The Fault in Our Stars: Does It Matter if Celebrities Are Bad People?

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | October 28, 2014 | Comments ()

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | October 28, 2014 |


Few would argue anymore that outrage isn’t the renewable resource fueling the modern Internet. There’s nothing perpetually offended self-appointed moral arbiters love more than getting mad, no scandal they can’t conjure from the tiniest crumbs of controversy.

Two things always fascinate me about this: focus and sustainability. Concerned parents worry more about eradicating toys based on fictional meth kingpins than actually confronting society’s burgeoning meth problem. Summer action tentpoles are so violent now that heroes can destroy entire cities without the audience so much as blinking. Show a gay Smallville couple kissing each other goodbye before a flying traincar crushes them to death, though, and right-wingers won’t even bother shuffling their same-sex lovers out the side door before organizing a boycott. Yes, our bullets occasionally strike worthy targets. But only after a dozen innocents lay bleeding on the pavement. We don’t even stop to survey the carnage before turning our gaze toward the next mark.

This noxious cycle is on my mind thanks to a recent bit by a standup comedian, and a movie I watched. Both raised provocative questions: Do our entertainers need to be morally updating citizens? If not, is there a point where we can no longer enjoy content developed by morally deficient celebrities?

Let’s talk comedy first. This month, Hannibal Buress flim-flammed Bill Cosby’s zim zam during a set in Philadelphia. Burress said, among other things, “[Cosby] can talk down to you because [he] had a successful sitcom. Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby,” and “[Cosby says] ‘I don’t curse on stage.’ Well, yeah, you’re a rapist, so, I’ll take you saying lots of ‘motherfuckers’ on Bill Cosby: Himself if you weren’t a rapist.”

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First off, that’s fucking funny. It’s also not a joke. Since the 1970s, multiple women have accused Cosby of drugging, groping and raping them. He was never charged or convicted, but that’s a damning pattern. So why the hell does everyone still love Bill Cosby? Perhaps because we don’t care.

This idea that we ignore favorite stars’ flaws was actually bouncing around my head before Burress’ set hit the web. Earlier this month I finally had a chance to check out X-Men: Days of Future Past. What a well-acted, compelling, mature comic book film. It’s another solid entry on director Bryan Singer’s outstanding CV…a CV that may also include serial child rape.

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Singer and Cosby are far from the only embattled celebrities thriving despite serious allegations or charges against them. At age 25, Tim Allen was arrested and spent two and a half years in jail after getting popped with 650 grams of cocaine. Blue Ivy’s dad stabbed a record exec in the stomach back in 1999. Many believe Woody Allen is a pedophile; most know that Roman Polanski raped a minor. Kanye West, Reese Witherspoon, Mel Gibson, Chris Brown, Alec Baldwin, Charlie Sheen, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson: the list of successful entertainers who commit crimes, hold abhorrent views, or generally act like gaping assholes couldn’t fit in that Ark of the Covenant warehouse.

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Public consequences, though? Those are harder to find. Actors aren’t refusing to work with these embattled directors (check out the casts Polanski nabbed for The Ghost Writer and Carnage; Singer will helm the next X-Men film). Directors aren’t blacklisting these tainted stars. Critics don’t seem to care (Blue Jasmine was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar). And a public constantly searching for offenses certainly isn’t avoiding their work. Days of Future Past earned $746 million worldwide and is currently the sixth-highest-grossing domestic film of 2014. Yeezus debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, went platinum, and was nominated for two Grammy awards. Sixteen years after Allen’s cocaine bust, Home Improvement became the TV’s highest rated show, The Santa Clause opened No. 1 at the box office, and his book Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man topped the best-seller list - all in the same damn week.

Sure, we’ll excommunicate Justin Bieber for being a petulant annoyance. That’s easy: he’s a jizz mop who produces nothing worthwhile. Selective memory rears its head pretty quickly when indignities become attached to someone who can still entertain. Or to those we like. Fame mirrors life in that regard. Fair or otherwise, a janitor has a much smaller margin for error than the CFO of a Fortune 500 company. If you can generate revenue, draw massive crowds, sell a million albums or break off a 60-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, we’ll tolerate your indiscretions. Just don’t lose that spark.

I’m no different than the masses. The Ghost Writer is one of my favorite films from 2010. I’ll listen to anything Kanye releases. I bought my parents tickets to see Cosby without a single thought to his sexual abuse claims, and I’ve cheered for a dozen scumbag athletes. Before you organize a Twitter mob to burn down my e-house: of course their actions bother me. But only when I think about it. Which I rarely do.

Even if I always considered the full picture before watching a movie or buying an album, my behavior wouldn’t change. There’s a difference between holding actors, entertainers, and athletes up as role models, and enjoying the content they create. Renting Days of Future Past doesn’t perpetuate child rape or dilute its horrific nature. You’re not an asshole for listening to music made by assholes. Appreciating art independent of its creator’s personal flaws is a tradition that dates back to the Renaissance.

Celebrities are under no obligation to adhere to any moral code. We have the ability to enforce our values on entertainers by shunning those who fail to meet certain expectations. With few exceptions, we don’t, because bad people are often worth the trouble. If that realization bothers you, don’t worry: you’ll forget all about it in a few hours when you learn that some politician forgot to wear a flag pin.

Brian Byrd thinks the most amazing failed concept is love. Follow him on Twitter.


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