Leaving Neverland Is Not An Indictment; It Is a Plea For Safety

For almost three decades (if not more), millions of people watched Michael Jackson perform, on stage, in video. They also saw him alight from planes, from cars, and from there, walk into hotels and stadiums, living the life of a peripatetic, performing celebrity. On almost all of these occasions he was accompanied by his ‘sexual partners.’ Those scare quotes are necessary because unlike the typical male celebrity who flaunts his ‘trophy chicks,’ Michael Jackson showed off his young boys. They went everywhere with him like the girlfriends of male celebrities do; they were present in his hotel rooms; they slept in his bed at his ranch. They had privacy together; and they had sex. Of course, I should not use the phrase ‘had sex’ here. Rather, those boys were made to perform sexual acts at the behest of Michael Jackson who then swore them to secrecy on pain of the fear that their lives would be ruined.

Watching Leaving Neverland confirms, in some measure, what many folks thought of all those exceedingly strange visuals of Michael Jackson’s curious obsession with children. Yes, something really, really weird was going on. We weren’t mistaken. And it wasn’t just weird. It was downright sadistic and cruel: a grown man sexually abusing children, and manipulating them and their families to ensure their secret stayed just that.

The culture of celebrity worship that is exposed in this movie is as much a culprit as Jackson, as much a culprit as the parents of Wade Robson and James Safechuck who handed over their children to Jackson. So is a grim lesson of American life: hard work will not make you money, it will not get your children in school, it will not keep you safe, it will not bring you success in your profession; so if someone rich and famous and powerful–like Michael Jackson–offers you a hand, offering to pull you up the ladder, past all those social and economic obstacles that prevent you from winning in this rigged game, you should take it. Robson’s and Safechuck’s parents did; their children paid for their decision.

Leaving Neverland is not about indicting Michael Jackson. He will not pay for his crimes; he is dead. What it most certainly is about is making the world safer for all the children out there who are still being sexually abused and who will almost certainly be abused if the lessons of this documentary are not heeded. The saddest thing about Leaving Neverland is not just the stories of sexual abuse that it documents, it is also the knowledge that despite these testimonies, there will be those who will continue to attack Robson and Safechuck and defend Jackson, making the world a less safe for all of its children. Those Michael Jackson supporters who have continued to support their idol and have chosen to abuse Robson and Safechuck, have missed the point spectacularly–just like they missed the evidence piling up over the years. There is no material sense in which Jackson will pay. Perhaps his estate and all those who stand to make money of his name will. Maybe that’s why they continue to defend him?

#MeToo Shows Sexual Harassment And Abuse Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The Facebook status is simple:

Me too. If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste, if you’re comfortable doing so.

And effective: it has produced a deluge of “Me too” statuses. The vast majority are produced by women–with varying levels of detail–though some men have also spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault (mostly by other men.) The ubiquity of this status is appalling and shocking and revealing. And the news isn’t good. As long as we have a society founded on patriarchy and sexism and a constructed masculinity where one gender (or sex) is set up as the ideal, the other is well, othered, where the superior gender is granted seemingly indiscriminate power while the inferior one is rendered comparatively powerless, where social arrangements and understandings turn sex into an ideological instrument for bodily and social control, which treats one gender’s sexuality as a sacrament and another’s as a sin, sexual assault and harassment will remain societal features not bugs. The current state of affairs–a population made up of those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment–is an eventuality foretold.

A masculinity grounded in violence and sexual superiority–in prowess, capacity, ability, virtue–is an integral part of such a system. Men must acquire masculinity or show that they already possess it by acts of violence or sexuality; it is no surprise that male icons and role models–historic and present–embody some form of violent domination or an exaggerated sexuality. (The current president of the United States rose to power on the basis of campaign that featured extensive bragging about how violent he could be if the opportunity arose, the length of his penis, and the unbridled assault he was fond of launching on unsuspecting women.) Notches on a belt can indicate both kills and sexual conquests. Male sexual virtue is matter of performance and power; female sexual virtue is grounded in reticence and inaccessibility, in zealously protecting ‘the goods.’ Assertions of will to exert sexual control now appear virtuous within this schema: the male must, if ‘necessary’, override the assertion of will by the ‘inferior gender’ and assert his sexuality, the dominant and superior one, at its expense. If violence be a tool in this ‘conquest,’ then so be it. (Of course, as many women have pointed out, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex, it is about power and domination, of the forceful imposition of a will over someone whose desires and rights are not worthy of consideration in the calculus of masculinity.)

Men do not seem to realize that patriarchy does not work for them either; the notions of masculinity it imposes on them cripples their relationships, drives them into dead-ends of despair at their failures to conform, and of course, to commit acts of violence against each other. ‘Pussies’ and ‘faggots’ and ‘wimps who can’t get laid’ know this only too well. One way in which they can redeem themselves is to turn their inward directed self-disgust elsewhere. Perhaps at children, at women, at other men.

‘The Hunt’: A Life All Too Easily Ruined

It might seem an odd thing to say about a movie that generates, very quickly, an atmosphere of claustrophobic tragedy, that it could have been darker, but I think that assessment is apt for Thomas Vinterberg‘s The Hunt (2012). This frightening tale of an otherwise sympathetic man whose life is almost destroyed by an untruthful accusation made by a deeply confused child takes us to the edge of the abyss. We stare into it; we retreat to safer ground. But as the movie draws to a close, it is not quite clear we are safe yet. We cannot yet breathe easy.

Pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children is serious business. Accusations of pedophilia have to be taken seriously; too many lives have been ruined by a failure to notice unspeakable abuse committed against the innocent by those considered deserving and worthy of trust. But there is a right way and wrong way to go about doing so. The Hunt could serve as a manual for how to get it catastrophically wrong. You do not feed children answers; you do not interrogate them without their parents present; you do not escalate matters without good reason; and so on. Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen in a stellar performance brimming with quiet pain), a kindergarten teacher who is lonely in his personal life, but warm and friendly to his wards at school, is devastated by this malignant incompetence. The little girl Klara–her imagination inflamed by pornographic images glimpsed in passing, and possessed by pique at having her childish quasi-romantic advances rebuffed by Lucas–who fingers him to the school authorities, is indeed abused, but not by Lucas. She is abused by the way her tale is handled and ‘processed.’ Once her fatal words have passed her lips, she too becomes a pawn, buffeted by forces beyond her control.

The central tragedies of The Hunt are that Lucas’ life, which is about to find a new, hopeful, and redemptive trajectory is knocked off-course; that Klara lashes out because she is a child perhaps lacking in adequate attention and care at home; and that an accusation like the one she makes, in this world, can never be fully retracted (as the ending of the movie makes painfully clear). Communities built on trust are underwritten by a fragility whose presence is only noted when these human groupings are torn asunder by seemingly minor irruptions of fear, suspicion, and paranoia.

The anguish of the falsely accused is among the most painful human experiences to witness. As Klara’s accusation acquires a life of its own, Lucas loses his life-long friends; he is ostracized by his community; his son is devastated. We might consider these justifiable penalties for the guilty; they are devastatingly inappropriate for the innocent. There is genuine horror here; for what we witness is not an assault by the lurking forces of a malignant supernatural but instead by goodness gone bad. We witness yet again, how easily one may be transformed into another. That might be The Hunt‘s most frightening lesson.