No more problematic faves

I once gave a talk to a room full of women about enjoying problematic media. At the time I was talking about hip-hop’s tendency towards misogyny, but the argument for any other field, was the same. If we disallowed ourselves to enjoy anything created by a problematic person, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy anything at all. Instead of deifying or discarding their works, we should approach them with a more nuanced view. And as for real change, we would have more power from within fandoms, than outside them.

The year was 2015.

It is now 2019, and I am fucking done with abusers.

It is 2019, and it is clear to me now that simply remembering to criticise the problematic authors of the works we enjoy is not enough. All of our goodwill and generosity and nuance has become yet another loophole to escape justice. Meanwhile, their long trail of victims stay silenced, and their future targets are none the wiser.

The culture that disavows abusive people while simultaneously celebrating their work feeds into the culture that keeps those abusive people in power. When once I thought these were two different tracks, I now see that one enables the other.

It is 2019, and abusers of all kinds, no matter what their contributions to society are— are all cancelled. Forever. Goodbye. Good riddance.

While I’ve always technically felt this way, it’s never been something I felt like I had to formally decree. After all, hip-hop artists, comics, filmmakers — as much as I enjoy their work — were never personal childhood heroes.

Childhood heroes

This morning I read an incredible piece by Leila McNeill in The Baffler. If you have any interest or investment in the scientific community at all, please read it. In it she talks about the abusive behaviours of physics’ most lauded and loved scientists: Feynman (a personal childhood hero of mine, up until recently), Krauss (another personal hero, up until recently), de Grasse Tyson (another personal hero, up until recent— notice a pattern here?).

Feynman, in particular, was not only someone whose work I admired growing up, but was someone I wanted to become. The cool nerd. The laid-back physicist, joking around and not taking life too seriously. To this day, Six Easy Pieces sits on my bookshelf. So to learn that he was consistently abusive towards the women in his life is a special kind of shock to me. A strange, unpersonal, yet deeply personal betrayal.

A screenshot from the bio of an old travel blog. I would often describe myself as a "wannabe-Feynman".

In 2013, Lawrence Krauss gave a talk which I attended at Otago University. I was star-struck. Here was this articulate, inspirational physicist, speaking to us all the way in New Zealand. After his talk I went up to him and told him how much his work popularising physics meant to me. He asked for my name and warmly shook my hand. I cringe now thinking back to that memory.

I don’t have the right words to describe the way I feel, revisiting these ex-heroes of mine. But it hits me hard. I remember the power that someone like Lawrence Krauss had. And I remember how friendly he seemed. It’s not unbelievable that a young physicist would be excited that someone like him was interested in their work, only to realise that their work was not what he was interested in at all. And to realise the fact far too late. I believe it because it could’ve happened to me.

The myth of genius

Genius is a common trope amongst powerful men, abusive or not. But this trope is moreso a lie than anything else — what is attributed to the work of a “lone genius” is, most often, luck, and the work of many people acting in concert.

More sinister than a lie is the trope as a shield. A narrative alibi for abusive behaviour. This idea that we must stomach assholes in hopes that we might receive the fruits of their genius. We see this in our TV shows and movies (remember House, MD?). We see this in our idols (when will tech bros shut up about Steve Jobs? Possibly never). And by the trickle-down values economy we see this in the everyday people around us, in our work and friend circles.

(Note that the words like “genius”, “visionary”, and “polymath” are rarely ascribed to women.)

I’ll admit that I once subscribed to this idea. I once thought that putting up with abusive behaviour was normal. It was simply cost of some good ideas. But there was something I had failed to consider: the opportunity cost of these abusive, lone “geniuses”.

I cannot fathom where we would be as a species if it were not for abusers. I cannot imagine the scientific discoveries we could’ve found if more than half of the potential scientists were not forced out. I cannot dream of the moving, beautiful artworks that we have lost because of the artists we have lost. I can’t even begin to think about how much more we could understand our universe, how much richer our lives would be, how many more books, more stories, more songs could be enjoyed if it were not for abusive people in power, forcing out those who challenged them, who rejected them. Silencing them so that they may keep their reign. And all for what? Is what we have to lose from these men worse than what we have already lost? What we stand to lose if they stay?

Taking back the narrative

The focus on men’s reputations at the expense of women’s lives is an old story. Told by those in power, adjacent to power, or those who aspire to be in a similar position of power. As Hannah Gadsby said in Nanette, these men controlled our stories.

We can remove that power. We can avoid the trap of defending the “genius” behind the abuser. We can stop giving abusive behaviour hall-passes in exchange for creative and intellectual work.

We can tell new stories. Ones that focus on our lives, our work, and our potential.

References and further reading