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What Do You Do When Your Hero May Be An Abuser?

Last week, the world mourned the passing of David Bowie. As his legions of fans paid tribute to the legendary rock star, many pointed out that Bowie was a rapist — and that he shouldn’t be celebrated. According to a woman named Lori Mattix, she lost her virginity to Bowie in the 1970’s— when she was 15 and he was in his 20’s. This is statutory rape — and the story is highly troubling, even if she describes the encounter as consensual. Many fans struggled with how to process this information, some going as far as to rationalize that this wasn’t really rape, or that it was the 70’s, so things were just different. Bowie is just the latest in a string of notable celebrities to be accused of heinous deeds, including Bill Cosby (an alleged serial rapist), Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (recently arrested for domestic violence), R. Kelly (accused of pedophilia and rape), Bill Murray (accused of domestic violence), Charlie Sheen (multiple allegations of violence against women) and more.

So what do you do when an artist you admire turns out to be less-than-admirable? For some, the answer is clear-cut: you cannot support abusers in any way, shape or form, and that includes listening to their music or watchin their movies. For others, the answer isn’t as easy, particularly when an artist broke new ground and helped make people in a marginalized community feel less marginalized (like Cosby and Bowie).

But does supporting an artist who has been accused of rape or abuse condone that crime? We don’t have an easy answer to this complicated question. If you’re paying to listen to a song or watch a movie made by an abuser, then perhaps your support does condone that crime — because that money may enable the abuser to continue committing crimes or escaping responsibility for past crimes. What if the song or movie is one that you already own, and the artist does not gain anything by you watching or listening to it? Does that make it more acceptable? What if the art has a particular symbolism to it, like a movie you watched with a beloved, now deceased, family member, or the song you associate with your first love? Should you feel guilty about enjoying that song or movie? Or is this the level of difficult choice we will all need to make in order to achieve true change in our communities?

These questions are hard, and the decision will be made by each individual. But whatever you decide, it is absolutely critical that you do not explain away the alleged crime (“it wasn’t really rape!”), or blame the victims. Separate the art from the artist, and realize that even someone you admire greatly can be capable of horrible acts. You should also think critically about whether the culture of the artist’s medium glorifies — or at least implicitly supports — violence. Can you support a type of art where violence is the norm? No matter what you decide, you can still be involved in the fight against gender violence — by volunteering, donating, or participating in events with organizations like Blackburn Center.

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