A storm of nonsense has descended on this blog over the past couple of days, inspired, apparently, by the idea that I’m just reading things into Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino lyrics and the belief that Charlie Sheen is a kind, compassionate individual who is the victim of a frame job by vindictive women. So let’s get a couple of things straight for when we’re talking about sexism and mass media:
1. Just because women buy misogynistic products, or sleep with artists of misogynistic products, does not mean that those products don’t express misogyny. Wesley Ambrecht, who is apparently a big, big Childish Gambino fan, tweeted at me: “Drake has this fantastic line on his song ‘Paris Morton Music’ that summarizes why he, Donald and other rappers of their ilk employ that types of lyricism. ‘I hate callin’ the women bitches, but the bitches love it. I took some sense and made a nickel of it.’” (A point he expanded to no particularly more productive effect in a longer blog post.) First, the idea that Drake has some sort of comprehensive knowledge of what “bitches” love is laughable. Second, even if some women like products that say horrible things about them, that doesn’t mean that those things aren’t said, or aren’t horrible. We live in our contradictions. That doesn’t mean that exploiting them or making money off of them is admirable. Just cynical.
2. Some women behave badly. That doesn’t mean that you can extrapolate rules about society from their behavior, or because you’ve been wronged, that you have a right to judge the behavior of the many by the actions of the few. Commenter Michael Tollefsen wrote in to inform me that “Childish Gambino repeatedly states how he raps about things that have happened in his life. So when he talks about how women only like him now after he has money, this is based on events that have happened to him. So your anger for these remarks should be based towards all the women who chase him for his money, not towards him. Him pointing out how poorly women treated him in the past is not a random attack on women, and should be seen as such. If you don’t like these statements you should be critiquing the women who view money as a leading qualifier for a man.” First, this is weak-sauce cultural analysis. Everyone who creates art draws on their personal experiences. That doesn’t mean that Childish Gambino’s songs are literal recountings of events from Donald Glover’s life. Second, even if they were, it’s pretty sad to extrapolate from a couple of burnings and failures the idea that all women are against you. Anger and hurt don’t justify stupid stereotypes. Having been wronged doesn’t make all your work going forward conscious. And stupid stereotypes don’t make you look sophisticated and strong.
3. Accusations that famous men abuse women are not inherently false, and not inherently motivated by the prospect of a payout. I had no idea that there were so many people who believe that Charlie Sheen is a nice guy who is being set up, but Kimberly Jenkins writes about his “alleged abuse of women,” and Tabitha-Renee Parsons wants to know “If Charlie had a violent character, why didn’t he appear as rowdy, who beats women as a youth and a young grown-up? Especially, since we all know how success can spoil a young man’s brain. Not all women are angels, and the least during a custody battle. Charllie claims, never to have beaten a woman. Wouldn’t he be honest about it, if he did, just like he was about his drug and alcohol abuse?” As it turns out, Charlie Sheen has been honest about his abuse of women, at least as it pertains to his court proceedings. A no-contest plea, which he entered into response to allegations that he battered an adult film actress, may not be the exact same thing as a guilty plea, but it has the same effect. He also pleaded guilty to holding a knife to his ex-wife’s throat. It is an accepted fact that he shot his ex-fiancee. Even if you dismiss cases where he settled out of court, or where, like the shooting, the violence is explained away as accidental, or where he’s denied he was guilty, Charlie Sheen has admitted to violence against women.
4. Feminists are not always looking for something to be angry about. But it’s hard to overstate the sexism in American popular culture. Mr. Ambrecht tweets, “I’m of the belief that ‘misogynist’ has become overused. I don’t think Donald ‘hates’ women.” Mr. Tollefsen writes “Trying to make it appear like that song is directed towards women is selfish, get over yourself.” Do I think Donald Glover inherently and consciously hates all women? No, I don’t. Do I think that reducing women to their genitals, reducing women’s motivations to greed, and referring to them repeatedly as bitches, springs from a place of deep contempt for women? Yeah, I kind of do. These are not casual or neutral sentiments, however much our culture has suggested that we see them that way. Glover has the right to say whatever he wants. He is not entitled to always benefit from the most charitable interpretation of that speech, which given his work on 30 Rock and Community I was inclined to give him.
5. Demanding better isn’t trolling. Ms. Jenkins writes of Sheen’s new show, which I will not be watching, “Well, good for you and your convictions… but as an average person, in the average world… we will all watch it.” Which independent of the idea that Charlie Sheen is a dreadful person who I don’t want to get a penny of my money, whether it’s from direct purchase of DVDs or eyeball-supported ad dollars, makes me sort of depressed. The idea that it’s elitist, or high-horsey, to want entertainment that’s high-quality and not dreadfully racist, sexist, homophobic, or demeaningly stupid says everything you need to know about why Hollywood gets to keep doing what it’s doing.
6. Liking art that is misogynist, racist, sexist, or homophobic doesn’t necessarily make you those things, and indictment of that art doesn’t have to be an indictment of you. This seems to be a stumbling block for a lot of people. But let me be clear: if you think Donald Glover is a great MC, I don’t think that means you beat on women or that you hate them. I think Eminem’s Slim Shady persona is virulently misogynist and disturbing, but I still think Em is a ridiculously gifted MC, and I’ve struggled with this since I was in high school. Tower Heist contains an utterly ridiculous but entirely hilarious extended joke about what Eddie Murphy thinks about lesbian sex. Is it problematic? Absolutely. But it’s also one of the funniest bits in the movie. Folks need to breathe a bit. I think our conversations about culture would be a lot healthier and more interesting if we could hold two thoughts in our hands at the same time and acknowledge that we like problematic stuff. Because really, we all do. I’m not aiming for purity. Just awareness and debate. On the other hand, if you begin your defense of Donald Glover with “First off, you are a dumb CUNT!” as one now-banned James Jones did, that is not a productive road for us to travel down, and says a lot more about you and your defensiveness than about anyone else’s interpretation or the art in question.