Can We Please Make 'Cancel Culture' Happen
I promise we'll only cancel the real rapists!!!!!
Hey y’all. This edition of Home with the Armadillo is going to deal very frankly and polemically with sexual assault, abuse, and harassment, and there are some grafs below that I expect will be disturbing, triggering, and upsetting for some and maybe even many of my readers.
Because of this, I’m going to lead off with this delightful tweet featuring a video of a big white floofer doge wearing costume eyebrows, set to the tune of Wii/Mii music from the Nintendo box. If you don’t have the capacity to deal with the above-mentioned issues right now, don’t scroll below it. If you do have the capacity to deal with the above-mentioned issues right now, you have an obligation to do so and, if you ask my Thursday-night half-drunk ass, to take immediate action to do something the fuck about this bullshit.
Content note: The below piece contains specific and repeated references to sexual, domestic, and gender-based violence. I choose to use the terms “survivor” and “victim” pseudo-interchangeably in recognition of the fact that many of us who have experienced sexual, domestic, or, gender-based violence, abuse, assault, and harassment may feel called toward claiming one or both or neither identities, and in the clumsy hope of honoring the fact that while I can’t choose for anyone else, I can at least admit that sometimes I don’t know which one I am and you know what? I don’t fucking have to decide now, today.
I still listen to the regular radio. My car is old and I don’t have the satellite thing, so for short trips around town when I don’t want to plug my phone in, it’s usually the country station or the other country station. When the country stations are advertising, I listen to the hits station for people old enough to get nostalgic about Jncos. I don’t know what this station is called. It isn’t Bob or Jack or Terry FM. A different one. Whatever.
Three times in the last couple of weeks, I’ve tuned in to hear what was probably 2006’s most widely appreciated cross-genre banger, “Crazy,” by Gnarls Barkley. If you are also old enough to get nostalgic about Jncos, you might have done as I did back in the mid-aughts and wore Gnarls Barkley’s debut record absolutely the fuck out, to the extent that you can wear out MP3’s. I loved that flipping record.
This thing happens on the radio. Songs that haven’t been popular in ages crop up in waves, then disappear again. But when I hear “Crazy,” I am not transported back to the Deep Ellum apartment where I blasted that album on repeat for weeks, or invited to fondly recall the dozen or so mix CD’s I burned for friends with “Crazy” as the lead-off track. Instead, I think about the fact that Gnarls Barkley’s CeeLo Green probably drugged and raped a woman in 2012, and later went on a lengthy Twitter tear about the incident that included the exclamation, “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!”
Call me crazy, but I remember stuff like that. So the first time “Crazy” came on recently, I tuned the dial back to the awful used car dealer yelling on the country station. I changed the station again the second time. The third time I changed the station, I thought: Where the fuck is actual cancel culture when you need it?
I’d been stewing on this, thinking I should write a Home with the Armadillo post about the intellectual dishonesty of #MeToo “cancel culture” critiques in light of the pervasive and pernicious success of creeps the world over despite the supposed feminist matriarchal cabal’s acrylic-nailed grip on the collectively shivering scrotum of planet Earth’s beleaguered bros, but couldn’t really find a new way in, and honestly? I grew tired a long time ago of trying to convince people that rape culture exists, and of explaining to people how and everywhere it manifests, and of feeling fired up and ready to argue with people about whether the fucking patriarchy is a real fucking thing.
And then I was at the bar. I am at the bar a lot.
This bar I was at is my favorite bar, the bar down the street, the bar where everybody knows my name. This bar has a great jukebox. A noted jukebox. I was having a drink with my husband while finishing up work for the day -- we call this “playing Battleship,” with our laptops up on the table -- and it took a little bit, but we both stopped typing thirty seconds or so into the song being piped over the patio speakers. It was one of my all-time favorites. One of our all-time favorites, probably. Whiskeytown’s “Everything I Do (I Miss You),” or a solo version of the same by singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.
Ryan Adams, who earlier this year was credibly described as having spent years systematically creeping on teenage girls -- aspiring musicians -- and manipulating them for sexual and romantic attention in exchange for, ostensibly, boosting their burgeoning careers.
Ryan Adams is canceled in our house. It is not something either one of us relished doing. Ryan Adams was part of the musical glue that brought Patrick and me together early in our relationship, on mixtapes and during all-night whiskey-fueled sing-a-longs; we have traveled across the country together to see him perform live.
