What are our responsibilities in navigating rape culture? On R. Kelly and separating art from life

Can we separate a work of art from the artist who created it? Can we separate artists from themselves? What is our role as consumers of art in relation to rape culture? What is rape culture?

You may have asked yourself some of these questions in recent weeks if you read the detailed article on R. Kelly’s history of sexual poaching and abuse of minors or if you saw Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow publicly accusing his father, on twitter, of sexually abusing his sister (Allen’s then seven year old daughter).

There are many other problematic artists of course (Roman Polanski and Norman Mailer come to mind), but perhaps none so widely loved and heralded by mainstream media as Kelly and Allen, who’ve not only been a permitted to continue living their lives and making their art with virtual impunity, but are still celebrated uncritically. It’s time to ask why and how we keep continuing this exercise of deliberate collective cognitive dissonance — wherein we are aware of rape and abuse that took place, yet continue to support the rapists and abusers.

The first step in answering these questions must look towards rape culture — what it is; how it works; and why it continues to be sustained and reproduced by cultural institutions, and let’s face it, ourselves.

So what is rape culture? Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) quotes Emilie Buchwald, author of “Transforming a Rape Culture,” who defines the term as encompassing: “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm… In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable… However… much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”

Rape culture perpetuates itself by establishing violence against women as not only a norm, but as an inevitable fact. When we eschew our agency and role in the continuation of this norm of violence, we are effectively conflating how the world ought to be, with the way the world is. Just because rape culture exists in the world does not mean it should exist in the world; nor does the pervasiveness of rape culture justify our washing our hands of trying to end its pervasiveness. To maintain these positions is to fall back on an appeal to nature, a logical fallacy at best; a willful and deliberate refusal to counteract the status quo at worst and in practice.

But what counts as violence? Language is partially responsible for maintaining our current rape culture: “politics is partly about a struggle over the language people use to describe social and political experience” (Young). Violence is all too often conceived as literal physical harm or damage to persons, but this is an all too narrow and incomplete definition — one that is often used by victim-blamers and rape-apologists to deny, silence, and trivialize women’s experiences of violence: “You weren’t really raped — you were just drunk!” “It’s not like he hurt you,” etc. A better, more accurate definition of violence — that actually takes into account what its victims say about it, what it does, and how it works — is absolutely essential if we want to end it. This more robust definition of violence must recognize the fact that violence operates through a wide range of attitudes and behaviours: whatever violates a person’s right to or sense of safety, security, consent, and dignity is an instance of violation against that person. If we want to end rape culture, we must define violence as any such breach against persons, whether explicit or implied, and also accept that this violence is what characterizes and sustains rape culture.

When we consume art made by artists who we know raped and abused girls and women, are we condoning rape culture, or even perpetrating further violence? The quick answer is yes. We’ve probably all participated in rape culture at some point in our lives. How could we not? We are entrenched within it. I know I have enjoyed R. Kelly’s music in the past, and have absolutely been obsessed with a number of Woody Allen’s films, but there should be some distinctions drawn between participation in rape culture, and active condoning/perpetrating of further violence within it.

With this distinction we can say that we participate in rape culture when we rewatch that downloaded rip of Manhattan privately in our homes knowing that its director and our consumption of his work is problematic. But when you are publicly consuming and celebrating a known rapist’s work, you are actively condoning rape culture and perpetrating further violence to the rapist’s victims. The distinction between mere participation and perpetration of further violence within rape culture depends on whether your choice to consume the material and your enjoyment of its consumption violates anyone’s right to and sense of safety security, consent, and dignity — as mentioned above.

There are dozens of women in the US right now who were allegedly raped by R. Kelly when they were as young as 14 who haven’t yet seen full justice for the crimes committed against them. The Village Voice’s Jessica Hopper spoke with journalist Jim DeRogatis (who’s been covering this story for 15 years) about what happened after he criticized Pitchfork’s decision to hire R. Kelly to headline their summer music festival:

One of Kelly’s victims called him in the middle of the night after his Pitchfork review came out, to thank him for caring when no one else did. He told me of mothers crying on his shoulder, seeing the scars of a suicide attempt on a girl’s wrists, the fear in their eyes. He detailed an aftermath that the public has never had to bear witness to… There was a young woman that he [R. Kelly] picked up on the evening of her prom. The relationship lasted a year and a half or two years. Impregnated her, paid for her abortion, had his goons drive her. None of which she wanted. She sued him. “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are ‘bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,’ plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point : one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different. No, it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.”

It is a violation against these women’s right to safety and dignity each time we condone or celebrate their rapist’s work.

How are cultural institutions, and we ourselves, perpetuating rape culture?

A local example of how cultural institutions perpetuate rape culture is the upcoming showing of Kelly’s film, Trapped in the Closet, this Saturday at The Rio Theatre in East Vancouver. This beloved Vancouver cultural institution, owned and operated by women, is actively promoting and following through with a screening and sing-along of R. Kelly’s famous hip hopera despite concerns raised by numerous patrons of their establishment condemning their decision to support him and his work. Saturday will be The Rio’s second collaboration with The Action Pack, an interactive event production arm of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas based out of Texas that’s been bringing the interactive R. Kelly experience to North American theatre-goers since 2009. Audience members are being sold on a fun night of entertainment:

this Sing-Along event will take TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET and give it the full Rocky Horror experience, with subtitles on screen to make it easy to sing-along (or just keep up with the story if you’ve never seen this majesty before), and props like Barettas, rubbers, spatulas and more to help make the magic moments on screen come alive in the theater.

