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After reading about this, I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry for spending so much time with his comedy in years past, for ignoring the media whispers about his behavior long before it was made public, for evangelizing to friends about how great he was. C.K.’s appalling turn into the king of the d-bags is enough to make me throw my hands up and say: Is it possible to be a fan of anyone or anything anymore?
And that’s an interesting question. I find myself more and more hesitant to sing the praises of a new movie or show or comic or singer, lest it all go to hell two news cycles later. At this tumultuous moment, I think we each have to decide for ourselves which pieces of art to keep, and which to throw out. Perhaps fandom — defined as the attachment to the artist as creator — should no longer be the point.
I can only imagine what R. Kelly’s former fans are feeling as they watch the singer’s trial, in which one piece of damning testimony after another paints a portrait of a terrifying sexual predator. (Defense attorneys for Kelly have said many of the charges against him are “overreaching” and that his relationships were consensual.) Do lovers of Kelly’s music have to say goodbye to his entire catalogue now? Does that part of their past have to be purged forever?
This recurring quandary about artists and creators is not a fun place to be. My whole job is being enthusiastic about pop culture! But it tends to take the wind out of my sails, as I engage with an exciting new release, when I immediately can’t help wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. And a more enduring question nags at me: How does nostalgia work in this new landscape? What happens when the things we loved were created by people we now loathe?
This is not a new problem, obviously. The debate was explored in a 1967 essay by literary critic Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in which Barthes argued the two should be regarded separately. But today’s technology, with the insatiable maw of 24/7 social media and online content, has created a cycle of acclaim and reprisal that feels too fast to make such measured calculations. All along the pop culture spectrum, the time elapsed between a star or show’s moment in the sun and a subsequent reckoning (and, sometimes, comeback) seems to be decreasing exponentially.
Take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” which was supposed to be the movie of the summer, and a triumph for a major film populated entirely with Latinx actors. By the time it had its theatrical release, media was abuzz with accusations that Miranda, who produced the adaptation of his Broadway show, had whitewashed his Washington Heights neighborhood’s demographic. “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short,” Miranda posted to social media. “I’m truly sorry.”
Less scathing, but still deflating, is the gathering backlash against “Ted Lasso,” now in its second season. No one involved with the show has been outed as a jerk — on the contrary, charming stories about co-creator Jason Sudeikis seem to confirm he’s got a Lasso-like soul — but the pile-on to kick the show for being too nice feels particularly harsh in an era when it’s damn hard to be a fan of anything.
I find myself watching everything with newly critical eyes, which is a necessary part of evolving and learning and changing. What I don’t want to do is calcify into defending outdated stuff because it’s inconvenient to do the heavy lifting of rethinking bad behavior.
Two comedians seem to have figured out how to handle this cycle in innovative ways. Bo Burnham — another comedian I’ve probably spent too much time praising — includes in his new Netflix special a song called “Problematic,” in which he runs down all the ways in which he knows he should be taken to task: “I started doing comedy when I was just a sheltered kid/I wrote offensive s–t, and I said it … And I’m really f–king sorry.” And Aziz Ansari worked with Spike Jonze to create a comedy special that addressed his #MeToo moment, being accused of sexual assault by a woman he’d been on a date with (which he denied), in a way that seemed like he’d actually taken time to think about it and why his behavior angered so many women.
Two (male) comics, two reasonable approaches to looking at past behavior, trying to use their art form of choice to publicly own up to it.
Earlier this year, long-simmering anger about the “casually cruel” alleged misogyny of director Joss Whedon came to a boil when Charisma Carpenter, one of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” stars, outed him as having been vindictive to her on the set of that show and its spinoff, “Angel.” This one, as the saying goes, hurt. Whedon has reportedly not responded to the claims.
It’s not that I have been unaware of Whedon’s hypocrisy — I’ve noted a disconnect between his professed feminist ideals and his sometimes-shoddy treatment of women characters in his work over the years, and I’ve called it out in print, especially his treatment of Scarlett Johansson and Linda Cardellini’s characters in the 2015 film “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
But “Buffy” was a formative show — its irreverent humor, gleeful girl power and inventive language are a potent mix that inspired me as both a critic and consumer of pop culture. Tossing “Buffy” out initially seemed the only logical recourse, though, after so many cast and crew members weighed in to agree with or offer support to Carpenter.
Then I did the exact opposite instead — I embarked on a re-watch of the show. Here’s the catch. I watched it this second time without the baggage of being an unquestioning fan of Whedon’s oeuvre — and by keeping his alleged behavior in mind.
Going back into “Buffy” with eyes wide open about Whedon’s shoddy treatment of women did change how I see it. I was more aware of the snarky asides by male characters, especially Nicholas Brendan’s sidekick Xander, that read as avatars for Whedon himself.
But I also, for the most part, still love “Buffy,” flaws and all. And I’ve decided I’m keeping it.
Here’s why: It’s a groundbreaking show that a lot of people besides that guy — many of them women, like later-seasons showrunner Marti Noxon and writer/producer Jane Espenson — worked hard to make great. I choose to side with them and their work. I’ve recognized a similar mode of resistance in the Harry Potter fans choosing to reclaim their love of the series and its characters in the wake of their own profound disappointment in J.K. Rowling’s recent and repeated transphobia.
For me, comedians are the toughest to rationalize with the detach-from-fandom approach. In standup, there’s not an extended team, for the most part, just one person with a microphone. Likewise, there are some fandoms that simply can’t be divorced from the work — an auteur like Woody Allen, who puts so much of himself into his films, often literally, is a good example. So bye, Woody, no matter how much I loved “Love and Death.”
The bottom line is, most of us find our lives are enriched by finding pop culture that speaks to us, that we’re passionate about. Being deeply engaged by stories and characters is a primal human behavior. So if you’re feeling the pressure to cut fandom out of your life, think of it more as trying to Marie Kondo your entertainment. What sparks joy, and isn’t totally overshadowed by the misdeeds of its creator? Find ways to indulge your comfort-food nostalgia, albeit with a slightly more critical eye. It’ll still hit the spot.