respective fields. Countless comedians cite Cosby as an influence, Allen’s work has been groundbreaking in the world of comedy and Polanski is highly-respected by many critics. It seems that it would be too much to ask for history to completely forget these men and their legacies. Whether we like it or not, the things that these men have done will be remembered for a period of time. The most we can hope for is that people will be aware that these masterpieces were created by bad people and stop trying to turn these artists into legends. Though these men may have been great at their craft, it should be remembered first that they abused other human beings, and, secondly, that they had many great accomplishments in their career. To do otherwise would be disrespectful to those they abused, as well as every other survivor who comes across the work of these artists.

Elena Hubbell can be reached at elepearl@umich.edu.