TITC is being marketed as “the cinematic event of the century.” There are currently 3000 people invited to the Saturday showing on Facebook. Select criticisms of their decision to show Kelly’s work on their promotional event pages have been deleted.

When  I questioned their choice to continue showing this rapist’s work, Rachel Fox and Corrine Lea responded as follows:

Thanks for touching base. I do appreciate your concern, and it’s certainly valid. R. Kelly is definitely not unique as an artist whose life casts a shadow over their art – Roman Polanski, Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson and even Woody Allen come to mind as being in a similarly controversial category. The Rio, as a venue, makes a distinction between the artist and their work. Artists are complicated people and we may not like all of them, but we may still appreciate their work” (Corrine Lea). Regardless, like any exhibition-based business (movie theatre, radio station), provides a product to an audience, and as a small independent business it’s necessary for us to cater to a broad one in order to survive. We screened this title in 2012 and had a big turnout, and are screening it again based on consumer demand. Popular consumption is a democracy, and the great thing about being in one is that you as a consumer *always* have the option to tune out those products that don’t appeal to you. Turn to a different radio station if you don’t like a Chris Brown song, choose not to purchase products from platforms (ie, iTunes/Apple) that sell content from artists (like R. Kelly) you have misgivings with, opt not to wear American Apparel if their campaigns don’t appeal you, skip certain movie genres that recycle tropes you take issue with, etc. As a programmer at the Rio I take what I do really seriously, and make a concerted effort to bring a lot of small, independent titles – many of which have extremely limited audiences – to the Rio. … Bottom line: What’s good for one person may not be for another. I won’t deny that R. Kelly as an artist is legitimately problematic, but I also can’t deny that TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET (has anyone here seen it?) was one of my favourite experiences at the Rio last year. And yes, absolutely, there’s conflict there, but there’s inherent conflict all around us, and everyone has to make decisions for themselves on what their own boundaries are. Personally, I think it’s fucked up how people revere Michael Jackson every year at Halloween and gloss over his sordid history… does that mean I think people who choose to dress up as zombies and re-enact the “Thriller” moves with abandon every year “condone” his history, whatever it may be? No, I don’t. I choose not to listen to his music and don’t actually own any. But that’s me, and those are my boundaries. That may not be you, or yours. (Rachel Fox).

This is rape culture in action. I think any of us can appreciate just how hard it is in this city to run and promote any creative/artistic venture, but one night of financial gain is surely an unwise priority to place above basic integrity. We all share a responsibility to ourselves and the victims of rapists to, at the very least, not perpetrate further violence against them. That it’s “really fun” is not an acceptable answer. Singing along, celebrating, paying for and profiting from the work of an alleged rapist (whose violations of dozens of young women are well documented in hundreds of pages of court affidavits) is further violating his victims and condoning the injustices of rape culture. In holding this event, The Rio is telling its patrons, as well as society at large, that even though they are well aware that this man has been accused of raping dozens of girls as young as 14, this is OK — that The Rio (and,in fact, everyone else, as the purpose of promotion is to reach as many people as possible) should still support his work and reward him culturally and financially.

Rachel Fox is right that what is good for one person may not be for another, but that’s not what is at stake here. If what a person does violates another, then it’s up to that person to refrain from whatever it is that may violate that other person. Just because we don’t think we’re doing anything wrong to ourselves, doesn’t mean we aren’t doing wrong by and towards others.

Another thing to think about is this: 51% of Canadian women report having experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of sixteen. And that is just what is reported. Undoubtedly, of the 3000 invitees to the R Kelly sing along event this Saturday, there will be, among them, women who have experienced rape. What is the message to women who’ve experienced rape who are then invited come out and sing along to R. Kelly? Rape and the culture that engenders rape is everyone’s business. It should behoove all of us to work against everything around us that encourage and perpetuate this culture, not celebrate it.

And “democracy” is a poor crutch of an excuse here. If we relied on “democracy” to sort out our basic human rights such as our right to safety and dignity we wouldn’t have any. A lot of people want to rape girls. If enough people want to, should we allow it? Majority rules? Should we condone and promote it? Should we sing-along to it?

There were no ballots or voting involved in The Rio’s choice to show Trapped in the Closet. Cultural institutions have the ability to make choices and with that ability comes power and responsibility. Profiting from the work of admittedly “problematic artists” who get away with rape is not only condoning that injustice but further violating those girls and women raped by these artists; as well as girls and women in our own midst who may be struggling with their own experience of sexual violation. What is the message we’re sending them and to society at large when we give our time and money to those who get away with rape? The message is: “you don’t matter, there is no justice for you.”

This is not acceptable. Let’s stop pretending that rape culture is some autonomous, nebulous thing out there in the world that we can’t quite grasp — we know full well what and where it is and how we directly engage in and perpetuate it in every sphere of our lives. We can take steps to stop supporting its manifestation and reproduction if we own up to what we already know: no matter how “fun” or “ironic” your participation in rape culture is, it’s wrong to partake in the violation of any person.

Jennifer Kim is a student, a writer, and a feminist living in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter @Im2old4thisship.

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