The responses have been breathtaking in their speed and decisiveness. Another powerful man in media or entertainment is accused of being a sexual predator. He admits it, or not. He comes under investigation, or quits, or is fired. And all at once, his work — no matter how much people liked it before — turns radioactive.
In November, the “Charlie Rose” show, long patronized by the public-television-watching cognoscenti, was shelved after allegations that its urbane host was a chronic harasser of young women. The program joins a long list of projects — the Kevin Spacey series “House of Cards,” the film and television work of Louis C.K., and the groundbreaking Amazon show “Transparent,” among others — that have been canceled outright, removed from circulation or thrown into disarray by accusations against the men most associated with their success.
But as more and more once-important figures are banished from sight, at least for the time being, what should become of their work?
“Yes, the art suffers,” said actor Colman Domingo. Last year his movie “The Birth of a Nation” collapsed at the box office after revelations that its writer-director, Nate Parker, had been accused of raping a woman nearly 20 years earlier. (Parker was acquitted; the woman later killed herself.) Domingo has also worked — very happily, he said — with Louis C.K. When it comes to canceling or removing projects, he said, “I have no idea yet if this is the appropriate response.”
“These are very sensitive situations that reflect what has been building up in our industry for years,” Domingo said. “I think it’s important for us to take a breath, assess and not respond impulsively.”
Weighing the worth of an alleged perpetrator’s film, television show or news program is nearly impossible in the context of victims’ distress. It’s like comparing apples with unicorns. And so it’s not surprising that emotions are running high.
Wrestling with what to do with the product of tainted executives, artists or news figures is not that far from the eternal issue of how (or even whether) to separate our views of art from our views of the artists. Wagner was blatantly anti-Semitic. Alfred Hitchcock abused actresses who worked for him, so openly that you can see his dysfunctional psychosexual power dynamics right on screen. Roman Polanski was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old, but does that mean “Rosemary’s Baby” should have been pulled from circulation?
Those were generally seen as rare cases that (perhaps) could be overlooked because of the men’s particular genius, or because times were different then. What has changed now is the unveiling of evidence that sexually predatory behavior is pervasive and that it has flourished in hierarchical, male-dominated industries that have at best ignored, and at worst enabled, such behavior by powerful and once-untouchable men.
In the current period of reckoning, some are arguing that a wholesale expunging or erasure of work by sexual harassers is a small price to pay if it results in a thorough rethinking in creative industries, where the use of sex and power are particularly ill-defined and open to abuse.
“We all have an instinct to instantly try to figure out how to redeem all these people and still be able to enjoy all this work, and it’s a very selfish instinct,” producer and director Judd Apatow said. In his view, what happens to their work is “the least important question” on the table.
“All our energy should be with the victims,” he said. “What happened to them? How did people handle this? What could we do going forward to support them in a productive way?”
The moves to yank television shows, to cancel future projects or — in the case of “House of Cards” and “Transparent” — to consider envisioning popular series without actors who are central to the works’ success, are hardly just a matter of simple morality. In the case of those two programs, there’s also the question of whether audiences would even want to watch them without Spacey and Jeffrey Tambor, their stars.
And it’s difficult to discern to what extent these decisions are being based on matters of principle or economics or publicity or audience interests. Many companies contacted for this article, including Sony and Netflix, refused to comment. And though Netflix continues to show old episodes of “House of Cards” as well as stand-up specials by Louis C.K., another network, HBO, not only eliminated Louis C.K. from its “Night of Too Many Stars” comedy benefit on Nov. 18 but also removed his past work from its website.
In a statement, the network explained that his comedic material too closely resembled his non-comedic actions. “In looking at previous HBO shows, we also made the decision to no longer make them available as material in them skirted uncomfortably close to his own admittedly repugnant behavior,” the statement said.
Some people, like feminist scholar Camille Paglia, argue that art — no matter who created it — should be beyond the scope of punishment.
“The artist as a person should certainly be subject to rebuke, censure, or penalty for unacceptable actions in the social realm,” Paglia said via email. “But art, even when it addresses political issues, occupies an abstract realm beyond society.”
It’s been less than two months since the cascade of harassment scandals began, and when (and if) some of the men caught up in them will ever work again is anybody’s guess.
“Will we see these people again in five or 10 years? I don’t know,” said Ben Travers, television critic at IndieWire. As proof of the culture’s ability to resurrect even people who at one point seemed beyond redemption, he cited Mel Gibson, who became toxic in Hollywood after anti-Semitic and misogynist behavior but who eventually rebounded as a director and actor. He’s appearing in theaters now in “Daddy’s Home 2,” a hit family film.
But, Travers added, that might not even be the most pertinent question. “A lot of people are hoping this is more of a turning point, that the work that’s being lost won’t be missed because the work that’s being gained will be better,” he said. “The people who were silenced and thrown out and kept from working by these predators will be able to go forward and thrive.”