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‘Natalie Wood Day’: sexual violence and celebrity remembrance in the #MeToo Era

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Abstract

This article inquires after the ethics of posthumous outing and networked forms of remembrance connected to public figures accused of, or having admitted to, sexual violence and domestic abuse. Focusing on the obituary politics surrounding the 2020 deaths of Kirk Douglas, Kobe Bryant, and Sean Connery, it explores the forms that a feminist ethics of disclosure and memorialisation might take in the #MeToo era. Contra the popular tendency of othering sex offenders as exceptional ‘monsters,’ #MeToo’s affective and discursive force lies in framing sexual violence as unextraordinary, banal, and ubiquitous. In what follows, we make a case for forms of remembrance acknowledging that a person can simultaneously be an accomplished professional, a loving parent, and a rapist, so that one aspect of one’s being and actions need not require silence over others. Reflecting on what it means to remember public figures in their totality, we flag the importance of attending to the social, cultural, political, economic, and historical contexts that have contributed to the prominence, and subsequent remembrance of individuals. We argue that such a contextual move makes it possible to see the individual public figure within the social networks and hierarchies that have allowed, or disallowed, patterns of behaviour.
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Paasonen, Susanna and Tanya Horeck, “Natalie Wood Day”: Sexual Violence and Celebrity
Remembrance in the #MeToo Era. Celebrity Studies 2022.
Abstract
This article inquires after the ethics of posthumous outing and networked forms of
remembrance connected to public figures accused of, or having admitted to, sexual violence
and domestic abuse. Focusing on the obituary politics surrounding the 2020 deaths of Kirk
Douglas, Kobe Bryant, and Sean Connery, it explores the forms that a feminist ethics of
disclosure and memorialization might take in the #MeToo era. Contra the popular tendency
of othering sex offenders (such as Harvey Weinstein) as exceptional ‘monsters,’ #MeToo’s
specific affective and discursive force lies in framing sexual violence as unextraordinary,
banal and ubiquitous. In what follows, we make a case for forms of remembrance
acknowledging that a person can simultaneously be an accomplished professional, a loving
parent and a rapist, so that one aspect of one’s being and actions need not require silence over
others. Reflecting on what it means to remember public figures in their totality, the article
flags the importance of attending to the social, cultural, political, economic and historical
contexts that have contributed to the prominence, and subsequent remembrance of
individuals. We argue that such a contextual move makes it possible to see the individual
public figure within the social networks and hierarchies that have allowed, or disallowed,
patterns of behaviour. More capacious forms of remembrance are necessary if there is to be
social transformation of the conditions through which accounts of sexual and gendered
violence are received and rendered intelligible.
Keywords: #MeToo; rape; obituaries; famous men; ethics; social media networks
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‘Natalie Wood Day’: Sexual Violence and Celebrity Remembrance in the #MeToo Era
When the Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas died at the age of 103 on February 5, 2020, tributes
and obituaries began to circulate across media outlets internationally. Yet discord soon
emerged as Twitter users began to address accusations of Douglas having attacked and
violently raped the then 16-year-old actor Natalie Wood in 1954. As people started to tweet
tributes to Wood instead, renaming Douglas’ day of death to ‘Natalie Wood Day,’ her name
began to trend over his. The accusations were not novel, having gained public visibility with
a 2012 blog post commonly credited to Robert Downey Jr. (see Tate 2012) and having
evoked vitriolic Twitter exchanges in 2018, only months into the viral explosion of discourse
around #MeToo, when Douglas was honored at the Golden Globe awards (see Levine 2018).
As is characteristic of social media debate, opinions quickly polarised, with some denying the
allegations as baseless slander and others vouching for their veracity; some arguing for the
need to respect the dead and his grieving family and others making claims for the need to
make public secrets public by ending the wall of silence sheltering privileged male
perpetrators of sexual violence.
