When your favorite comedian is accused of sexual assault

By Isobel McCue

(Dennis Van Tine/UPPA/Zuma Press/TNS)

When I first saw the headlines, I was shocked. I could not believe what I was seeing.

“Louis C.K. Is Accused by 5 Women of Sexual Misconduct.”

I have watched Louis C.K. for years, enjoying all his explicit and controversial material. From dead grandma jokes to rodent sex, the man redefined dark humor. I loved it. I had worked my way through all his standup, then his personally-based series, “Louie,” and was readily anticipating a new manifestation of raunchy extremism in his upcoming film, “I Love You Daddy.” He seemed authentic and his misgivings relatable.

He has recently been accused of masturbating in front of multiple women without their consent, both in person and over the phone. The alleged victims include comedians Dana Min Goodman, Julia Wolov, Abby Schachner, Rebecca Corry and a fifth woman who has chosen to remain anonymous. I couldn’t believe that my first thought was, “No, there’s no way this can be true.”

This mentality can be universal to fans of any artistic subsect, whether it be fine art, music, comedy or any other medium. We do not want to believe that our favorite artist could do something terrible. After all, I feel like I know C.K. as a person, and I do not know these women, so it cannot be true. It is normal to feel this way; however, the implications of the statement are actually quite insidious and reveal some devastating social implications, for when you claim that the accusations cannot be true, you imply that the women are lying.

This adamant defense stems from a culture of artist idolization. Often, we conflate the artist with their product, venerating their persona to idol status, resulting in the perception of a personal relationship with the artist. Essentially, we feel like we know them on an individual level. This lionizing prevents a relative objectivity by the public when viewing incidents such as this, and ultimately acts in opposition to those who have been hurt by the artist.

Even more thought-provoking is the reaction to C.K.’s public statement. He did not deny any of the accusations, and demonstrated remorse and culpability:

“I wielded that power [over women] irresponsibly. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And run from them.”

Those I’ve discussed this statement with have commended C.K. for his tactful response. I really did not think he had it in him. But it is important to not diminish the pain his actions caused by applauding his remorsefulness. Just because he is regretful, this does not detract from the issue of sexual assault society desperately must address. Let’s not miss the point. Don’t let the moonwalking bear distract from the basketballs, to reference the famous awareness test video.

So, I was left with a dilemma: Can I still watch C.K.’s work? For many, the answer is simple: Separate the art from the artist. This is a respectable approach, however it involves at least some level of subtle ignorance. Art is inherently personal. The artist can never wholly be regarded as a separate entity from their work. C.K.’s performances are based on his portrayal of himself and his own experiences.

If the art cannot be separated from the artist, then we are challenged with how to regard their work. If we continue to consume their products, we contribute to their financial success, expansive public platform and lionized celebrity status. While putting money in C.K.’s pocket does not precipitate acts of sexual assault, it implies complicity in his actions. Because of status (don’t disregard the race, gender and socioeconomic status of those recently accused of sexual assault, who are often white men), committing these atrocities results in only minor repercussions.

Netflix made a bold move in finalizing “House of Cards” after season six, and removing Kevin Spacey’s character following the sexual assault allegations made against him. And some people are mad as hell. I felt similar emotions when “I Love You Daddy” was canceled, leaving an eager audience and the movie’s staff hanging. Eventually, I have come to appreciate Netflix’s move in denying Spacey a platform. Some will counter that the Spacey allegations are unfounded, and celebrities should fear false claims of sexual assault ruining their careers. But this is another moonwalking bear distraction, as only about two percent of sexual assault charges are false, while a meager 40 percent of rapes are ever reported to authorities. In standing by an unproven claim, Netflix made a powerful statement regarding the sexual assault issue as a whole, choosing to support victims of sexual assault. Sometimes, social progress must come at the expense of art that a large portion of the population enjoys.

I still find C.K.’s work enjoyable; I cannot help it. But it is vital to understand the false and dangerous impression that we form when we idolize our favorite artists. This does not make them infallible, and it is our responsibility as members of society to not discredit reality in favor of a more desirable one, and to stand by the victims of sexual assault everywhere by denying those who are culpable a godlike public platform.

Isobel McCue is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]