Celebrity culture has given women the confidence to defy and challenge those with power and influence in show business.
“You brought the flames and you put me through hell.” The words are from the American singer Kesha’s recent track “Prayer” and are, in many people’s opinion, directed squarely at her former producer Dr. Luke, with whom she has been locked in a legal battle for years.
There have been allegations of sexual abuse made by Kesha (pictured above, by rocor) that Dr. Luke (Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald) denies. She signed for his Kemosabe Records, an imprint of Sony, in 2005, when she was 18. Their relationship was fractious pretty much from the outset, though it was creatively fertile and made her a star.
But in 2014, Kesha, or Ke$ha as she was then known, went into rehab and there she told doctors that Dr. Luke had drugged, sexually abused and physically assaulted her. When she emerged, she replaced the $ with an s in her name and filed a lawsuit, accusing him of sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, civil harassment, unfair business and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress in a lawsuit. He countersued for defamation.
A ruling in March concluded that Kesha had entered a contract after the time she alleged the abuse started; this seemed to contradict the singer’s allegations and suggest that Dr. Luke’s alleged abusive behavior was foreseeable. The conflict appears to have subsided, at least for the time being. Dr. Luke continues to produce music.
Indecorous stories about the singer, songwriter and R&B producer R. Kelly have been circulating for several years. The latest broke a couple of weeks ago and centered on his alleged immurement of several young women. According to allegations, these women live in properties in Atlanta and Chicago, owned or rented by Kelly, where every aspect of their lives is controlled — down to what they eat and wear, how they address him (“daddy,” apparently) and when they have sex with him. A parent of one of the captives despaired: “It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner … she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her … if I get her back, I can get her treatment for victims of cults.”
Men with Power
While there are huge differences in the two cases, there are similarities: In both cases the alleged wrongdoer is a man who is successful in the entertainment industry and respected for his artistic output. The cases bring into grim focus an ugly aspect of show business — men with a certain status can be controlling abusers of the opposite sex.
The focus seems sharper now than ever. Bill Cosby was recently in court accused of numerous offenses. An inconclusive jury verdict resulted in a mistrial, but the stories of drugs, intimidation and sex resonated with other episodes, particularly the many episodes that have emerged in the UK recently. The most infamous of these concerned the television presenter Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011 but was posthumously disgraced after it was found he abused 60 people, aged from 5 to 75.
Most of us will assume the paradigm is the O.J. Simpson case, which involved the murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and culminated in what many still regard as the trial of the century in 1995. Simpson was cleared but later served nine years behind bars for armed robbery at a Las Vegas casino hotel in 2007. He was recently released.
But these kinds of incidents are probably as old as the entertainment industry itself. Enrico Caruso, the world’s preeminent tenor of the early 20th century and one of the most famous figures of the time, was in 1906 prosecuted for molesting a woman in New York City. At the trial Caruso was said to have imposed himself on six women in total. Caruso was found guilty and fined $10, the maximum amount allowed by law. Since then there have been standout cases. Roman Polanski in 1977, Woody Allen in 1992, Mike Tyson in 1992 (I count sports as part of the entertainment industry). But after the Simpson case, there seems to have been a prevalence of cases involving men who have exploited their status, influence, authority or a combination of all these to abuse women.
This is probably a misleading perception. More likely, we are just more aware of such cases. Why? Obviously, the media are much more likely to pounce on this type of case nowadays. Our appetites are probably more salacious now than ever. We take delight in pronouncing our own judgments in supermarkets or at the office. And the media feed this. But there is more.
Code of Silence
Celebrity culture has delivered many gifts, many of them unwelcome. But an agreeable aspect of its largesse is the confidence it has given women. I’m not talking about confidence in its most general sense, though I do think this has been affected by our preoccupation with celebrities. I mean the confidence to defy and challenge what were once regarded as indomitable show business figures with power and influence enough to get pretty much what they liked and do as they pleased — with anyone they chose.
Women, young and old, have been emboldened because they’re no longer awestricken by the kind of men who in previous eras were popularly regarded as inaccessible, unapproachable and, in some cases, godlike. In any case, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that have been buried by Hollywood’s super-efficient publicity machine. Stars, especially male stars, were surrounded by an invisible defensive shield, a shield that dissolved as celebrity culture took shape. The once-remote stars were humanized into celebrities — the kind of people who would stand next to you and chat at a bar.
One of the features of Britain’s Savile case was the apparent hesitance of women in the 1970s to raise a whisper about men in the public eye. They weren’t just star-struck; they were terrified, not by the man, but by his aura – that immanent quality possessed by public figures of the time. Not now, of course: Fans exchange views on social media, take selfies with them and track their movements online. All of which has rendered them more ordinary. And being ordinary means having the same sort of inadequacies and being capable of the same kind of transgressions as anybody else.
Without caricaturing every powerful man in the entertainment industry as a sex-seeking missile, it seems reasonable to assume that the casting couch of Hollywood lore has some basis in reality and that attractive but powerless young women have been awarded roles in return for granting sexual favors.
Whatever happened to the predators? There are probably plenty of them around, though their pursuit of young women has been restrained, paradoxically, by the spate of cases that have dominated news in recent years. Any time a man contemplates making an unwelcome sexual advance on a woman, the possibility that she’ll react with the fury of Judith beheading Holofernes must cross his mind. Flashing before him are thoughts of a career-ending indictment, a shaming court case and even a prison sentence.
Learning about sexual coercion in the entertainment industry horrifies us, but it also reminds us that the days when young women did as they were told and obeyed a code of silence are gone.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption.]