Starting with the case of Douglas, and moving on to discussions surrounding the deaths of
Kobe Bryant and Sean Connery, this article inquires after the ethics of posthumous outing
and networked forms of remembrance connected to public figures accused of, or having
admitted to, sexual violence – or in the case of Connery, domestic abuse. In what follows, we
attend both to the ethics of vernacular sleuthing in networked settings where fact, hunch, and
rumour can be hard to tell apart, and to the importance of coining more capacious and
polyphonic forms of public remembrance. Contra the popular tendency of othering sex
offenders, such as the producer Harvey Weinstein, as exceptional ‘monsters’ (Kavka 2020,
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11), the affective and discursive force of #MeToo has largely owed to its framing of sexual
violence as unextraordinary: as both banal and ubiquitous. What, then, would follow if we
developed forms of remembrance acknowledging that a person can simultaneously be an
accomplished professional, a loving parent and a rapist, so that one aspect of one’s being and
actions need not require silence over others? What forms might a feminist ethics of disclosure
and memorialization take in the #MeToo era and how could we create new kinds of
‘discursive spaces’ (Bainbridge 2020, p. 85) for processing celebrity narratives of violation?
Show some respect!
In journalistic forms of public remembrance silence concerning the bad deeds of the deceased
translates as discretion, honouring the memory of the dead and giving families and
affectively attached fans time and space to work through their grief. Such giving of space
implies that mentions of sexual harassment or violence will need to wait, if they are even to
be voiced at all. Nevertheless, as there is also a social convention to not speak ill of the dead,
period, silence may extend well beyond obituaries.
In mediated forms of remembrance silence framed as tact and respect meets the walls of
silence that have conventionally hidden acts of sexual violence committed by celebrities from
public view. For its part, the #MeToo movement
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has targeted such practices of public
silence and silencing that, by necessity, require networks of aides and other contributors
beyond the perpetrators themselves (Starkey et al. 2019; Cohen, Myrick and Hoffner 2021).
Breaking down the walls of silence helps to make evident the embeddedness of sexual
harassment in hierarchical social relations that are structured by privilege rooted in clout and
celebrity status, and inextricable from the dynamics of gender and class alike. The logic of
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sex scandal that infuses #MeToo cases in the US in particular however operates with a more
individualising logic as public attention clusters on specific men, their backgrounds and
seedy actions at the expense of the social and professional arrangements facilitating their
behaviour (Sundén and Paasonen 2020, pp. 28–29). This obviously means turning attention
away from structural inequalities that need to be tackled in order to confront and transform
cultures of gendered and sexual violence. It also enables the exceptionalism through which
men committing acts of violence and abuse can be othered as singular cases apart (Boyle
2019).
In the press, men associated with sexual violence are regularly referred to as ‘disgraced’ –
hence, for example, Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced movie mogul (BBC 2021), Bill Cosby,
the disgraced comedian (Savage 2021), Kevin Spacey, the disgraced star actor (Shafer and
Vivarelli 2021) and R. Kelly, the disgraced R&B superstar (Arkin 2021). For those disgraced,
it becomes more difficult to lie in posthumous public grace. In cases such as the 2019 death
(while incarcerated) of the financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, public remembrance
can focus near-exclusively on the crimes committed so that these come to define the person,
both living and dead. When Weinstein, Cosby, Spacey or Kelly eventually die, it remains to
be seen whether their euologisation pushes established conventions by balancing their notable
career merits with acknowledgements of their predatory behaviour, as well as with reflections
of how the former may have fed and enabled the latter within their professional cultures.
Alternatively, the narrative template of the perpetrator as monster, a label attached to
Weinstein, Cosby, Spacey, Epstein and Kelly alike, remains readily available (Boyle 2019,
2021; Mack and McCann 2021; Paasonen and Sundén 2021). Operating as a tool of
decontextualization, the label of monster exceptionalizes the accused and others them as
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separate and distinct from their colleagues, the habits within their work environments and
even the fabric of society in general. More than merely deviant, a monster is, discursively
speaking, a creature separate from the regularly human: strange, horrifying, cruel and
dangerous. Significantly, the re-construction of these particular men as monsters is in no
small part contingent on the ways in which they can be ‘othered’ and distanced from
hegemonic masculinity on the grounds of ethnicity (Weinstein’s and Epstein’s Jewishness),
race (Cosby and Kelly’s blackness), sexuality (Spacey’s gayness), and physical appearance
(Weinstein’s fatness and disability) [Boyle 2019, 2021; Mack and McCann 2021; Rottenberg
2019].
As Ashley Noel Mack and Bryan J. McCann (2021, p. 105) argue, to be labelled ‘a
monstrous rapist is to be a cultural Other and something less than human’. As they further
point out, previous scholarship demonstrates that ‘discourses of monstrosity can fashion
sexual violence as the work of anonymous predators rather than friends, lovers, and family
members who commit a vast majority of intimate violence’ (Mack and McCann 2021, p.
