What can we do when our heroes become rapists?

Joanna Taylor 14 May 2016

This article contains discussion of sexual crimes and self-harm. 

"You've shot so many of your films here in Europe and yet in the U.S. you haven't even been convicted of rape," French comedian Laurent Lafitte joked as he introduced Woody Allen at Cannes Film Festival this week. His remarks drew on the fact that Woody Allen was accused of sexual abuse by his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, in the 1990s, tacitly comparing him to Roman Polanski, the director who escaped jail for raping a thirteen-year old girl by fleeing to the United States. The audience then proceeded to watch Allen’s new film, Café Society. 

This incident is one of many like it that have played on my mind because it raises a very difficult question: should we enjoy the art of a reprehensible person? I do enjoy Woody Allen’s films, especially Annie Hall whose iconic ‘lobster moment’ is still parodied and played with in films like 22 Jump Street, just as I think that Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematography is genius, despite him deliberately ruining Tippi Hendren’s career amidst allegations of sexual harassment. 

No-one will deny that what these men have done (or may have done) is utterly vile, but we do continue to appreciate their artistic creations: I watched and analysed Polanksi’s Macbeth, for instance, in high school. It seems strange to me that we apparently see little contradiction between this and the utter defamation of Jimmy Savile and Bill Cosby. One difference, I thought, might be as to whether the crimes were proven or alleged (and thus we must be content with innocent-’til-proven-guilty) but Bill Cosby is yet to be charged for all he is accused of; another I considered was how recent these cases are, yet Woody Allen is still making films. Maybe the difference is simply how serious the individual’s crimes are, but surely all sexual abuse – whether harassment, assault or rape – should be treated seriously. 

The solution I have come up with for this moral blindspot is that we should continue to enjoy the artistic works of reprehensible people once it has produced, but legally pursue them regardless of their celebrity status: they should no longer be allowed the freedom to participate in their field (whether that be film-making or, in the famous case of Chet Evans, play football) once they have been convicted of a crime. Raising awareness about who these producers are and what they have done is also a step in the right direction, as high-profile cases open up a conversation on abuse which victims can benefit and take courage from. Censoring their works would inevitably lead to hysterical screams of “free speech” – and justly so – but would also be far too difficult to impose, because there is no logical point at which to draw the line. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ted Hughes have both been accusedof driving women to suicide, but 150 years apart; most art produced before the current century will have been done so by someone who believed and did things now deeply unpalatable to us. 

One final distinction I would draw on this issue is where the artist’s reprehensible views or actions spill over into their art: at that point I think we should (without censoring it) condemn it, and highlight its negative qualities rather than ignore them. I am thinking here particularly of Eminem: a rapper whose playful and funny raps I really enjoy, but who also drove his wife, Kim, to a suicide attempt by recording a song in which he imagines killing her and disposing of her body with their daughter. Despite promising not to perform this song in their hometown, Eminem not only performed it, but mimed choking a blow-up doll on stage, after which Kim drove home and slit her wrists. Because of this, I choose not to listen to this song, or any of his others in which he fantasises about violence or rape. 

Appreciating the art of a reprehensible person is entirely possible, and I wouldn’t wish to censor the positive contributions they have made to their field. But it is extremely important that we don’t turn a blind eye to what these individuals have done because we enjoy what they have produced: in fact, they serve as unnerving examples of where power and genius have been abused.