But when it came time to ask the question of whether I loved this music and everything it ever meant to me more than I loved myself as a woman and a survivor and just a regular fucking person who had to look herself in the mirror every day, there was no question at all. Ryan Adams was the soundtrack of my college years and my young adulthood, my solace during the bullshit and the breakups with half a dozen bad and boring dudes before I fell in love with my husband, a man to whom this music had meant much the same thing as it had to me -- and yet, there was no question. Ryan Adams is not a man who plays our quarter-acre any more.
But there he is, at the bar. And there’s CeeLo, on the radio. And they are not the only ones. Everywhere I hear voices of awful and predatory men, and they are sounding and speaking and singing so loud while, from other corners, their defenders crow and claw to be heard and understood over the unmitigated din of these same men who have, the apologists say, been silenced and shut out by the #MeToo mob.
It is hard to hear survivors over the protestations of rapists and abusers and their protectors. The story of what it means to experience sexual assault, abuse, and harassment seems always to be drowned out, in the end -- by Al Franken’s new radio show; by Bill O’Reilly’s (“America’s Best-Selling Historian”) ongoing book series; by cheers for Art Briles’ high school football team (now that they’re winning); by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court opinions.
To the extent that we are willing to hear survivors’ stories, we want to hear them only once. The first time. And they’d better be perfect. They’d better be unassailable. They’d better be complete and comprehensive on the first fucking draft. There are no revisions, no re-do’s. We demand more of people processing sexual trauma than we do of college freshmen writing English papers.
If you’re going to come for a man like Mike Tyson or Kevin Spacey or Woody Allen or Bill Cosby or Brock Turner or Jonathan Kaiman or Bryan Singer or Chris Brown or Harvey Weinstein or Neil deGrasse Tyson or Les Moonves or John Besh or R. Kelly or Charlie Rose or James Franco or Ryan Seacrest or Mario Batali or Matt Lauer or Garrison Keillor or Glenn Thrush or Al Franken or Louis C.K. or Roy Moore or Clarence Thomas or or or or or or or or or or or, you’d better shoot to kill, and you’d better not miss. Sometimes, the story kills. More often, it doesn’t.
In truth, this shit is complicated and hard and devastating and only sometimes rewarding or, as New York Magazine put it this week, “worth it.” New York has done remarkable, maybe even unprecedented, work contacting and listening to people who’ve survived and spoken out about sexual assault, and highlighting their stories, rather than observing, at length and ad nauseam, whether it’s real sad that Brett Kavanaugh has to wear a baseball cap when he goes out, even to — the horror — Nationals games.
Things are changing, but slowly and sometimes it’s two steps backward and nine steps even farther back and a glance forward and and a slide sideways and — well, this fall at least, there’s Chanel Miller’s book, Know My Name. She was originally known as “Emily Doe,” the woman assaulted by Brock Turner in California.
Let’s be clear: this is unusual.
Survivors of sexual and gender-based and domestic violence really only get one story. Abusers get a thousand and one. They get their rebuttals -- tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram statements and e-mails and interviews -- and they get their comeback narratives -- the surprise comedy shows and stand-up specials, the new restaurants and new records and new columns and new reporting beats and new book deals and new Supreme Court appointments and, of course, shiny new presidencies. They will, inevitably, be asked to return to the site of their expertise, which is usually within the realm of their offense. If they don’t go back to playing sports, they go back to calling games. If they don’t take office again, they become political commentators. If they’re not back in the kitchen, they’re at least on the lease. If they don’t make movies again -- well, they do tend to make movies again.
The stories that abusers choose to tell or are invited to tell, are just the beginning. These are the affirmative, agent moments when abusers are asked and encouraged to write and rewrite against the singular narrative allowed to their victims. With these stories, abusers actively rebuild themselves anew and again, not in the service of accountability to those they’ve harmed or with the purpose of showing they’ve understood and corrected their behavior, but with the expectation that the people who enrich them -- their customers, their viewers, their constituents, their fans -- will feel good enough to forgive what was never theirs to forgive, or feel better about never feeling all that bad in the first place.
But what of the residual stories? Of the song that’s still on the radio or playing on the jukebox? Of the movie recommended on Netflix or the branded merchandise at the department store or the fading autographed photo at the diner? Those are stories, too. And they tell us many things.