104). Given this tendency to position sex offenders as horrific aberrations to the norm,
#MeToo affords the means to generate awareness of the banal ubiquity of sexual violence
(Boyle 2019). This, again, has been the point of the Chilean feminist anthem El violador en
tu camino (‘the rapist on your way’) that gained international, viral reach in 2019. Protesting
against institutional ineptness in dealing with sexual violence, as well as the violent and
humiliating ways in which female protesters have been treated, the song is performative and
rich in rhetorical power (Serafini 2021). In the song’s recurrent line, ‘And the rapist IS you’,
all men are potentially implicated as sexual aggressors; a rhetorical move countered by
slogans and social media hashtags such as ‘#notallmen’.
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Such horizontality shifts focus away from perceived monsters to the mundaneness of sexual
violence while also evoking and reinforcing binary understandings of gender where men are
sexual aggressors and women their potential victims, despite high profile cases such as
Spacey’s where the claimants have been cis-men. At the same time, the invitation of ‘you’ to
imagine yourself as rapist adds complexity and ambiguity to the ways of understanding
sexual violence and its perpetrators as ordinary, and as having multiple social roles and
attachments that can contradict one another without cancelling each other out by default.
There is nevertheless little room for ambiguity and simultaneity to forms of public
remembrance in which posthumous reputations are either polished or then steeped in muck so
that they can and should not be cleansed. Any balancing of this duality comes with the risk of
public outrage to the degree that the risk may not, especially in the case of loved public
figures or cultural icons, seem worth taking. And if public figures associated with sexual
harassment are also remembered for something else – such as the creation of landmark films
or beloved television shows – a similar risk of outrage emerges in that such remembrance can
be seen to belittle their molesting ways. In the logic of public remembrance, the logic of
‘both/and’ then easily becomes replaced with that of ‘either/or’. And as journalistic forms of
remembrance meet the speeds and dynamics of social media exchange, such polarisation
becomes amplified. This was the case with Twitter exchanges on the day of Kirk Douglas’
death when debates quickly grew both heated and highly divisive, even as their vitriolic
flames only flared up for a short while (cf. Paasonen 2015).
As Zizi Papacharissi (2016, p. 321) points out, the near-instantaneous rhythms and speeds of
social media are incompatible with the tempo of social transformation that unfolds gradually
over the course of years. The rhythm of #MeToo has been simultaneously hectic and
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intermittent in how it lingers and regains speed. While its impact on individual bodies and
their organization for collective action is easy enough to recognize, its gradual effect on the
slower tempos of social, political and legal change is harder to identify (see also Sundén and
Paasonen 2020, p. 42). When reminiscing public figures on social media, heated debates on
their actions, character and persona become buried under newer posts and updates, so that the
mark they leave can be of the fleeting kind. Within these temporalities, a debate – or scandal
– feeds user attention and engagement for some days, hours or minutes. Previous exchanges
are seldom revisited or revived so that their broader reverberations are delimited: there was
no celebration of ‘Natalie Wood Day’ in 2021 on the anniversary of Douglas’s death.
Networked Sleuthing
When it comes to posthumous means of breaking the silence around sexual harassment and
violence, social media discussions of the sexual misconduct of dead celebrities intersect with
the phenomenon of networked sleuthing, also known as ‘desktop detection’ or
‘websleuthing.’ Contra the fast speeds of attention and exchange on platforms such as Twitter
where hashtags like #MeToo bridge individual posts, assembling them into broader
discursive formations over time, there can be extended, slow tenacity to networked sleuthing.
In the digital media era, the armchair detective has been given ‘a new lease of life,’ as so-
called websleuths ‘engage in varying levels of amateur detective work including but not
limited to searching for information, uploading documents, images and videos, commenting,
debating, theorising, analysing, identifying suspects and attempting to engage with law
enforcement and other organisations…’ (Yardley et. al 2021, 82).
