Celebrity shame has a knack for transforming unspoken cultural traumas into national news. It’s the nature of the business. I could repeat the cliché about throwing stones in glass houses, but we’ve seen it a million times before: Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus raise issues of child stardom and sexual double standards; Anthony Weiner and Rob Ford make us question the sanity of democracy as a whole. Stars exist for a reason. They provide a safe space to ridicule, to judge, and to toss around culture wars like nerf balls in order to see which ones stick to the public mind. The notorious celebrity, one might say, is like a drunken uncle on Thanksgiving: uninvited, uninhibited, and the embarrassment that makes one’s own life seem a little bit brighter.
But sometimes headlines come along that are hard to swallow. How does one understand the narrative of an Oscar-winning actor—father of three, beloved by all—dead on Super Bowl Sunday with a needle in his arm? Where does one begin with a misanthropic auteur, immortalized in lifetime achievement gold, re-accused of child molestation when the world seemed content to forget?
These narratives defy the cultural coping mechanisms that reduce complex issues to singular events, separated from public concern by the celebrity mystique. When Lindsay Lohan goes to court again and again for substance abuse, it’s dismissed as child-star syndrome; Mel Gibson’s derogatory tirades become the subject of YouTube remixes, never mind the fact that they implicate him in domestic abuse and battery. Whereas Lohan and Gibson fit into certain stereotypes of degeneracy, the same cannot be said for two distinguished legends of stage and screen. No one expected Philip Seymour Hoffman or Dylan Farrow to shave their heads or drag race down the Miami strip. Secure in award nominations and a selective cultural memory, I’m sure Woody Allen never expected to deal with the charges of abuse against his adopted daughter again. As Farrow writes in her open letter to The New York Times, “Most found it easier to accept the ambiguity.” The story of a vindictive ex and impressionable child is easier to stomach than the realization that predators are not confined to the shadows, and that some stories cannot be reduced to their headlines.
Within these narratives, and the unease they generate, lie inherent truths about the society that propagates them. Russell Brand—comedian, political activist, and recovering drug addict—writes in an article forThe Guardian that “[Hoffman] was a drug addict and his death inevitable.” He does not attribute this to the weakness of addicts or an enigma of depression. What he says instead is that we are a culture that criminalizes addiction and celebrates apathy. He could have written a similar piece about industries that worship accused child molesters (of whom Allen is only one) while touting their art to the very populations being preyed upon. Dylan Farrow was moved to speak because she could no longer withstand “a world that celebrates her tormentor.” How many victims of domestic violence see Chris Brown at the top of the charts and feel as silenced as Farrow? How many parents follow Allen, and Polanski, and Jackson, and realize that their voices have no worth against the word of a powerful man? Just as drug laws turn victims into criminals, Hollywood turns abusers into gods. Regardless of one’s opinions on the Allen and Hoffman cases, both situations are products of failed legal and cultural systems— people like Hoffman and Farrow are only the most visible victims.
As Brand says, “the disease of addiction recognizes [no] distinctions.” Neither does sexual abuse. These struggles can affect anyone, anywhere, in any home, in any city. When those affected are talented, wealthy, well-connected (and white skinned) stars, we mourn them, we mock them, we discuss them; then we move on to the next 24-hour crawl. Meanwhile, 34 percent of all rape victims reported in a 2000 government study were under age twelve. The CDC reports that overdose deaths in the US have been rising for eleven consecutive years. These tragedies are nothing new, and yet each star-studded admission is a “bombshell,” an Event with a capital E; they are treated with shock, dismay, the desire to change, but always with eventual abandonment.
I don’t know whether celebrity cases are flashpoints for cultural change or mere distractions from deeper, more insidious suffering. There is no doubt that Hoffman and Allen will fade away like Heath Ledger and Roman Polanski (and, come to think of it, Allen himself) before them, sifting through the public unconscious until fresh scandals bring their specters to the fore. Hoffman and Farrow’s tragedies will not be the last hefted onto the altar of public vivisection; let us, with whatever memory we can, make the sacrifice a noble one.