To survivors and victims, they say: your pain is small and temporary, but an abuser’s talent and value is timeless. To the apologists who want to wash and wish away abuse, assault, and harassment, they say: it can be done, it can probably even be monetized, and you will be validated.
These residual stories persist because there is no such fucking thing as cancel culture when it comes to sexual and gender-based and domestic violence, and even if there were such a thing, meted out in small doses in restricted geographies (in which case “cancel culture” would not be an appropriate descriptor no-how), it is not as yet more powerful than our deep societal thirst for moving on. What there is is patriarchy and rape culture and white supremacy and all the attendant assholery that makes it possible for abusers and creeps to tell a thousand and one stories for as long and as loud as it takes to silence and sideline the people they’ve hurt, which is, in sad truth, not very loud and not very long.
Because these stories aren’t told without help. They are lifted up by those who swear that, if ever they meet a real victim, they will be the first the very first out front up early and first! to defend them, but until then, they have some real concerns about all of these unhinged, dick-thirsty pretenders out there. These people gesture at genuine sympathy for an imagined person, a sort of Schrödinger’s real rape victim -- a woman who can be supposed to exist until she dares to actually exist, at which point, she doesn’t and can’t. (Men and boys who survive rape and gender-based violence and sexual assault do not figure into the equation when it comes to these apologists.)
Inside the box containing (or not!) Schrödinger’s real rape victim, anything could happen. But outside the box? Outside the box, Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan wonders if maybe “a lot of these events” coming out in the midst of the #MeToo movement -- especially this creeps-in-the-newsroom thing -- aren’t just about regrettable sex and typical female jealousy. Slate veteran (and, curiously, Atlantic contributor) Emily Yoffe has built a career out of arguing that this rape-on-campus stuff is all just a bunch of hullaballoo over nothing but a little bad drunk sex. Both women have very recently doubled down against their own colleagues: women in the media who have dared (or been forced to) go public with allegations against a former Los Angeles Times foreign bureau chief.
There is one idea at the heart of Flanagan’s and Yoffe’s concern-trolling, victim-blaming bullshit, and which is indeed at the heart of most critiques of survivors’ stories and characteristic of the general backlash to the #MeToo movement, which casts the entire endeavor, in a spectacular misunderstanding of the term, as a “witch hunt”: that people who insist on having their experiences not only heard but recounted accurately for the public, and treated at least as credibly as rebuttals from the accused, are so, well, extant. So intent on being, you know, around. These people are so concerned with -- and this is the real problem -- not being polite, which is to say, silent, about the harm they have endured and overcome. Some of them tell their stories not just one time, but many times. Some of them seem to be the mistresses and masters and mxes of their own experiences; some seem not at all to care who they piss off or, worse, to care deeply who they piss off and proceed anyway.
Flanagan summed it up most recently, if not best, when she snarked that Felicia Sonmez, a Washington Post reporter who had detailed allegations of sexual assault against a colleague in a report to their shared professional organization, had engaged in “stealing from women who fought so hard to tell the truth about sexual assault” after she asked Flanagan to correct an NPR interview in which Flanagan had (perhaps unintentionally but certainly ignorantly and cruelly) mischaracterized Sonmez’ allegations.
There is nothing substantively different about Sonmez’ account in comparison to the accounts of others who were abused by the same man, and also nothing different about her account in comparison to any other person who has grappled with coming forward about experiencing abuse at the hands of a powerful colleague.
But there was, of course, something the same about all of these accounts -- something that Flanagan and Yoffe and untold numbers of other rape and assault apologists take serious exception to. Something they really hate to see. Something that fucks up their worldview.
Because you see, real rape victims stay silent. Real rape victims never make a fuss. That’s how you know they’re real rape victims. That’s how you know the rape worked. Oh, sure, it’s a terrible shame, would that it were any other way, but alas, we’ll only believe you were really victimized if you don’t go off and do something crazy like, say, give a big fuck about it.
It is curious that for the beneficiaries of patriarchal power and for the hangers-on who hope to survive on its crumbs, the only way to know who’s really been raped is to hear as little about it as possible. What a convenient catch-22 for abusers and their defenders. What a cruel conundrum for the rest of us.
I know that I will turn on the radio or flip through a jukebox sometime soon and recognize the voice of an abuser, but I also know that the stories of survivors are so much more powerful and nuanced and complicated and valuable than they have ever been given credit for.
I cannot, perhaps, always control what I hear.
But I can decide what to listen to.