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Such networked efforts comprise the open-source investigations of Bellingcat focused on
fact-checking, citizen journalism, and contextual inquiry in favour of social justice: from
tracking state corruption to uncovering the shooting locations of child sexual abuse material
or verifying videos documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine. More popular articulations,
such as the recent true crime docu-series Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
(Lewis, UK/US, 2019) and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (Garbus, US, 2020), detail an obsessive
determination on the part of their female amateur investigators to find clues and solve
criminal cases that span years – and decades – and which involve intricate online networks
devoted to information gathering. Meanwhile, and in close dialogue with the true crime
entertainment industrial complex, men such as investigative journalist Billy Jensen and
retired investigator Paul Holes have assumed celebrity status through websites and podcasts
devoted to ‘crowdsolving,’ defined as utilizing the eyes, ears, and expertise of individuals,
both locally and across the globe via social media, to aid in the solving of crimes’ (see
http://billyjensen.com).
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However thrilling the justice-seeking claims made for collective amateur sleuthing or
‘crowdsolving,’ there is a discernible current of tension regarding the distinction between
citizen detection and mob mentality – or between what digital media theorist Joss Hands
refers to as ‘idiotic’ versus ‘resonant’ action (2019, p. 114). The evident idiotism of the
Boston Marathon bombing debacle, for example, in which online amateur sleuths on Reddit
and 4Chan recklessly misidentified an individual as the bomber, stands in contrast to
‘resonant action’ – understood by Hands as a ‘mode of gathering’ that performs significant
political work (2019, p. 68).
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Much of the gathering that has occurred through the #MeToo hashtag is illustrative of what
Hands designates as the power of ‘collective consciousness’ or constructive Twitter thinking
(2019, p. 78, p. 62). The #MeToo hashtag has facilitated resonant action through its
acknowledgement of a ‘shared set of experiences’ (ibid., p. 64) and its production of
‘collective intelligence’ regarding how to deal with the endemic problem of sexual violence
and rapacious conduct.
While the predatory behaviour of some celebrity men (such as Harvey Weinstein or R. Kelly)
were open secrets for decades, secret whisper networks warning women of sexual predators
have increasingly gone public, facilitated by social media networks. The ‘Shitty Media Men’
list, for example, organized by journalist Moira Donegan in October 2017, went viral shortly
after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published the Weinstein exposé in The New York
Times. Initially meant to be private, the List (which took the form of a Google docs
spreadsheet) collected ‘a range of rumors and allegations of sexual misconduct, much of it
violent, by men in magazines and publishing’ in New York and was intended to help women
deal with the issue of sexual harassment and abuse in a non-judgemental space outside of the
legal realm (Donegan 2018). In other words, it can be seen to have produced the kind of
‘collective intelligence’ identified by Hands as politically efficacious. When the spreadsheet
was leaked online, however, it faced criticism for spreading malicious rumours and for
identifying individual men by name on a sliding scale of sexual harassment and abuse, from
‘dogs’ to ‘sexual assaulters’ (cited in Shafrir 2017). In reference to such criticism, Jilly Boyce
Kay has argued that the ‘association of #MeToo with gossip seems to be a very effective
strategy in seeking to discredit its aims’ (2020, p. 145). Historically, however, gossip did not
always have such negative connotations. Indeed, against a view of gossip as shady or
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unethical, Kay points to its subversive potential as a ‘resource for communicative justice’
(ibid., p. 145).
As philosopher and activist Linda Alcoff has noted in reference to survivor discourse and the
#MeToo hashtag: ‘Social media has made it easier not only to share our experiences but also
engage in a kind of collective thinking about the problem with even broader publics’ (2018,
180). The sharing of personal or public secrets is a means of reorienting the present: as
‘time’s up’, it becomes possible to coin alternative future ways of acting and relating. In
temporal terms, it is equally a means of rethinking and refiguring the past. Such rethinking
can be highly resonant yet in instances where, no matter the extent of networked amateur
sleuthing, witness accounts, documents and other historical sources are simply lacking, there
is little to go on in terms of grounding rumor in evidence. Here, the epistemological project
of sleuthing may well resemble those of conspiracy theories and fake news equally premised
on people ‘doing their own research’ with the aid of content coined by their peers. This was
the case with Natalie Wood and her rapist up until Lana Wood, her younger sibling,
identified Douglas as the assailant in the 2021 memoir, Little Sister. Since Natalie Wood is
long dead (the suspicious circumstances of her death being another topic of popular
speculation) and since she never named the man, speculations could, up until the publication
of Lana Wood’s book, only go around in circles.
