And that’s precisely why you can do better
Illustrations: Nena Maree
“And in Women’s Month!” is a phrase that we find tacked on to the end of a lot of sentences around this time of year. It’s the signal that another fave has fallen into the category of ‘problematic’, along with the misogynists, racists, rape apologists and homophobes that went before them. As actual Nazis parade the streets of America and their president seems unable to find the words to condemn their murderous actions, and SA's own government seems to be having trouble addressing the issue of abusive criminals in their ranks, calling out the missteps of celebrities might seem minor. But what better time to explore the importance of acknowledging wrongdoing than when so many seem to be struggling to do just that?
So many of them are the ones we had high hopes for: the ones who make us say, “But we were all rooting for you.” There's Caitlyn Jenner, whose Vanity Fair cover appearance feeling like a hopeful moment for the trans community, but with Trump support following swiftly, and apparently here to stay. There's French president Emmanuel Macron, whose election win looked like it could signal at least a slowing of the far-right sentiment sweeping Europe, right before he ruined everything for the naïvely optimistic as he blamed African women "having seven or eight children" for our continent's problems.
Tyler the Creator seems to be challenging notions of conventional masculinity, but it’s difficult to forget his homophobic past when it keeps surfacing in the present. Azealia Banks burst onto the music scene with catchy tracks and a combination of talent and attitude that seemed like a winning combination in a woefully male-dominated industry, but they came tainted with a penchant for slurs against fellow musicians ethnicities and sexualities. Amber Rose's impressive work in empowering women and girls has continued despite the crass and often cruel treatment she's received from the media and the likes of Kanye West, and yet she released a book riddled with 'dating advice' that reinforces a message that a hypersexual, super-chilled girlfriend is the only kind of girl to be. A bonus bit of advice, this one for your career, states that, "You don’t have to be so professional that you’re a bitch."
Then there’s the trickiest of problematic faves: the white woman. Lady Gaga has made the world an easier-to-live-in-place for queer kids, but continues to insist that white supremacist violence is best faced with 'positivity', while Kim Kardashian has a similar stance on those critiquing her collaboration with notably racist makeup vlogger Jeffree Star. From the highly talented and progressive but definitely-in-denial-about-being-at-least-a-little-bit-racist Lena Dunham to queens of appropriation Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea, they seemed for a brief and innocent moment to be living out their feminist truth and teaching us how to do better, but intersectionality was not to be. Let's not start on Taylor Swift.
We were all rooting for you.
Oddly enough, we tend to temper our responses to problematic celebrities by trying to criticise their work. But the fact remains that Migos’ homophobia has little to do with whether you believe that mumble rap is killing hip-hop, and Brock Turner does not swim any slower because he’s a sex offender.
Because all of this gives us something important to contemplate: that if even the men and women we revere can get it wrong, then so can we. And then we can realise that we’re more than the mistake we’ve made, do our best to make it right, and move on.
Every now and then, there’s a case of a celebrity making a sincere apology for something that they got very wrong, then doing better. There was Chris Hemsworth apologising for past appropriation in light of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and prominent feminist Gloria Steinem revising her past trans-exclusionary thinking to declare that “trans lives should be celebrated, not questioned.” More dramatically, there are stories of reformed Westboro Baptist members who came to realise that their “God Hates Fags” messaging didn’t sound much like the words of a loving God, the ex-Neo Nazi turned peace advocate, and Teen Vogue rebranding from slightly problematic and very typical women’s magazine to the bastion of progressiveness that gave other publications permission to engage with the mess of personal and political that is America under Trump.
Of course, apologies are few and far between, and there are those whose actions are too reprehensible to rethink any time soon: Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, R Kelly and the like.
This isn’t about telling you which of your problematic faves to forgive, and which are too far gone. It's not about how to be better about giving constructive criticism, because balancing the dangers of criticising someone's efforts to unlearn with your own need to not become exhausted is a balancing act that deserves its own lengthy discussion. It’s not about when and where to engage, because we’re grown-ups and this is 2017 – by now you’re already calling out racism at family lunch and checking privilege on the group chat, right?
It hurts because we cared. We don't want to stop singing along to 'Ignition' and we don't want to delete Chris Brown's tracks off of iTunes. We don't want to remember the first time we heard Okmalumkoolkat and felt like something had changed for local music, or the way that his surprisingly personal lyrics caught us off-guard on 'Holy Oxygen'. I certainly don't want to remember that when I read that he'd sexually assaulted a woman in Australia, the first thing I did was try to find reasons that it couldn't be true – my first glimpse into how people can come to believe that their friends' accusers are lying. We all buy into the "real men don't rape" myth eventually, but the sooner that we learn that the people committing sexual assault are very real, the better. Because it's the other side of the same lesson: when we realise that we can't divide people neatly into the categories of "bad" and "good", with one category to be wary of and another eternally trustworthy, it becomes clear why we need to keep each other in check.
We’ve got to do this with our peers because it’s exhausting for people of one group to constantly explain their existence to another. Instead, it’s about how you react when you’re the one being called out, and when it’s in your own power to keep a cool head, reconsider what you’ve done or said, and keep moving. A sincere apology goes a long way, but what’s even better is learning about why what you said or did was wrong – and doing this by Googling the issue for yourself rather than expecting a person of colour to tell you why Die Antwoord is problematic or asking a woman to educate you on the nuances of slutshaming, internalised misogyny, and why street harassment is not a compliment. The person calling you out might not be polite, and they don’t have to be.
As white supremacists rampaged through the streets of Charlottesville, the first reaction of many (particularly white) Americans was to tweet with the hashtag "#ThisIsNotUs". Well-intentioned though this was, it was also unhelpful: distancing yourself from a problem doesn't make it go away. And so it's worth keeping in mind that no matter how many valuable words you have to say on a topic, you're not immune to getting it wrong sometimes.
All our faves are problematic, and so are all of us.
Perhaps it isn’t too optimistic to think that your response could be the beginning of a knock-on effect: that when others see you take a mature approach to being called out, they might realise that defensiveness helps no-one, while unlearning might.