Soon after David Bowie’s death, many bloggers expressed unease at valorizing a man who slept with 15-year olds, pointing out that Bowie was yet another
“problematic fave,” the go-to internet term that can be used to describe
anything from a mild social gaffe to a history of sexual assault. Like
clockwork, Bowie defenders asserted that the 70s were a different time and place and that the “baby groupies” who Bowie slept with don’t express that what they experienced was rape at all.
Like most Internet Wars, the focus quickly became about the individual—whether we should herald Bowie for his tremendous legacy, or condemn him as a rapist. Both Erin Keane at Salon and Jia Tolentino at Jezebel stressed a more nuanced look at the complicated issue of separating art from artist, while in his essay, “Celebrity deaths and the ‘problematic fave’: Enough with the moral tug-of-war between “hero” and “villain” legacies,” Arthur Chu fell back on a stand-by argument about bad men who make good art:
“So yes, in a way I am saying that if you’re a fan of the awesome feminist triumph that is 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” then you owe something to the horrific abusive racist bigot Mel Gibson. You don’t have to like him or “forgive” him, but if he hadn’t been there–and I’m not just arguing in terms of acting talent but in terms of all his deep and wide-ranging flaws–then a great work of art might not exist.”
Chu’s argument, that bad behavior, though not exactly excusable, is often inextricably wed to the production of art is deeply embedded in our culture. The idea that artists in particular must be permitted to be “bad”—that the artist must, in some ways, be allowed to be overly dramatic or reckless, or self-injuring, or obsessed with alcohol or drugs or sex, in order to be a creative powerhouse, is a mainstay in popular discourse.
After all, many of the most challenging and talented artists we still today herald
are men who, in their personal lives, were outright jerks: from Pablo Picasso to
Kanye West, from Ernest Hemingway to Roman Polanski, we not only tolerate male “bad behavior,” we often see it as the necessary backdrop against which male artists create.
For all the talk of the current age of outrage culture—how it’s changing the face of online discourse or demanding that certain ideas should be censored—the reality is that we live in a culture that continues to praise macho artistic swagger. We tolerate Roman Polanski’s and Woody Allen’s sins, precisely because there seems to be a prevailing attitude that if they were different, better men, they might not be as actively creative. Likewise, we tacitly permit Kanye West’s wildly misogynistic tirades against his ex Amber Rose, as well as his odd ongoing feud with Taylor Swift, precisely because his brand of in-your-face bravado is seen as an element of his innovative albums.
Where do women fit into this culture? If in today’s world the male artist is still heralded for dangerous and destructive “risk-taking,” the female artist is generally heralded for being a role model. Artists like Beyoncé are required to not only produce work that is compelling and edgy, but to also appear effortlessly poised and perfect while doing it. If today’s female characters are allowed the latitude of being jerks like never before, the creators of series like “Transparent,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Scandal” are also expected to be Hollywood’s moral compasses, ushering in a world of greater representation, better public policies, and feminist awakenings. The female artist who has “lifestyle problems” ranging from addiction (a la Britney Spears), to shoplifting (a la Winona Ryder) to violent behavior (a la Amy Winehouse) is seen in need of reformation, a “trainwreck” who must be saved. This is in stark contrast to Hollywood celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray, whose colorful pasts, and even run-ins with the law, are seen as edgy and endearing, rather than deeply troubling.
The attitude where “male artists will be male artists” is an unsettling double
standard. In some cases, the tacit acceptance of male artists as likely to be a
bit rough around the edges is harmless, but in others, as is the case with
stars like Charlie Sheen and Woody Allen, the result is a long line of women
coming forward with claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Moreover, the conversations we are having online tend to focus on demonizing individual men, rather than discussing a culture in which an artist like David Bowie traveled in a world where bedding 14-year old groupies was considered normal, or a world in which R. Kelly is laughed about rather than looked at with true disdain.
I think one reason Bowie fans felt so exhausted by the discourse surrounding his relationship with young female fans, is that it felt like a “gotcha” moment,
rather than a serious discussion about the ways that our culture permits,
excuses, or even pressures artists to behave in certain ways. It’s not fair to
expect celebrities to be “perfect” but it’s equally strange to see predatory or
abusive behavior as arguably normal. While some who protest the double standard are eager for the day that women are given equal opportunity to engage in the same antics that many male artists do, without judgment, I think a more revolutionary change would be to live in a world where kindness is seen as cooler than cockiness, and a world where we can distinguish between behaviors which are quirky and offbeat and those that really do hurt others.
Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.