Capacious forms of remembrance
We argue for the need for capacious forms of remembrance so that, for example, someone
can be reminisced simultaneously as both a great actor, a fantastic father, a loving husband
and a rapist, so as to acknowledge the multiplicity of things that any singular person can be,
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or has been, for different sets of people, in different personal and professional contexts, and
at different points in time. Just as a person does not – in all likelihood – remain the same
during their lifespan, their actions over time are likely to be heterogeneous, contradictory and
impossible to pin down to just one thing. That one and the same person can be a monster to
someone and deeply loved by someone else does not mean that these relations cancel each
other out, or that differing understandings of what a person is require the silencing of voices
in the name of harmonious remembrance.
What we are calling for, then, in the context of celebrity culture and its remembrance of men
associated with sexual harassment and violence, is a distinction between a prescriptive
morality, understood as ‘a set of rules or theory of the basis for moral choices,’ and a more
productive ethics, framed as ‘a process of interrogation’ (Downing and Saxton, 2010, p. 3).
Whereas a posthumous discussion rooted in moralistic thinking might focus on deciding once
and for all whether Kirk Douglas was a good man or a bad man, a great actor or a monstrous
abuser, an ethical approach eschews such binary oppositions for a more nuanced
consideration accommodating of the logic of both/and. An ethics of remembrance would then
interrogate the gendered power dynamics of 1950s Hollywood stardom, reflect on the wider
‘communicative terrain’ (Kay, 2020, p. 12) that enables (or disenables) disclosure about
sexual harassment and abuse, and critically consider what is at stake in the cultural hero
worship of male stars.
For Lisa Downing and Libby Saxton, ‘It is productive to think about what ethics might do
and where it may be located, rather than what it is (2010, p. 3). In the context of #MeToo,
this prioritizing of ethics over morality is valuable for how it might allow for an interrogation
of the discursive conditions under which sexual harassment and abuse is spoken about and
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understood. As Alcoff argues, the new public visibility of sexual violence is not enough on its
own to bring about ‘transformative and lasting social change’; rather, ‘we need a program
that focuses not simply on getting the word out, but on reforming and transforming the
conditions of reception in the public domains in which our words emerge’ (2018, p. 24).
So the question is, what might a feminist ethics of remembrance do? How might it
reconfigure and transform understandings of sexual violence and social justice? The public
response to retired NBA superstar Kobe Bryant’s death is a significant test case for thinking
about these questions. Bryant’s sudden death at age 41 in a helicopter crash on January 26,
2020 which also took the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and the lives of seven other
people is a striking example of what Jean Burgess, Peta Mitchell, and Felix Victor Münch
describe as an ‘acute media event.’ According to Burgess and co. (2018, p. 230), the social
media rituals of mourning and memorialization that are so acutely enacted through celebrity
deaths are significant for how ‘they allow us space to engage in repeated and iterative
negotiation and struggle over how society should be constituted and how we want to live in
it.’ In relation to #MeToo, celebrity deaths present a significant opportunity for collective
thinking about the ‘ability to speak about – and name – abuse in the public sphere’ (Boyle
2019, p. 11).
The outpouring of grief and public mourning for Bryant on social media platforms including
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, was decidedly intense. Social media data tracker Newship
reported ‘more than 100 million engagements, such as Facebook shares or comments, from
more than 25,000 English-language articles written’ and noted that ‘Bryant’s death was a
bigger topic of conversation than the House decision on [Trump’s] impeachment in
December’ (Nuñez 2020). As praise, homage, and appreciation started to abound on the day
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of his death, the Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily
Beast article (see Stern 2016) detailing Bryant’s sexual attack on a female hotel staff member
in 2003 and his partial admission to wrongdoing.
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Sonmez, herself a sexual assault survivor, was accused by some social media users of being
‘heartless’ and ‘attention-seeking’ (see Drayton 2020) while others defended her right to
acknowledge Bryant’s ‘complicated legacy’ (see Filipovic 2020).
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The overall reaction was
one of outrage fueling a hashtag campaign #FireFeliciaSonmez, inspiring some 10,000 emails
with threats of abuse, rape, and death, and resulting in her being put on administrative leave.
The Washington Post eventually overturned the suspension while nonetheless calling
Sonmez’s tweet about the sexual assault allegations against Bryant in the immediate
aftermath of his death, ‘ill-timed’ (Mahdawi 2020).
