Public Debate Over Sexual Harassment by Celebrities
The latest news headlines speak of celebrities, from actors to directors to comedians and more, who are now being publicly accused of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not new, nor are human foibles.
In my experience, it's not about the newness of a topic that sparks a public dialogue. Rather, it's a head-turning event happens that captures the public interest. And it seems to particularly cause public outcry when the celebrity's public persona, or the character's he's associated with are in stark contrast to his transgressions. We wonder whether he has been lying to us by pretending to be a good person.
Loving from Afar
What many of us are talking about right now, whether across the table at a cafe or on social media, boils down to dealing with what to do when someone you love does something you hate. Before we get to that topic, I want to back up and talk about the first part...the "someone you love."
I have done research on the attachment we have to popular culture figures such as television actors and the characters they play. Before you respond by saying, "Oh, yeah, those weirdos who stalk stars!" or "Oh, yeah, those weirdos who think Star Trek is real," give me just a minute. If you want to know more of the details, I refer you to some of my work1,2,3.
For the purposes of this blog, suffice it to say that it is natural for people to form attachments to actors and roles. For the most part, the people who can do this are actually more healthy than those who don't. Loving a story where the people involved face conflicts and obstacles and deal with them with authentic humanity is a good thing. Research has shown that people who watch complex drama are more empathic4. According to multiple studies, really liking a story world is related to greater well-being.
Who Do You Love?
Whether you know someone because you see them at the office or the PTA meeting, or you know someone because you've seen them act out stories on the silver screen, we humans are designed to watch people and to try to make sense of them. Human beings have two evolutionary imperatives: Survival and reproduction. We are majorly motivated to do our best at both of these. The thing is, other people are key to our survival and reproduction (we can't do them alone, after all).
So, one of the reasons we're drawn to film and television is that they help us practice understanding how human social life works. Fiction has been called a social simulation. Shows and films open our imaginations. We can ask ourselves "what if" questions, such as: What if a comet were heading toward Earth to kill us all? What if my spouse died? What if I were suddenly thrust into a leadership position. Stories help us work this out.
Louis C.K. has helped me think about what it's like to be a nerdy guy who wants to ask out a woman who's smart, funny and pretty. This was a situation on Parks and Recreation where Louis C.K. played the love interest of Amy Poehler's character, Leslie Nope. Watch this clip from Parks and Recreation where we see Louis' character falling for Amy's: youtube.com.
In that clip, it's easy to empathize with Louis' character. He seems sweet and authentic and harmless. If you watch him do that on the screen, the tendency is to think that he "has it in him" to be like that in real life. Or, more likely, we just decide that he is like that in real life. Why? Because we've seen him act that way and it's natural to judge that he acts that way because he IS that way.
In the clip, Louis talks about his sexual attraction to a woman. It's actually a bit unnerving to watch now, in light of recent events. We wonder - who is he, the lovable Louis or Louis the harasser?
"It's the Same as in Real Life," Is a Safe Bet
If you're trying to figure out the psychology of our relationships with celebrities and the characters they portray, the best answer to some key questions is often that how we feel about characters and actors is basically the same way that we feel about people in real life. There's not an off/on or real/unreal switch in our brains.
So, how do we feel about celebrities who we thought were great guys, but who we now know did something terrible? Well, we feel and act pretty much the same way as we do towards real people we know who let us down.
That means that a person we love doing something we hate makes us feel cogitive dissonance. We have two thoughts that clash:
1) I love Louis C.K.
2) Louis C.K. is a sexual abuser.
How do we reduce dissonance? There are several ways. One way is to change the first statement: I hate Louis C.K., or, at least, I don't like him any more.
Another way is to change the second thought. In other words, we cope with the bad feelings by deciding that he really is not a sexual abuser. This can mean deciding that he really didn't do what people say he did.
Just this week I saw a news interview with a woman who knew Alabama politician Roy Moore, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. The woman said that she knows Roy Moore and what he stands for and he is a good man. Either she is denying thought #2, or she's adding the thought that he's done a lot of good in his life, thus reducing the importance of his sexual misconduct.
Another way we try to work this out is to think about how much bad behavior you can tolerate in someone and still believe they are a good person. Or, you might add a religious or philosophical bent on the issue and say that we are all sinners.
My point is, that we're doing these psychological calculations on everyone from Louis C.K, to Roy Moore to Kevin Spacey. If the accused were your next door neighbor or your boss, you'd go through a similar thought process.
Is There Hope?
For me, it's less important whether we decide to love or hate Louis C.K., than it is that we decide to no longer tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace. I know that people are trying to decide whether to boycott anything that Louis CK (or Kevin Spacey, or on and on...) is in. I am not sure a boycott like this punishes these men for their crimes.
For one thing, it's like flooding the town a man lives in in order to punish him. You take a lot of innocent victims with you. I think it's more effective to use your energy to try to make the problem itself better. That might include not hiring the person in the future. It might include writing letters or working in your community.
Now, if you don't want to watch something in which Louis CK starred, that's your perogative. If you just don't enjoy it anymore, that's understandable. My point was that boycotting isn't likely to be the most effective aid in the battle against sexual harassment, although it might do some good. On the other hand, I don't think you need to feel bad if you continue to enjoy Parks and Recreation. It's a matter of getting clear about what you are doing and why.
Recently, comedian Jon Stewart spoke about his friend Louis C.K., his shock at the revelations, and his honest treatment of sexual harassment by men. Watch the video here.
For me, one great thing about what Stewart says is that men are used to being in charge. Power can be misused. Admitting that and working to reduce risk for women in the workplace is a worthy goal. We can take our anger and distress and use it to propel action. We can take the opportunity this distressing time affords us and let it spur us into real action.
I admire Jon Stewart's honesty and his ability to take responsibilitiy for his own actions. Watching him process this helps me process it. And that is another good thing that can come out of a bad situation. My relationship with Jon Stewart helps me cope. I've never met him (though I've written about him in multiple books!), but still, through our public conversation, he makes a difference to me.
I hope these thoughts at least give you some questions to consider and discuss when you're making your decisions about what to do in response to these revelations of sexual harassment by beloved stars. This is a situation that presents a lot of ambiguities. Sometimes we'd rather try to make people either good or bad, but it might not be that simple. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that bad deeds should go unpunished, or that sick people don't need help and forgiveness.
1) Dill-Shackleford, K. E. (2016). How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Information and Entertainment Media in Everyday Life: Revised and Expanded, 2e, New York: Oxford University Press.
2) Dill-Shackleford, K. E., & Vinney, C. (under contract). Finding Truth in Fiction: The Benefits of Getting Lost in a Story, New York, Oxford University Press.
3) Dill-Shackleford, K. E., Vinney, C., Hogg, J. L., & Hopper-Losenicky, K. (2015). Mad Men Unzipped: Fans on sex, love, and the sixties on TV (1st ed.). Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
4) Black, J. E., & Barnes, J. L. (2015). The effects of reading material on social and non-social cognition. Poetics, 52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2015.07.001