The 'Second Chance' Fallacy
Net-A-Porter’s cover story with Robin Wright digs into a lot of interesting topics, from her “socially conscious” clothing line (which gives economic opportunities and skills to women in conflict zones) to her upcoming work (she’s shooting a flashback for Wonder Woman 1984!). She also discusses completing the final season of House of Cards and the turmoil behind the scenes in the wake of co-star Kevin Spacey’s dismissal due to the sexual misconduct allegations against him. As an executive producer, she fought to keep the show from being canceled for the sake of the fans and the crew (“Our show’s not dirty,” as she put it).
But all anyone is talking about is her comments on Kevin Spacey himself, so before we dig into that I’d like to share one portion of the article that highlights her values:
Being kind and considerate is clearly important in every walk of Wright’s life. “To be a good diplomat,” is how she puts it. “That is what I want to be, and [have] worked at being. Listening, being open, not reactionary. You can be direct and opinionated without being a bitch.” Her kids (with ex-husband Sean Penn), Dylan, 27, and Hopper, 25, take after her. “They are both very thoughtful,” she says. “I always kicked them: ‘Hey, think about other people.’ I really enforced that. I mean, I’m not comfortable in a disgruntled situation. I like people. You don’t want to not be liked or not like.”
I think that’s important to bear in mind when reading her statements about Spacey — because this whole response is an uphill battle to be diplomatic:
I steer the conversation to Spacey, and though she says she has nothing to add, she does. Would she like to reach out to him, I ask? She pauses, weighing her answer. “No. He’ll reach out when he’s ready, I’m sure. I think that’s the way it should go.” Does she feel sorry for him? Another pause. “I feel sorry for anybody whose life is in the public arena. It’s a nightmare, can you imagine? We do a job, we share [a performance] with viewers. Why does our private life have to be public? I hate that part of this industry. It’s so invasive. I believe everyone’s personal life should be personal. Positive, negative, neutral, whatever - I don’t believe it should be anybody’s business. But I’m not talking about this [#MeToo] movement,” she clarifies, in case she’s thought to be condoning Spacey’s alleged behavior or criticizing those who came out publicly against him. “I’m talking about media. The exposure. It’s an awful feeling. A stranger deciding they know who you are and they are going to put that in a…,” she drifts off. “I mean, it’s criminal, it really is.”
We sit in silence for a moment. Then, gingerly, I ask a final question about Spacey: does she feel he deserves a career reprieve? “I don’t know how to comment on that, I really don’t,” she starts. “I believe every human being has the ability to reform. Has the ability to reform. In that sense, second chances, or whatever you are going to call it - absolutely, I believe in that. It’s called growth.”
It would be easy to read this and say, “Oh, Robin Wright feels sorry for Kevin Spacey and thinks he deserves a second chance.” But I don’t think that’s quite what this is. Could she have been harsher? Sure. But first, let’s acknowledge that the questions she was posed framed her answers. She was directly asked about feeling “sorry for him” and whether he deserves a “career reprieve” — which is a case of the media situating the narrative along those terms. And why do that? Why not ask her if she felt disgusted or surprised by the allegations, or whether she felt sorry for his accusers? If she was a male co-star, would she have been asked those questions in those terms? I am sure her opinions about Kevin Spacey are complex, and she is entitled to them. But let’s be clear that she was ONLY asked about very particular aspects, and had to respond in kind.
So I think she was being led into a difficult position by the interviewer, and she did her best to skirt the matter in her answers. Rather than saying she doesn’t feel sorry for Spacey, she identifies the area of his situation that she can sympathize with, which is the public scrutiny. Which, as the ex-wife of Sean Penn… yeah, I imagine she does have some thoughts on the invasion of privacy. However, I do think her discussion of the media is missing a key element: specifically, Spacey’s fame probably helped protect him from these allegations for a very long time. As hard as it is to come forward as a victim of sexual abuse or misconduct in any situation, it has to be even more complicated when you also have to anticipate the blowback of media scrutiny, not to mention your abuser’s massive fanbase. For Spacey, his position as a public figure cuts both ways — it’s just that now he’s feeling the sharper edge of that knife.
But the part that’s more interesting to me is her answer about second chances. Partially it’s because I agree with her, to a point. I too believe that human beings have the ability to reform and to grow. But you’ll notice that she never says whether she thinks Spacey is capable of it — just that she believes everyone is, conceptually. It’s a neat verbal dance until she makes the mistake of mentioning second chances. And she had to, really, because the question she was posed wasn’t “Do you think Spacey can reform?” — it was about whether he deserves a “career reprieve.” Again, the question was framed to be more concerned with Spacey’s job prospects than whether he could ever truly change and grow. And that’s fucked.
The problem with talking about “second chances” is that a second chance isn’t something a person does for themselves — it’s something bestowed upon them externally by the public. Basically, it requires that WE do the heavy lifting of getting over THEIR misconduct or literal crimes. A person can reflect on their actions. They can try to change, and grow, and reform. But forgiveness, like second chances, is in the eye of the beholder. The fallacy is wrapping it all together into one great big ball of “what comes next” — as though if an abuser changes then they NEED to be forgiven, or they NEED to be given a second shot at their life as it had been. That’s simply not true. The public doesn’t owe abusers anything. Maybe Kevin Spacey can reform. I hope that’s the case! But I don’t need to watch him do it. And even if I eventually accept that he’s changed, that doesn’t mean I have to forgive him for his past actions.
If we continue to focus on whether or not abusers will get a second chance, we’re normalizing the idea that redemption is performative — that the goal is to convince the public that the abuser has grown. If the change is genuine, then that’s icing on the cake — but how can anyone prove that they’ve really changed? That’s the question I’d like to see interviewers asking, instead of all this premature talk about whether Kevin Spacey deserves a career reprieve (after doing nothing more than going away for a few months). Because the fact is, nobody just “deserves” to get their life back as-is. When you make any mistake, you run the risk of damaging your life irreparably — so shouldn’t that be even more true for people who serially abused or assaulted people? Sometimes you may get that second chance, but it’s never guaranteed. Sometimes you truly reform, and you’re still hated. And sometimes reform is so transformative that you no longer even want your old life anyway. So instead of focusing on the possible outcomes, let’s start talking about what reform looks like. How can a person begin to learn from the harm they caused others? How can they look internally at what made them abuse others? What would we like to see an abuser do to show that they’ve grown and changed? And maybe if we can focus on the act of reform as a goal in and of itself, we’ll realize that second chances are beside the point. Maybe your second chance isn’t a continuation of your career but the chance to live your life differently than you had been. To help rather than to hurt.
In discussing Wright’s comments this morning, Petr pointed out what we’re going to start calling the “WWCD” standard of reform, for “What Would Cutty Do”:
In The Wire, when Cutty comes outta prison after 14 years, after briefly being tempted back into crime, he decides to not only start over but to make amends, to give something back. So after working hard unforgiving work as a landscaper he eventually starts a gym for at-risk youth. He gets shot in the leg trying to keep one of those youth off a fucking corner.
THAT’S how you work at redemption.
I think Robin Wright’s comments about Kevin Spacey missed the mark, but I think the questions she was asked were even worse — and I think the real problem here is the way all of us are talking about second chances as though they’re synonymous with reform when we all know most of the time, celebrities get their second chance without earning it anyway.
Header Image Source: Netflix
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