“I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don’t really exist if you don’t.”
A few months ago, I ate dinner with a group of friends—all women—on a roof deck with views of Central Park on one side and the Hudson on the other. We drank bottle after bottle of wine and ate lobster rolls. We talked about many things, and one of the women brought up Roman Polanski. This woman had been brought by one of the other guests, and was the kind of woman who makes lots of brash, declarative statements seemingly out of nowhere, all of which cause other women to exchange glances and sometimes subtle eye-rolls and try to change the subject as quickly as possible. But this woman would not be dissuaded from talking about Roman Polanski (maybe it was our proximity to the Gothic gables and balustrades of the Dakota, who’s to say), and she soon brought out her phone, so that she could read to us everything of which the director had been accused. After she’d finished speaking about Quaaludes and anal sex and what it is to be a thirteen-year-old girl in the home of a 43-year-old man, there was silence. And then someone deadpanned, “Yeah, but Chinatown is a really, really good movie.” And we all laughed, a laugh very specific to being on a roof deck in the summer, the city stretched out like a glittering carpet, stomachs full of lobster, heads full of wine. No one wanted to talk about pedophilia. No one wanted to do anything but laugh and talk about other things, better things, our things.
“I feel shame when I think of all the times I’ve laughed when I wanted to scream,” Lena Dunham tweeted yesterday, after having read the “stomach-churning” sexual assault charges against R. Kelly that accompanies the amazing, informative, essential interview in the Village Voice between Jessica Hopper, the music editor for Rookie, and Jim DeRogatis, now a professor at Chicago’s Columbia College and formerly the reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who broke the Kelly story years ago. For those vaguely familiar with Kelly’s sexual history who can only identify that he maybe has a sex tape and that it maybe involved Kelly urinating on a woman, this interview and the accompanying documents will illuminate all of the things which Kelly has been accused of in court, many cases of which he settled so as not to go to trial. It will also make you feel ashamed that you ever could have thought that Kelly’s “sex tape,” in which he urinated in the mouth of a 14-year-old girl, is in any way akin to a video of two consenting adults engaged in sexual activity. It’s not. And that tape is just the tip of the iceberg. DeRogatis makes clear that Kelly had sex with dozens of underage girls, many of whom he found by visiting and staking out the high school that he once attended. Ninth- and tenth-grade girls were interviewed and confirmed that Kelly would hang out in their high school parking lot trying to pick them up. More than one of the girls he was involved with attempted suicide. DeRogatis emphasizes that it was not one girl, not one video, but that it was, “rapes plural. It is on record. Rapes in the dozen.”
And yet, despite all the information available, Kelly’s behavior has—for years now—been dismissed and joked about and ignored in favor of his musical talents. Kelly has recently had the full weight of the Pitchfork machine behind him, supporting his music and his career, and Kelly’s latest album, Black Panties, has been praised by many, including feminist website Jezebel, which called the album “a magnificent ode to pussy.” Is this just a case of society looking beyond the artist’s bad behavior and focusing only on the art? Or does it have more to do with the specific type of bad behavior at play here? There is no arguing with the idea that bad people can make good art, and while Kelly is certainly one example, there are countless other artists (including Polanski, of course, and also, as mentioned in the Voice article, James Brown and Led Zeppelin) who behaved in monstrous ways, and who have also escaped the scrutiny that people might give their next door neighbor upon finding out that he beats his wife. DeRogatis addresses this by saying, “You have to make a choice, as a listener, if music matters to you as more than mere entertainment. This is not just entertainment, this is our lifeblood. This matters.” Especially in the case of Kelly—who is promoting a new album, continues to perform, and has not disavowed any of his past activities, saying as recently as today, that anyone who has anything negative to say about him should listen to his track “Shut Up,” because haters gonna hate and “spiritually I’m a climber”—it is important to at least know to whom exactly you’re listening; listen to his music, but know that you are listening to a monster.