While this notion of bad timing suggests that celebrity remembrance needs to be
hagiographic, and that discussions of negative behaviours must be bracketed out for another
occasion, our argument is that there is strong value in using the space of memorialisation to
discuss sexual abuse and the cultural investment in hegemonic masculinities. The realms of
entertainment and sports are significant for constructing and propagating dominant gendered
ideals which underpin what Heather Savigny terms ‘entitlement identity’ (2022, p. 12). As
Savigny suggests, this version of successful, heterosexual, wealthy, and most often white
masculinity depends on a sense of confidence and ‘entitlement to wealth, money and power,’
as well as ‘to women’s bodies’ (ibid.). Although traditionally, the obituaries of famous actors
or sporting heroes raise their celebrity pedestals even higher, networked mourning in the era
of #MeToo has facilitated a shift to a communal questioning of such entitlement identity and
the adoration it encourages.
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The occasion of Kirk Douglas’s death, for example, presented an opportunity for social
media users to divulge dark ‘secrets’ and buried rumours about his alleged rape of the
teenaged Natalie Wood. The accusations against Douglas came as shocking news to many,
and went some way to puncturing the idealised narratives found in legacy media obituaries
which waxed lyrical about his ‘rugged good looks and muscular intensity’ in the hey days of
his stardom (Berkvist 2020). While many social media users debated the veracity of rumours
regarding Douglas, in the case of Kobe Bryant, by contrast, sexual assault charges were a
matter of public record and knowledge. Thus, even though the criminal charges of rape were
ultimately dropped, and the case was settled out of court, the detailed public records of the
Bryant rape case, including the victim testimony as published in the aforementioned Daily
Beast 2016 article, are widely known and accessible.
Indeed, what seemed to be at stake in the debate over Bryant was not so much the veracity of
the rape accusations but whether or not it was moralistically appropriate to refer to them
following his tragic death. Since ‘the monster myth is always already referential to the figure
of the monstrous Black male rapist – a mythos whose cultural currency is vast and
consequences for Black bodies often fatal’ (Mack and McCann 2021, 104), mentions of
Bryant as sexual aggressor were possibly seen as reducing his legacy to racial stereotypes. As
sports scholar A. Lamont Williams notes in a personal account of his response as a Black
man to Bryant’s death, the question of how to mourn for Bryant’s tragic loss was weighed
down by ‘racism and rhetoric’ around black male athleticism and the pain of ‘prevailing
historical discourses of Black sexual aggression’ (2021, p. 304, p. 308).
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In the absence of an intersectional framework for understanding the raced, classed, and
gendered logics and contexts of sexual violence, the public debate over how Bryant should be
remembered was characterized by decontextualized outbursts of anger. There were
expressions of hostility, particularly towards black women who questioned Bryant’s legacy.
CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King received death threats when she asked former WNBA
champion Lisa Leslie in an interview if the rape accusations should be part of Bryant’s
legacy. #IStandWithGayle was a hashtag created in response to the vitriolic misogynoir that
King faced after the broadcast. #IStandWithGayle defended King’s right to ask questions
about Bryant’s legacy, and for people to voice different opinions, but several female
journalists and writers went further than this and seized the moment of public mourning to
call for a critical reframing of the cultural conversation on sexual violence.
Writing in The Independent, Clémence Michallon argued that ‘there is no way we can start
having constructive conversations about sexual assault if we don’t make room for nuance and
start painting a realistic picture of who attackers are – not just strangers in dark alleys, but
also powerful, sometimes beloved men’ (2020). Sports reporter, Joan Niesen, writing for The
Guardian, reflected on how she had previously covered Bryant without referencing the
sexual assault charges and acknowledged that, with the insights of #MeToo, it was now
impossible to separate him from his self-appointed alter ego ‘Black Mamba’, the basketball
superstar: ‘The Kobe Bryant who scored 81 points in a game and another 60 on his final night
in the NBA is the same man who at the very least, according to his own statement, made a
woman feel that she did not consent to a sexual encounter. Any survivor can tell you: that is
not a minor detail to be tossed to the cutting room floor’ (2020).
