Now-former television chef Paula Deen’s had a miserable week and a half since the release of depositions that revealed she was being sued for creating a discriminatory workplace through the use of racially charged language and discussing plans for a plantation-themed wedding. She’s subsequently been accused of wage theft, but the focus has largely been on her alleged use of the word “nigger” in a workplace setting–Deen denied using such language in a professional setting, but acknowledged using the slur during a robbery in which she was threatened by a man with a gun. Deen issued a series of awkward video apologies denying that she harbored any racial malice and saying that racial slurs were unacceptable, her sons defended her to Chris Cuomo on CNN, and Deen herself made a tearful appearance in an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show that probably hurt her brand as a television presenter as much as it failed to mollify her critics.
But as good as it might be for Deen to go on one of her cruises, which fans of hers have signed up for in large numbers as a show of support, and to drop out of the public eye for a while, Deen probably isn’t gone from the news cycle for good. The reasons she’ll stay in the news have as much to do with the needs of an industry that’s grown up to support celebrity rehabilitation, and to exploit celebrity downfall, as with Deen and her advisors’ own attempts to salvage what remains of her financial empire. And what that industry decides Deen needs to be rehabilitated for–her use of racist language, rather than the allegations of a hostile work environment and wage theft that have been lodged against her–says a great deal about what they think makes for a sexy, effective story.
First came the offer from a porn company, Pure Mature, that offered Deen a deal to endorse the company, without even asking her to do nude work. These kinds of proffers are incredibly common to celebrities in trouble, and sometimes, they actually work. YouPorn, for example, took Charlie Sheen at his word that he’d be up for striking a deal to film his life with a pair of porn stars, though the deal ultimately didn’t materialize. It’s become reasonably common for stars who have sex tapes leak to publicly decry the circulation of material as violations of privacy, but accepting that they can’t control the material once it’s been released, to strike deals with companies like Vivid to release higher-quality versions of the tapes that they can benefit from financially. Even if these offers don’t work, or if they never had a hope of being accepted in the first place, it makes sense for companies like these to approach stars, and often to do so as publicly as possible. They can benefit from the publicity they’ll get for dreaming up a deal, which may be better for their business than whatever they’d get if Deen actually stepped up as a spokeswoman, or if Sheen actually agreed to have his exploits broadcast.
It’s easy to dismiss porn as a special case, but the celebrity vulture industry includes far more respectable players as well. There are rumors that the producers of Dancing With The Stars might approach Deen to be on the show, which would make near-perfect sense for the program. Dancing With The Stars depends significantly on the existence of two classes of celebrities, one so minor and marginal that any increase in their profile, no matter how goofy, is worth it for the improvement in their name recognition, and the resulting chance of leveraging a competition show into more substantive work in entertainment. The other is people who have been disgraced, or seen their approval diminish in some substantive way, whether Tucker Carlson’s trying to recover from his departure from CNN, or Bristol Palin’s making her family’s first foray into reality television. For them, Dancing With The Stars and shows like it function as likability engines, providing participants a framework to attract supporters and to leverage their personalities against those of other minor or shamed so-called stars.
Even news outlets have gotten into the act, extending Deen’s stay in the spotlight with programs like CNN’s special, hosted by Don Lemon, on the word “nigger.” That bit of programming illustrates part of what’s fascinating about the anger directed at Deen, and the way her apologies and her questioners have focused on language rather than on the larger implications raised by Deen’s accusers. Deen’s accusers haven’t just suggested that she used ugly words. They’ve alleged that she created a broadly discriminatory environment, and that she asked them to work for free. An investigation by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition into Deen’s employment practices suggest that many workers in Deen’s businesses have had good experiences, but also that many of them fear retaliation, and that some feel there’s an environment of racial discrimination in promotions and raises. Those allegations are significant and important, and deserve just as much attention as Deen’s language. But they’re also less shocking and sexy, and less easy to dismiss as a somehow-forgivable relic of the past than Deen’s use of ugly words or antiquated sense of aesthetics.
In other words, Deen’s potential use of the word “nigger” renders her exactly the kind of figure the Hollywood vulture industry likes: a little old lady who did wrong without knowing what she did, and who can be rehabilitated and educated for everyone else’s profits and amusement. Addressing her as a bad boss would make her greedy and vindictive in a rather more commonplace way, and in a way that reflects on quite a large number of other people whose racial biases may not show up in their words, but are obvious in the composition of their workforces. We’re all happy to pile on someone who uses the word “nigger.” If only we were willing to extend the same scrutiny to the other ways it’s possible to create a hostile workplace.