It’s time to start righting our wrongs and we can’t avoid it anymore.

Aoife Smith
Mar 31 · 9 min read

Why documentaries like Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly are forcing us to address our previous reactions and behavior.

Micheal Jackson and Wade Robson, image from Vox

Recently, like a majority, I sat down to watch the much talked about documentaries Leaving Neverland and Surviving R Kelly.

R. Kelly (left) and Micheal Jackson (right), image from Stars Insider

Both documentaries were equally shocking and uncomfortable to watch and brought to light many questions, but the primary focus for me was; why are we surprised? To some degree, didn’t we know? What are we doing now, to prevent it from happening again?

In the last decade, we have seen great change and movements toward ending victim shaming and protected stardom. We’ve witnessed the public crucifying of once well-respected men such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman and many, many more which can be seen on a startling list created by Vox here https://www.vox.com/a/sexual-harassment-assault-allegations-list.

In both cases what is extensively disturbing is that these allegations were both repetitive and spread out over a long period of time. They slightly differed from Harvey Weinstein’s takedown which came like a tsunami in seemingly calm water, almost overnight.

For a lot of the abuse accusations with most of the perpetrators, there was almost always whisperings. Uncertainties and lies, cover-ups and hush money. An out of court settlement reassured us to believe, ‘they were just doing it for the money’.

Look what the alleged victim can gain and what our idol could lose, we would think. Of course, it’s a lie.

But why are we so quick to assume that the victim is in it for all the wrong reasons, and the accused is just in a patch of bad luck?

Considering only about 2–10% of rape and abuse accusations are proven to be fake, why do we still maintain the mantra of innocent until proven guilty when in cases like these we should instead assume guilty until proven innocent?

We live in a time where we have access to almost all the information we want at the touch of a button, and we want all the details before our opinion is formed. What was once a much-anticipated interview to determine the truth is now a multiple part documentary where the victim sits alone in front of the camera, completely vulnerable and exposed.

Andrea Kelly in Surviving R. Kelly image from The Blast

We don’t watch for information or to sympathize, we watch to judge. We need to see their every reaction, every detail about their life and background, and every detail of the assault itself.

The growing consumption of the true crime and sexual abuse genre is desensitizing us to the degree in which we need a complete insight into the victim’s life for the allegation to resonate with us to the point of belief and consideration.

Though money made from these documentaries will not necessarily be in the pockets of the accused, it still emphasizes the never-ending vicious cycle of money and power that protected these stars for so long.

Watching these documentaries is not only another example of the laziness in society to seek out our own answers and opinions but is also continuing the capitalism and monetization surrounding these figures. Though money made from these documentaries will not necessarily be in the pockets of the accused, it still emphasizes the never-ending vicious cycle of money and power that protected these stars for so long. It is a never-ending cultural and monetary manipulation.

Aaliyah (left) and R.Kelly (right), image from Pajiba

Why is it so inherently easy for us to shift the blame onto the victim, in order to deny that our favorite artist is in the wrong? So that we can ultimately continue to benefit from their art.

We are constantly separating the art from the artist or justifying the ideology of the artistic prison in which the belief is that with true art, comes torture and that one cannot exist without the other.

A journalist on Surviving R. Kelly summed it up perfectly when she explained a time when she went to interview and listen to Kelly’s new album after he was found not guilty. She said she left her feelings about him at the door to hear his ‘beautiful’ music and then picked them up again when she left, and we are all, as a society, guilty of this action when it comes to abusers and their art.

Has our obsession and glorification of celebrity culture manipulated us to believe that the powerful man is more believable than the unknown accuser when more often than not it is the other way around?

Considering only about 2–10% of rape and abuse accusations are proven to be fake, why do we still maintain the mantra of innocent until proven guilty when in cases like these we should instead assume guilty until proven innocent?

Powerful men are hiding behind this Trump-esk belief that if everybody is a criminal, then no one is but we mustn’t let antagonizing intents break down the trust we should have in the survivor, and the openness to hear their stories.

Both Kelly and Jackson have played the victim, the race card and the power card. They want people to believe that they are innocent and it is only jealous people who are trying to tear down their legacy and exploit it.

