Today, my timeline is filled with the differing views of my friends.
Many friends, especially queer ones, are mourning David Bowie’s death, rightfully expressing the grief they feel over an individual who has inspired them.
Some of my friends are pointing out that David Bowie once slept with/raped a 15 year old*. And while it may not seem at least from this article that she doesn’t necessarily regret it, can I really blame these people for pointing out the extremely creepy power differential between a preteen and a rock star?
With this coming just after Bill Cosby has been arrested, a few more of my friends have pointed out that there is and has always been an extremely different attitude taken toward Black men who commit sexual crimes and White men — which is also a reality that more and more people need to recognise. And it’s a reality that doesn’t excuse or erase what Bill Cosby has done.
Then there are some of my friends pointing out that so many of our faves are problematic. Here’s an extensive list of male celebrities with past or outstanding charges of domestic violence for example. In an age where we have way more information at our fingers than we did years ago, it seems far more common to have a problematic fave than not.
Is it cruel to remind those in the midst of mourning that the heroes they once admired did some pretty nasty things? Or is it an insult to all victims of sexual crimes to not mention it, to gloss it over, to put someone on a pedestal without context?
All of this is enough to make one’s head spin and re-surfaces the original question of what you do with a problematic fave — especially if everyone is so problematic.
I’m weighing in on this with my own perspective because of my experience, but I’m more than willing to hear critique.
My own problematic fave
I have many problematic faves in my life. They raised me. I grew up side by side with them. I’ve mourned the loss of them as heroes in my life for very different reasons — all of which resulted in different responses.
My parents were my original problematic faves. I’ve created distance between myself and both of them, but for different reasons. While my father’s history of abuse and his own shady relationship with my mother created that distance on it’s own, my mother’s mental illness and the fallback that it has on our relationship has made me back away for my own safety until she gets help, which she refuses to do.
I looked up to and admired my father in the same way people admire celebrity heroes. But the only difference is that I actually knew the man in flesh and blood. As someone with elements of pop culture etched in my skin, I’m not going to pretend that a film, a character, or a person can’t mean just as much to you as a real person can, especially if there’s a dearth of decent quality human beings in your life. My father disowned me near the time as I first read the Half Blood Prince.
Severus Snape, in all of his problematic glory, came to represent a father-like figure to a me — a clear representation of a path I shouldn’t follow. Draco Malfoy, another problematic fave, and his relationship with his father was something I related to and understood way more than the cheerful, gallant Weasley family.
But being disowned by my father hurt because I refused to hold him to account. I put him on a pedestal. I pretended he could do no wrong. I pretended so hard, I forgave him for carelessly putting me in harms way. For stopping my life-saving medication. For threatening to remove my me from my mother’s custody on the grounds that she was a lesbian — a case he would have easily won in the early 90s in the US South.
It wasn’t the actual disowning that hurt so much as the painful realisation that the man that I’d looked up to my entire life was nothing like the man who was actually my father. But still deep inside my heart, I do love what my father was at times in my life.
And I love all of the problematic faves I have. It’s a complicated relationship. Despite our relationship not being healthy, I gained my passion for equality and social justice from a mother who showed me Mississippi Burning and X when I was a kid. My humour I get from a father who did a marvellous impression of Daffy Duck and encouraged me to do impressions. And being a Southerner, well that’s a problematic fave in and of itself.
How do you love an abusive fave?
Growing up and loving problematic faves has taught me one thing: It is never healthy to deny the things your heroes have done wrong. It is never healthy to put another human being so high on a pedestal that, even during a time of mourning, you can’t bear to recognise and respect the realisation that they too have erred.
Especially in the case of a clear abuse of power.
I love Severus Snape as a character, and as a hero. He means a lot to me. And when he died, I was devastated. And although you might say to me, “Severus Snape is fictional!”. Well, I knew Severus Snape about as well as the vast majority of the people mourning across this world knew David Bowie personally. It’s the idea of a person that we admire, that gives us strength, rather than the real, completely fallible human being.
At the core of my being, the reason I believe in social justice is because I believe that people and society can change. That wounds can be healed. But in order for that to happen, we have to be willing to accept that even the people we most admire can do things we find incredibly repugnant. We all have to be problematic. And that also has to matter, not just be a reason for us to ignore the things we or our heroes have done.
This doesn’t mean that we’re not capable of admiring what these people represent and what their existence has meant to us. Representation does matter. But representation is not the altar that we anoint our heroes on. If we exist in a world where we all mess up, where we’re all working on becoming decent human beings, where we all live in society which doesn’t teach us to love ourselves in different ways — then our heroes must also mess up too.
Growing up, my fave was about as problematic as you could get for being a child with a lesbian mother. I loved Eminem. And although now I realise that it was the censored versions of his albums that my mother bought me that kept me from realising how much he used the word f*ggot, he was one of the influences that kept me from the suicidal ideation so many LGBT teens go through.
If he died tomorrow, I would probably mourn. I would accept that he’s committed domestic violence, that he’s joked about rape, that he’s been homophobic and misogynistic in a million different ways. I would also accept that the 12 year old inside me that clutched my CD player in the night as I cried had lost something. And I still listen to “Sing for the Moment”. What Eminem represented for me was important, but not so as important to ignore what he’s done or be upset at someone pointing out his flaws.
Everyone has their own tolerance of what type of problematic behaviour they’ll put up with from a person they admire before they stop admiring them. You might decide to ditch your problematic fave, you might not. But I believe there can be a place where we can celebrate what someone has given us in our lives but still be real about the ways they have hurt others.
And yes, I think we’re capable of doing that even as we mourn.
Celebrities, musicians and all of the people we admire are, at the end of the day, just human. We must be willing to admit that.
*I use “slept with/raped” here only because, while I don’t think it possible for a 13 year old to really consent to sex with a rock star, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that the individual in question currently doesn’t call it “rape”. And I feel hesitant to tell someone what they have experienced, so I’ve opted to express both here. We have to allow people to define their own experiences and hold those who are older and should know better accountable. Also, reports say she was 15, some say she was 13, but this article seems to say she’s 15, so I’ve corrected that.
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