Will It Ever Be the 'Right Time' To Talk About Rape Culture?
Many self-proclaimed #GirlDads are failing their daughters by deflecting conversations about sexual assault with paranoia and namecalling. When will it be the “right” time for these difficult conversations?
Last Wednesday, CBS previewed an interview where Gayle King asked WNBA legend Lisa Leslie if she had a “complicated” view of the late Kobe Bryant in light of the 2003 accusations of non-consensual sex made by a then-19-year-old Colorado woman. The case was dismissed after the accuser refused to testify. Kobe then issued a statement acknowledging that “although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”
That comment can be perceived as an admission that there was some misunderstanding of sexual consent which justifies the measured retrospectives of his life after a fatal helicopter crash that killed him, his daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, and seven others. Leslie replied that she didn’t see him “being the kind of person that would…violate a woman or be aggressive in that way.” King countered her assertion by letting her know that she “wouldn’t see” that side of him in their professional interactions. Her pushy tone and repeated followups were regarded by many as insensitive, which stirred relentless backlash over the last week.
Snoop Dogg called King a “a funky dog head bitch” for her questioning and threatened to “come get” her (although he’s since apologized for the insult). 50 Cent called her “Chewbacca.” Others called King a hypocrite for her support of Charlie Rose and previous cordiality with Harvey Weinstein, who have both faced dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct. LeBron James indirectly chided King by calling Leslie “a real Superhero” and added “sorry you had to through that s*%#!!! We are our own worse enemies!”
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 6, 2020
Many people on social media contended that it was simply bad timing for the question. There are some who, out of respect for Kobe’s loved ones, didn’t want to incite ugly public conversations in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. But there are others who never intend to broach conversations about powerful men and consent without deflection, paranoia, and name-calling. It “wasn’t the time” to discuss what happened in Colorado during Kobe’s 2016 farewell season or in the aftermath of a 2018 Oscars win that dovetailed with the height of the #MeToo movement. People who vied to rebuff Kobe’s self-cultivated mythos for a more contextualized discussion have been repeatedly dismissed throughout the years.
Many of the people, mostly Black men, who delay this conversation showed solidarity with Kobe as a #GirlDad on social media, but continuously fail their daughters on their backward crusade to protect the accused and assail survivors. When will be the right time for these difficult conversations about consent, sexual assault and powerful men to be had?
History dictates that the time will never come. There are hoards of Black people deflecting accusations against figures like Kobe, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Russell Simmons and others as a rite of Blackness. Few of those people deny R. Kelly’s ephebophilia or Bill Cosby’s serial drugging of women, yet they’re pit against the misdeeds of white men who they feel haven’t been equally censured by the court of public opinion. People like media figure Tariq Nasheed and movements like #FirstThem were cultivated to take aim at “a wave of corporate-sponsored ‘movements’” who they allege “racially tailored their agenda” on their official site. King and Oprah Winfrey have been pinpointed by many as emissaries of the “agenda.”
READ: On The Record Details How Russell Simmons’s Sexual Assault Allegations Became Hip-Hop’s First Me Too Moment
Last year, Oprah interviewed Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two subjects of the Leaving Neverland documentary accusing music icon Michael Jackson of repeated pedophilia. She was also set to executive produce On The Record, a documentary about accusations of industry giant Russell Simmons’ sexual misconduct. She later pulled out because of “gaps in the research and context in the film,” according to The Daily Beast, but clarified that she “unequivocally believes and supports the women.”
In a fiery Instagram live session, singer Ari Lennox asked “Okra” and “Kale” if “you want to spend the rest of your days tearing down Black people? Build us up, help us!” 50 Cent asked, “Gayle King, why would you do that to your people? You know what people are going through right now.” Snoop Dogg posted that Oprah “did that fake ass Michael Jackson shit to tarnish his name with them lying ass kids and here she is with a known rapist smiling and laughing,” referring to disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. Snoop, who’s taken pictures with President Donald “grab ‘em by the pussy” Trump, also said “free Bill Cosby,” which needlessly fused Jackson, Kobe, and Cosby under the same cause despite being accused of very different things.
The harassment that King received, which included death threats, is exactly what Oprah called it: misogynist vitriol. She didn’t talk down on Kobe, or call him out of his name — but her detractors did that to her. Gayle clarified that the interview was “about many things: his career, his passion, his sense of humor, the way he was mentoring other people, how he was starting his next chapter” But she also noted, “we talked about that court case because that court case has also come up.” King noted she respected Leslie’s call that “I don’t think it’s something that we should keep hanging over his legacy.” But the reality is that it’s rarely hindered him.
.@Oprah emotionally responds to backlash her friend Gayle King received over King’s recent interview about Kobe Bryant with WNBA legend Lisa Leslie: “She is not doing well because she has now death threats.” pic.twitter.com/M8HrCp8vTr
— TODAY with Hoda & Jenna (@HodaAndJenna) February 7, 2020
Kobe lost McDonalds and Nutella deals during the case. But by 2006, he had rebranded himself as The Black Mamba. His Kobe System and Mamba Mentality brands were efforts of meticulous mythmaking that dovetailed with two more NBA titles, and stories of his legendary work ethic, to frame him as the ultimate athlete in the public eye. His image had become so pristine that during his final season in 2016, a Daily Beast article about “the one incident that will always taint Bryant’s career” was largely overlooked in the midst of a coronation of him being celebrated in every opposing arena.
The case came up again in 2018 in the aftermath of his Oscars win for Dear Basketball, a short film he narrated and filmed. He was removed as a juror from the Animation Is Film Festival after a Change.org petition. But that removal didn’t mar his cultural perception, and once again, most people seemed unwilling to engage the details of the case.