Kelly’s approach, in a recent interview with Gayle King, represents that of a child having a tantrum, not too unlike Brett Kavanaugh during his own investigation into an alleged rape accusation. He repeatedly asks, ‘is the camera going?’ emphasizing his destructive need for control. At one point he begins to scream, shout and cry aggressively, jumping around the room shouting ‘are y’all tryna kill me?’ and patronizingly demanding us to ‘use your common sense, that’s stupid!’.

R Kelly on CBS This Morning, image from her.ie

His attempt to take back the light of the camera from the documentary, from the allegations and focus on him and his word only confirmed any doubts and concerns about his instability and manipulation.

Jackson, on the other hand, was never appropriately interviewed about his accusations but did release a pleading video to his fans to believe in him. He denounces the claims and explains the horrible handling of the case by the media and county police, saying ‘don’t treat me like a criminal’. Underneath his pleading and defending is an undertone of aggression as he claims that he is only guilty of ‘loving children of all ages and race’ and how he tries to be ‘god-like’ in his heart.

In Leaving Neverland, after Jackson is found not guilty of some allegations, his lawyer made a speech to the public. His words are hostile and filled with venom as he says that ‘we will land on you like a tonne of bricks (…) if you do anything to besmirch this man’s reputation, we will unleash a legal torrent like you’ve never seen’. Further threatening and daring other victims to come forward, assuring them that power always triumphs.

The men behind these allegations have a lot in common. Power, money, success, a good defense, a god-like complex. One of Michael Jacksons albums was even named ‘Invincible’ as if to further prove the untouchable nature of celebrity status, and as detailed in Surviving R. Kelly, many of the hip hop rappers’ songs sneered at rumors that were circulating at the time.

We need to examine male toxicity and celebrity glorification instead of putting the pressure on victims to come forward in a society where they will be closely examined and potentially crucified.

Micheal Jackson and James Safechuck, image from The Irish Times

It is evident that until the end of the glorification of celebrities, this abuse may never stop. Both documentaries depict stars that are calculated, grooming a culture to allow for their unforgivable actions to occur repetitively. History is constantly repeating itself surrounding celebrity abuse allegations, and while movements such as #MeToo, #MuteRKelly, and #TimesUp are conquering milestones, we are only at the beginning.

We need to examine male toxicity and celebrity glorification instead of putting the pressure on victims to come forward in a society where they will be closely examined and potentially crucified in the media just like Robson and Safechuck in Leaving Neverland, and the many victims in Surviving R. Kelly, including his ex-wife Andrea Kelly.

Until we look at our relationship with celebrities, toxic masculinity, and the increasingly popular sexual abuse documentary genre, the world may never be a welcoming place for victims to tell their story.

One strong element in Leaving Neverland was the role of the mothers. Their shocking accounts of how they had no idea about the abuse, and they saw Jackson as one of their own, allowing him to share a bed with their children and believing him when he denied any accusations was nauseating. However, it’s easy to condemn the mothers in the documentary because we assume we wouldn’t have been so naïve. But how can we say that when as a nation we all did the same thing? We believed his innocence for the sake of good music and to secure our image of an idol.

With both Kelly and Jackson, we knew about the allegations, but we looked the other way. We consistently separated the art from the artist, but we cannot do this anymore. How could we listen to Jacksons numerous number one hits without the ringing of Robson and Safechucks abuse accounts in our ears? Or Kelly’s party classics without thinking of the women he tortured and abused?

In the past, we might have compartmentalized but now it is simply impossible. Social media and constant connectivity mean we have a strong knowledge about and connection to these celebrities. The artists are no longer elusive and unknown because we are more aware now but for a long time, we relied on the narration of biased tabloids and newspapers.

It’s time to focus on righting our wrongs and bringing justice, and I don’t believe we can rely on the medium of documentaries, or the pressurizing of victims, to do it. We need to start to unify the art and the artist and discard it all in one.

It is slightly comforting to think that perhaps evil characters like Jackson and Kelly, Weinstein and Allen, were created in a time of more anonymity and these monsters wouldn’t exist today if they had been more exposed and accessible when their years of abuse began.

We need more than hope to change this cycle of abuse forever, and we must look out our relationships with celebrities and their art before we can do that.

Aoife Smith

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Writer | Reader | Teacher | onebrokegal.com