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The point, in other words, is that it is essential to think about sexual assault survivors and
what it means to remember them amidst the public mourning for famous dead men alleged to
have hurt women. As with the death of Kirk Douglas a week later, when photos of Natalie
Wood were shared on Twitter, the act of remembering Bryant also involves – or should
involve – remembrance of the 19-year-old woman who testified that he raped her in a hotel
room. In a New York Times thought piece on this very topic written a week after Bryant’s
death, Laura Newberry and Maria L. La Ganga explore the issue of what Bryant’s legacy
means for sexual assault survivors, quoting Dana White, a sexual assault survivor who works
for a national youth-focused LGBTQ organization, about the need to strike ‘a balance
between showing respect for those who died…and caring for and supporting survivors’
(2020). As White is quoted as saying: ‘The ability to hold multiple truths about anyone,
whether it be a celebrity or someone we were personally connected to, is an act of love and
respect, to be able to see a person for all of who they were’ (2020). In her piece on Kobe
Bryant and the issue of ‘complicated legacies,’ American author and lawyer Jill Filipovic
ruminated that ‘we still don’t know how to tell human stories when a human’s life ends, only
hero’s journeys or villains’ defeats. A lot of people want Kobe to be an uncomplicated
luminary, a great man without inconvenient addendums, and yet here is the inconvenient
shadow of a female form darkening the background, making matters worse… Maybe matters
should be made worse’ (2020).
There are similar attempts to grapple with the politics of remembrance in the comments
section for the New York Times obituary for Bryant. While the obituary proper acknowledges
the felony sexual assault from 2003 amidst its overview of Bryant’s sporting
accomplishments, its discussion remains constrained by the ‘oversimplified frames’ (Walters,
2021, p. 4) of its format. By contrast, in the 402 comments attached to the obituary, there is
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evidence of an emotional processing of the issues at stake in mourning an idealised figure
who is also known to have caused harm. Against the view that is inappropriate to reference
one’s ‘worst actions’ upon their death, one user asserted, ‘This is the era of MeToo. It would
be unfair to those who had their lives negatively impacted by this man to call him a saint and
pretend that everything he did was selfless and kind.’
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Even if it is not explicitly articulated
as such, what such comments and think pieces are calling for is a feminist ethics of
accountability and care that acknowledges the presence of diverse, conflicting voices and
respect for the diverse, conflicting experiences that they communicate.
Possibilities to act
A similar call for a feminist ethics of accountability is present in Felicia Sonmez’s argument
that ‘any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure is
beloved and that totality unsettling’ (Ng 2020). Not only do we agree with this point but we
also further argue that, in thinking about public figures in their totality, it is pivotal to attend
to the social, cultural, political, economic, and historical contexts that have contributed to
their prominence, and subsequent remembrance, so that discussions on sexual violence do not
focus merely on the individual, or on the individuals perpetrating it. Such a contextual move
makes it possible to see the individual public figure within the social networks and
hierarchies that have allowed, or disallowed, patterns of behaviour and ways of relating.
Here, the death of actor Sean Connery in 2020 at the age of 90 serves as an example. As can
be expected with a performer publicly lauded as an icon of straight masculinity whose film
career spanned almost six decades, the news was met with respectful appreciation and
nostalgic remembrance alike. Although mentions of Connery speaking approvingly of
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domestic violence – as in ‘acceptable’ ways of hitting women with an open hand rather than
the fist – and having engaged in spousal abuse soon emerged, these played a marginal role at
best in how his star image, and his particular brand of masculinity, were publicly reminisced
(e.g., Clarke 2020). The following year, Cary Fukunaga, the director of the newest James
Bond film, No Time to Die, was interviewed on the difficulties of adjusting the popular hero
to a post #MeToo context, given ‘the history of Bond includes casual misogyny and worse’
(Siegel 2021). In the 1965 Thunderball, Fukunaga pointed out, ‘basically Sean Connery’s
character rapes a woman … She’s like “No, no, no,” and he’s like, “Yes, yes, yes.” That
wouldn’t fly today.’ This reflexive moment acknowledges differences in what ‘flies’ in
different decades, the transformations that are necessary for a film series to retain its
popularity, as well as the temporal context within which Bond, in the guise of Connery, first
became a cinematic icon in the 1960s. (That Fukunaga himself has since been accused of
sexual misconduct and grooming, again suggests the tenacity of Hollywood’s gendered and
sexualised relations of power; see Heinrichs 2022).
Acknowledging such contexts, and both transformations and continuities therein, does not
mean that either Connery’s star image or the figure of Bond should be simply identified with,
or reduced to toxic masculinity or violence against women. It means acknowledging the
gendered realities, both offscreen and onscreen, within which both his star image and the
early Bond films came into being. These realities gave rise to gendered representations and
forms of male sexual control which, even as they once resonated on a massively popular
scale, ‘wouldn’t fly today’. Such a contextual approach also helps to zoom in on the
conditions under which individual performers acted.