But just as important as recognizing Kelly’s crimes, though, is understanding why it is that he—and other powerful predators like him—are able to continue getting away with their actions. In the case of Polanski, it was because his victim was a 13-year-old girl who was already sexually active and who had a pushy stage mother. In the case of Kelly, his victims are also young girls, but in this case, they are all black. As DeRogatis points out in the interview, paraphrasing African-American scholar Mark Anthony Neal, “one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different.” The trick with getting away with raping kids, it seems, is to make sure your victims are young women…preferably young women of color, and definitely of a low socio-economic status. By othering the victims, and making their plights unrelatable to the powers-that-be (namely, wealthy white men, but also many privileged women) Kelly can do two very important things. First, he can continue to prey on the weak, like the monster that he is. And, second, he can maintain his public status as an artist who, yes, “behaves badly” but, no, would never hurt you.
Implicit here is that you would never be one of Kelly’s victims. You who are reading this are probably too smart to fall prey to some creepy guy hanging around a high school parking lot. Just like you didn’t have a fame-hungry mother who allowed you to go to a notoriously womanizing middle-aged director’s house for a topless photo shoot. These things wouldn’t happen to you, so you stop paying attention. Until you can’t help but pay attention, like Lena Dunham did yesterday as she read the interview and tweeted about it, addressing how complicit those of us are who have not been victims in perpetuating the idea that some people’s lives are more valuable than others, and that some people are taken advantage of because they ask to be. Dunham wrote, “There’s still a sense that being down with the predatory behavior of guys makes you chill, a girl with a sense of humor, a girl who can hang,” directly speaking to the way in which women try to fit in with those in power, in order to differentiate themselves from the powerless, all the while only perpetuating the corrupt way our society operates.
Also in recent music news, Beyoncé released a surprise album, complete with music videos including one shot by photographer Terry Richardson on Coney Island this summer. Upon hearing this news, Anna Holmes (former editor of Jezebel) tweeted, “no no no no no no no,” because of Richardson’s documented history of sexually exploiting the young, inexperienced models whom he shoots. Richardson (who, to be clear, has never been charged with a crime and doesn’t have any history of being with underaged girls) is currently one of the most prolific photographers in the world, having shot pretty much every model you’ve ever heard of (including Kate Upton in her viral “Cat Daddy” video), politicians including President Barack Obama, and celebrities, including R. Kelly…and Lena Dunham. In fact, Richardson was the boyfriend of Dunham’s best friend, Audrey Gelman, and has numerous photos of Dunham on his blog. And while, Richardson and Kelly might not be in the same league, the photographer has been called out on numerous occasions for doing things like having an intern wear a crown that bears the word “SLUT” or asking for models to touch his penis, it does not take a very big logical leap to wonder why R. Kelly is a monster, but Richardson is a celebrity darling.
And again the answer lies in who the victims are. With Kelly, they are young, black girls who are frequently economically disadvantaged. With Polanski, it was a young girl without the resource of a strong family to support her. And with Richardson, it is eager young women whose exploitation is disregarded because, after all, “they knew what they were getting into.” This is really the common thread with all these men, and with all predators. They succeed by making their victims complicit. They stroke their hair and ask, “Doesn’t this feel good?” And maybe it does. Maybe it does feel good. Maybe it doesn’t. But maybe, for a host of different reasons, these girls and women don’t feel safe enough to say no. So they feel like they’re participating. And everyone on the outside, looking at what happened, all the powerful people protected by their power, they all think, That couldn’t be me. Beyoncé can shoot a video with Richardson knowing that he’s not going to ask her to touch his penis. An upper-middle-class 25-year-old white guy can listen to Kelly calling himself a “sex genius” and know that Kelly will never hurt him or probably anyone he knows. On a rooftop in Manhattan, a group of educated women with voices can laugh at a Polanski joke because it never would have been us who was hurt. We are all protected by our power; we’re all protected by our good decisions. It’s almost impossible for us to imagine what it would have been like to be a victim. We are strong. But that’s exactly why it is important for those of us with public voices to speak the truth about artists who have more than “behavior” problems, artists who consistently exploit the most powerless among us, because they know that no one will care. They know that people will still buy their albums, and that Beyoncé will still smile for their cameras. And none of this will change until the public makes it change, because we are the only ones who can. In the best, most-misunderstood novel about American idolatry, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov writes, “I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don’t really exist if you don’t.” Instead of spending our time imagining the lives of people like R. Kelly, and making excuses for them, it’s time to start imagining the lives of the victims. We need to let them exist if we want these kinds of things to stop.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen