EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a hugely complicated conversation, and here at PULP we recognize the vitality of making space for nuanced conversations and opinions. Read our other two companion pieces by Ryan Fan—Kobe Bryant’s Complex Legacy, And Race In The #MeToo Era— and When Discussing Black Role Models, You Can’t Neglect Mentioning Race by ZUVA.
umans tend to like hierarchies. Some things are better — or worse — than others. Some things are harder, more wonderful, less bad, more good — than others. As humans we gravitate towards patterns and means of organization; we create strange taxonomies that we sanction both personally and societally to give order and meaning to a very complicated and painful world.
The irony of course is that the majority of our attempts at organizing our world, our attempts to agree on some semblance of order, of hierarchies — sharing is better than being selfish, murder is worse than manslaughter, etc. etc. etc. — we often create new chasms of misunderstanding and conflict because there isn’t actually a moral code, there’s just people’s opinions that have been transmuted into exceedingly fraught laws.
But death seems to be one of the great equalizers. One of the great we agree uponers — an untimely death is one of the “worst things” that can happen.
The unexpected death of a hero is a Tragedy and becomes a kind of liminal public square where we can gather and process larger themes of our collective lives. We use these deaths of celebrities (Health Ledger, Carrie Fisher, Aaliyah, Robin Williams) to lance sprawling societal psychological blisters on everything from mental health and addiction to fame itself and sexual assault.
But our current rhetoric seems to go something like: because Kobe’s life was cut short, now isn’t the “time” to discuss his 2003 rape accusation. (Which ended in a settlement, the details of which were never made public.) Now isn’t the “time” to complicate his legacy, to take him to task, to compound a painful chapter for his friends and family. It’s in supposed poor taste. It’s offensive to discuss the lingering shadows of a dead man.
In fact, The Washington Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez after she tweeted — sans commentary — a DailyBeast article that detailed the rape accusations just hours after Kobe’s death was announced, citing that, “the tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” She was the subject of 10,000 tweets of abuse and death threats. (She has since been reinstated with an apology from the Washington Post.)
The outrage was further compounded as Kobe’s accuser was white, as is Sonmez; Kobe’s legacy and scandal are inextricably bound up in his blackness and the whiteness of those condemning him. And I have to count myself among those white critics; I feel torn and worried about my place in this dialogue as a white woman, but I also don’t want to be complicit in my silence.
I want to say — publicly — that as a woman and a human I want us to have space and nuance to take aim at the things hunting us. Racism certainly. But sexism and misogyny too.
“We must think about our audience and the impact of our words on our communities,” writes activist Aida Manduley. “We must think about the intersections and how we highlight or erase them. We must ask ourselves why we are raising our voice and in service of what.”
And for me, this is why I’m writing on the danger of hierarchy rearing its wretched head. By silencing the pain of the woman who accused him, by silencing every woman, every person who’s been sexually assaulted or raped in order to protect Kobe’s memory, we perpetuate the narrative that men’s bodies are more important than women’s. That their words and their money and their skills are more important than getting at the truth.
“According to court documents, an examination of the woman at a hospital revealed a bruise on her neck and tears in her vaginal wall,” writes the New York Times. “Both her underwear and Bryant’s shirt were bloody.”
Kobe had issued an apology, acknowledging that the woman did not find their exchange consensual, and life — including a $4 million mea culpa ring to his wife Vanessa — continued on, flanked by two more N.B.A. titles, and two Olympic gold medals.
And the occasional lingering outrage. (Kobe was dropped from The Animation is Film Festival jury in 2018, following a petition for his removal.)
Kobe’s rape accusation was a scandal rife with the ever-present, but never fully acknowledged history of this country predicated on black pain and subjugation; today it seems we still find Kobe and his complicated legacy at the crux of it all.
We’re still telling his accuser that Kobe’s life and benefactions are greater than hers, so her pain and humiliation should wait in the sidelines until an “appropriate” time has passed. And just how long is this ineffable window of “respect”? This arbitrary period of mourning tells our daughters and sons and fledgling humans that an untimely death is a kind of baptism. With your demise comes a halo. A washing away of sins.
We must take care that in Kobe’s death we don’t martyr him. Granting him sainthood ironically strips him of the very personhood those who are shouting down his rape accusation are trying to keep intact. Let him be complicated. Let him be faulted. An astounding athlete, a black hero. An accused rapist. It’s vastly more difficult to hold dissonant truths, but we don’t need to self-infantilize or don collective blinders to honor his memory; we can and should hold both.
Because if you can’t stomach the arguable truth of his sexual violence — of his predatory nature — and delight in the swiftness of his body, his unrelenting skill, then I don’t think he can be your hero.
Celebrities — while they’re often proffered as playthings for us — are not paper dolls. You can’t cut them out and dress them up and dictate their reality. In choosing a public life and gleaning all the preposterous riches of that visibility — fame, money, power, respect — they are also subject to scrutiny. They don’t have to be better than us — and in decades upon decades of examining celebrities’ personal lives we know that they’re not — but they do, on some level, need to answer to us. To society. To laws. To our collective humanhood.
Kobe acknowledged that the young woman “feels that she did not consent to this encounter” and in his own pain gives a nod to her own: “Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure”.
Kobe, in essence, admitted to believing he had participated in consensual sex only to realize — publicly — that he had actually raped someone. And that admission is no small thing. There should be a reckoning — legally, emotionally and otherwise — even if this rape was “accidental” or something was lost in translation.
Especially as this pain is heavily racialized and calls into question huge systems of power and societal structure.
To allow celebrities a proverbial pass at being a good or “law-abiding” human creates a dangerous precedent, one that we’re already constantly reeling from as a nation; 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. (The irony of course is that the people we thrust into the societal spotlight are often not prepared for the concentrated heat of that adoration. We create demi-gods only to dash them on the very same altars we placed them upon.)
To me, the inversion of this should hold the same truth and urgency. When Woody Allen dies (for example), I don’t think the world and the inevitable deluge of post-death articles should focus solely on his very fraught and arguably disgusting and dangerous personal life; I think his films and artistry should also be celebrated. We’re flesh and bone, not an idea operating in a vacuum.
And yes, I will say that, as problematic as hierarchies are, it can be incredibly satisfying to invert them from time to time and spit in the face of the system. When black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, it feels deeply important to hold up black heroes; I believe this impulse to protect those who have managed to overcome a fundamentally racist and white supremacist society and soar into the annals of history is an admirable one in many ways.
And it’s an impulse I too have fallen prey to.
The poetry of Anne Sexton is stunning, revelatory; she was granted the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. She also sexually abused her daughter for years. She is a god and a monster. She is both. She is none.
But by minimizing what she did to her daughter Linda, I minimize child abuse; if I read her words without holding the trauma she inflicted on another human being, I create a dangerous fallacy. A lie that devours others so I can have pleasure, so I can feel more buoyant. More seen.
Author Jaclyn Friedman talked about this complicated impulse to burn our ideals to the ground or place them in rarefied air when David Bowie died, and women clamored to remind the world of his rape accusation and the fact that he’d had underage sex with at least one girl in the ’70s. ”No Gods, no monsters,” she said. The binary of infallibility and evil is an exhausting pendulum to keep swinging to and from.
The truth is in the middle, in the grey, where we should all invest our time and energy. To denormalize and de-sanctify violence. The answer to these conversations is not to oversimplify; distilling a human into “right or wrong” or “better and worse” is to render a prism into a pile of dregs.
We need to use the people we admire — our heroes, our celebrities — as the means to a mirror. These people are complicated and so are we; we can use them to refract and reflect our own strengths and foibles, our own human history and futures. Our current political landscape isn’t getting any easier to discern and to strip one another of the connective tissue between our struggles — from #metoo to #blacklivesmatter — is to do ourselves and our movements a huge disservice.