It’s not that the case has hung over his head. In reality, the gory details are rarely addressed. It “wasn’t the time” to add nuance to his legacy because it will never “be the time” for his devotees to feel like the accuser’s claims took precedence over preserving the Mamba’s sterling image. Nearly every time the case has been brought up, even before his death, it’s dismissed by a hoard of people who deflect that “the case was dismissed,” but ignore that the accuser never took back her story. She simply refused to testify — likely because rape culture treats people who come forward with rape accusations as suspects instead of victims.
Is it really offensive that in a “wide-ranging” interview about Kobe, King acknowledged the “complication” of his athletic excellence juxtaposed against his own acknowledgment of a nonconsensual sexual encounter? What’s more offensive is that in their refusal to have a good-faith conversation, so many self-proclaimed #GirlDads, who posted pictures with their daughter in the wake of Kobe’s death, have resolved to let those same girls grow up in a world where an estimated 25% of American women will be sexually assaulted by age 44, and only 15.8% to 35% actually report rape to the police. King did her journalistic duty, unbeknownst to those used to media figures performing glorified PR and calling it journalism. Sometimes the tough question has to be asked. Of CBS guests. Of all of us.
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When I first met @gayleking she was hurrying off set and into the green room with a copy of my book. Post-its were poking out of the pages. Pages were dog-eared. I seem to remember her having questions scrawled on yellow legal paper. This was impressive. You’d be surprised how many interviewers are just master bullshit artists. Not Gayle. She reads. She studies. She prepares. I’ve benefited from Gayle’s preparation multiple times since that first interview. I’m trying to think of another journalist more instrumental in whatever awareness people have of my work, and I can’t. I say this as a black writer. I say this as a black man. It is perhaps naive to expect black men to be better—oppression is always demeaning and rarely ennobling. But black men, perhaps more than other men, have some inkling of what it’s like to have a body that can be taken for someone else’s pleasure. Indeed, we know more than we want to say, because if we ever said it all we might never stop crying. Maybe that really is the root of this. It’s certainly not about “protecting” anyone’s memory or their families. Men who want to hurt have been using the language of “protection” all my life. It’s certainly isn’t about Weinstein. Only a fool tolerates serial killing because Ted Bundy was once a neighbor. Whatever it’s about, there’s really no way to be neutral here. Gayle King dared speak of a man as though he were one, and a lot of us fucking lost it. We did not calmly express our dislike of the question. We were too weak for that. We threatened. We dragged. And we attacked. A friend, watching all this said, “damn, Gayle has a son.” To which I could only respond, “these dudes have sons too.” And this is what we’re teaching them. It’s wrong. We should want more. We should be better.
Men who supposedly want Hollywood to fall have to realize that it doesn’t start with #ThemFirst, but us first. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said on Instagram, “we should be better.” It’s illogical to justify the amoral misdeeds of famous Black men by pointing the finger at the amoral misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein. The reality is that white institutions will never purge themselves of patriarchal machinations, including casting couch tactics and quid pro quos that turn into sexual misconduct investigations. We shouldn’t conduct ourselves relative to sects of people that we don’t even respect — unless we secretly do.
The power dynamics of Hollywood, that so many Black men condemn, will only shift with unity from Black people that’s impossible as men continuously trivialize sexual assault. As we claim to love women, then use everything after a “but” to justify their abuse and downplay their pain. How can we build anything together when women see us prioritizing discographies and trophies over the protection of sexual assault survivors?
Changing that circumstance starts with normalizing honest discussions about what consent and rape culture actually is. And about the grey areas that are overlooked and interwoven into culture. Sexual assault survivors must feel heard and protected, not scrutinized. And men have to lose the assumption that acknowledging their miseducation automatically places them among the dredges of society. Most men may not put pills in women’s drinks like Bill Cosby, but there’s a culture where some deliberately get women drunk to make coercion easier. They may not accost women in the street, but they may joke about stealthing (removing a condom without consent) or ignore requests to stop sex that started consensually. All of these things are on the more culturally acceptable end of a dangerous spectrum that could leave someone making the very kind of statement Kobe did.
It’s time for his supporters to realize that if they insist on his heroism, they have to acknowledge that he’s a perplexing figure, not a flawless one. As ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne recalled Kobe himself telling her about his transgressions, “we’re all human. We all say things that we shouldn’t say. We all do things we shouldn’t do. We are all angels. And we are all devils. How are you going to understand that, other than to understand the fact that we’re all of those things?” To pretend otherwise is a disservice to his legacy.
When Kobe responded to Trayvon Martin’s hoodie protest by saying “I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American,” he learned about why his comment garnered backlash and later participated in a 2014 Trayvon Martin Peace Summit with Nipsey Hussle and Trayvon’s parents. When he called an NBA ref a derogatory word for gay in 2011, he reflected on why he was wrong and eventually congratulated Jason Collins by tweeting “don’t suffocate who u r (sp) because of the ignorance of others” when Collins came out in 2013.
It’s feasible that his advocacy for women in sports was not just about his late daughter’s WNBA prospects, but a newfound respect for women bore from reflecting on his own misdeeds. In acknowledging the fullness of his life, we can all find examples of how to atone for our missteps and do better by victims. That’s the goal that Gayle King was trying to achieve, that Snoop and 50 were so confused about. As long as we delay conversations that offer collective truth, we will continue to celebrate lies. But those lessons can’t be shared if we try to police everyone into projecting a piecemeal understanding of his life or the society that shaped him. Acknowledging an icon’s faults is a hard conversation, but it’s necessary.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.