If you’re a socially engaged consumer, the past year of pop culture may have left you despairing over how to spend your money ethically. Do you forswear Yeezys to protest Kanye West’s dalliance with President Donald Trump? Did you refuse to watch Camping to signal your disapproval of Lena Dunham’s since-rescinded defence of Murray Miller, a writer for her show Girls, who has been accused of sexual assault? (He denies the allegation.)
And given the range of behaviours that have prompted #MeToo revelations, how should audiences distinguish among Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, Louis C.K.’s comedy and Harvey Weinstein-produced movies? It would be easy to default to separating the art from the artist, simply to avoid being overwhelmed, or because you feel boycotted-out.
But if you’re looking for the definition of a worthy case for a boycott, you’ll find it in Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly miniseries, which concluded last weekend, and the long-running #MuteRKelly campaign. The R&B singer has become a prime example of how wealth can buy apparent impunity. He secretly married the singer Aaliyah when she was 15; was tried, although not convicted, on child pornography charges; reached at least five settlements with women over sexual-misconduct or domestic-violence allegations; and in 2017 was accused of running a coercive sex cult by the mothers of some of the women who were in relationships with him. Throughout, he has maintained his innocence, even in a recent, 19-minute track titled I Admit.
As I wrote in 2017, after that last story broke, it’s one thing to have some portion of a ticket sale go to an artist you disagree with politically, and another thing to know that the money you’re spending on art may well be underwriting misconduct. The organisers of the #MuteRKelly pressure campaign put it even more bluntly: “Radio spins = Club spins = Concert bookings = Cash to pay for his crimes.”
Since I wrote that column 15 months ago, the dangers of confidential settlements have only become clearer.
Taken individually, these arrangements may seem reasonable. The victims are compensated for their pain and suffering and don’t have to go through emotionally and financially draining trials to obtain some measure of justice, even if they can’t be assured that the people who allegedly abused them will be exposed and go to jail. But the #MeToo movement has revealed the extent to which confidential settlements can be something more sinister: a tool that enables serial sexual malefactors to keep offending.
We know now that movie producer Weinstein, former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly and USA Gymnastics, among others, all made financial settlements with victims of sexual misconduct. Women such as model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, Fox News analyst Lis Wiehl and Olympic gold medal-winner McKayla Maroney received money, but it was sums that the people and the organisations who harmed them could afford to pay.
In exchange, Weinstein, O’Reilly and USA Gymnastics got to preserve their reputations. In Weinstein’s case, that allegedly meant he could continue to use his position of influence in the movie industry to lure the women eager for substantive movie roles who became his victims. It meant that Fox News could sign O’Reilly to a lucrative new contract, confident that the accusations he had paid to erase would stay under wraps.
As my Washington Post colleague Geoff Edgers outlined in a powerful feature last May, Kelly made use of financial settlements, too. Tracy Sampson told Edgers that as part of her settlement with Kelly, the lawyers involved obscured the age at which her sexual relationship with the singer began, making it appear that she had not been a minor at the time. Jerhonda Pace, who also appears in Surviving R. Kelly, was such a fan that she went to see Kelly’s trial on child pornography charges. Pace and Kelly later reached a settlement after he allegedly physically abused her; Kelly’s former business manager, Derrel McDavid, threatened to sue her for violating the confidentiality clause of the settlement.
I’m appalled by these settlements, and I hate to think that I might have contributed a penny towards any of them. Considered in that light, deciding whether to boycott an individual or organisation is much easier. Just ask yourself: can I live with how this person is going to use my money?
• Alyssa Rosenberg writes about the intersection of culture and politics for The Washington Post’s Opinions section. Before joining the Post in 2014, Alyssa was the culture editor at ThinkProgress, the television columnist at Women and Hollywood, a columnist for the XX Factor at Slate and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com