Asia Argento and the Problem with Heroes
Yesterday I got an email from a reader with the heading “Do the right thing.” The body of the email read succinctly, “And revisit your posts about the bravery of Asia Argento.”
Needless to say, the email rubbed me the wrong way. As the proprietor of a modestly read personal website at least partially devoted to exhaustively over-analyzing the recorded output of beloved American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, I don’t really have to do anything. I’m not The New York Times. I’m not the paper of record. I’m just a dude who writes about things that interest him in hopes they’ll be of interest to his readers as well and is trying to make a living at it in a brutal economy.
But I understood where the sentiment was coming from. After all, I did write a blog post praising Asia Argento’s heroism and bravery in standing up to Harvey Weinstein and sharing her truth with the world when doing so made her a target and opened her up to a world of criticism and judgment.
People are looking at Argento much differently now that she herself has been accused of sexually assaulting a much younger actor who played her son in the ill-fated J.T Leroy adaptation The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, whose title, needless to say, takes on all manner of weird resonance now, and then paying him three hundred and eighty thousand dollars to keep quiet.
I’m not sure exactly what the reader emailing me felt I needed to say. Since I praised Argento effusively before, perhaps he felt I must now harshly criticize her now. I will be the first to concede that this looks terrible for Argento and that her response to the allegations, a combination of victim-blaming, self-pity and denial, has only made an awful situation worse.
As I wrote in a blog post about Louis CK that posted just before his career imploded, you can’t say “believe victims” and then make exceptions for artists you like and respect. On a similar note, you cannot say “believe victims” and then make exceptions if the victim is a male and the woman is a feminist who has played a big, even central role in the #MeToo movement.
I will say upfront that Argento’s situation is not a reflection on #MeToo as a whole. #MeToo is bigger than any one person. It’s a movement, not just a smattering of allegations against high profile men and, increasingly, women. Like any movement, #MeToo is going to have growing pains and stumbling blocks and weird, contradictory moments.
I should also once again reiterate that human sexuality is almost unfathomably complex. People who have been abused physically, sexually or both sometimes become abusers themselves and while the vast majority of sexual assault happens to women, men can certainly be sexually harassed and assaulted as well.
Before the Argento bombshell exploded I read about a superstar feminist academic named Avital Ronnell who was accused of sexually harassing one of her male academic proteges. The case was complicated by Ronnell identifying as a lesbian and the protege accusing her of sexual harassment being a gay man. That does not, however, mean that the charges are not legitimate. As I just wrote, human sexuality is almost incomprehensibly complicated and contradictory and sometimes ugly and difficult to figure out.
Ronnell’s academic colleagues wrote an open letter in her defense that argued, among other things, that it was essential to acknowledge Ronnel’s "grace and keen wit" when assessing the subject. It seems safe to assume that if someone had insisted that we first pay homage to Louis CK’s “grace and keen wit” before assessing his unfortunate predilection for masturbating in front of horrified women they would rightfully be ripped apart by feminists.
Reading about the Argento situation breaks my heart. My heart goes out to the young man accusing Argento of abusing his trust and youth. He seems to have gone through a terrible ordeal but I also think it’s possible for the same person to behave both honorably, even heroically, and monstrously. We all contain multitudes and Argento clearly contains darker multitudes than most.
I still think what Argento did in regards to Weinstein is heroic but I wonder if I made a mistake (I make a lot) in depicting the actress, activist and a filmmaker as a hero. In this day and age in particular we’re hungry for heroes. We pine for people who are beyond reproach, who are pure even as we realize that purity and perfection do not exist. That helps explain why the recent documentary on Mr. Rogers was a surprise smash. We've never needed Mr. Rogers more than we do at this particular moment when so much seems so ugly and hopeless and cruel.
We don’t just want heroes, we need heroes just to get us through the ugliness of day to day life in Trump’s America. That’s why it’s shattering when our heroes fail us, when the artists we grow up worshipping turn out to be not just human but ugly and sometimes evil as well.
I know firsthand just how shattering it can be to see your faith in someone or something crumble into dust so while I don’t want to give into hopelessness and cynicism (a recurring theme on the blog and on the site because it is a recurring theme in our culture) from here on out I think we should all be a whole lot more careful about who we put on pedestals and why.
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