19
Returning to the case of Natalie Wood and Kirk Douglas, what would have followed from a
16-year old female actor just transitioning from child roles to teen stardom reporting an
established, much older male star for sexual violence? How would the studio heads and
publicists have responded? What would have the police done? What would have happened to
Wood’s career and star image? Would there have been any? What kinds of gendered and
sexual arrangements did young women need to navigate in 1950s Hollywood? ‘Suck it up’ is
what Lana Wood remembers their mother telling her sister. Outing Douglas after his death,
and long after the death of her sister, Wood writes of the promise of silence she made: ‘With
no one still around to protect, I’m sure she’ll forgive me for finally breaking that promise’.
Commenting on the accusation, the publicist of Douglas’s son, Michael, merely stated, ‘May
they both rest in peace’ (Aurthur 2021).
Conclusion: A New Way to Remember
In bringing new cultural attention to endemic sexual harassment and abuse, the #MeToo
movement has accordingly changed the way in which people remember films, media
experiences, and, as we have been discussing in this essay – dead celebrities. While there are
many examples we might point to, the struggles of #MeToo reminiscence are well captured
in Molly Ringwald’s much talked about 2018 piece for The New Yorker, in which she revisits
her teen films with John Hughes, who died in 2009. In this essay, Ringwald reflects upon the
troubling gendered tropes and predatory scenarios found in those films, which, in light of
#MeToo, she now finds deeply uncomfortable to watch. As part of her critical reflection,
Ringwald examines Hughes’ earlier writings to investigate why he had such a ‘blindspot’
when it came to gender relations and the depiction of women. Her conclusion is not that the
films should not be watched but that the conversations about them should change (Ringwald
2018).
20
Similarly, this essay has reflected on how the memorialization of dead male celebrities who
have perpetrated sexual and gendered violence, needs to be transformed. It is not that these
men or their careers should not be remembered, but that the conversations about how we
remember them needs to change in order to fully grasp the broader social dynamics that
enabled that violence. While the question of how obituaries should accommodate negative or
‘unsavoury details’ of the deceased person’s life is not new (Walters, 2021, p. 4), #MeToo
and social media networks have turned what was previously a private editorial decision-
making process into a matter for public discussion and ethical debate. Albeit in varying ways
and to differing extents, the conversations on how we should remember Kirk Douglas, Kobe
Bryant, and Sean Connery point to how the past misdeeds of the famous can be used as a
catalyst for reflecting on the kind of present – and future – we want to inhabit. Though there
is a temptation to neatly divide the world into pre- and post-#MeToo times, to do so would be
a mistake (see Moro 2022, p. 29, p. 76). Networked, contextualized forms of remembrance
unsettle simplistic understandings of the relationship between the past and the present. If we
are to prevent sexual violence from happening in the future, we must return to the past and
collectively rethink the cultural frameworks and logics through which stories of sexualized
and gendered abuse have circulated and been responded to – or not, as the case may be. We
need to hold onto ‘Natalie Wood Day’ and the ugly truths it forces us to confront.
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1
#MeToo is the hashtag activist event that emerged in autumn 2017 with white Hollywood
actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet inviting women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted
to write “Me Too” as a status on their social media. However, MeToo as a social movement
was originated by Black feminist activist Tarana Burke in 2006 in order to acknowledge the
importance of an intersectional approach in supporting girls and women of colour who have
experienced sexual abuse. See Boyle (2019) for further discussion of the complexities of this
distinction.
2
Holes and Jensen were co-hosts of the popular The Murder Squad podcast. However, as this
essay went to press, the podcast was discontinued following allegations of sexual misconduct
against Jensen. See Ehrlich and Marks (2022).
3
Bryant made a statement to the court in which he apologized to the woman for his
behaviour and said: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I
recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident in the same way ... I now
understand how sincerely she feels she did not consent to this encounter” (cited in Stern
2016).!
4
In his important analysis of the media coverage of the rape charges against Bryant in the
context of his death, Patrick Walters (2021) suggests that the phrase ‘complicated legacy’
sometimes became shorthand for addressing the rape charges without actually fully engaging
with their implications.
5
See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/26/sports/kobe-
bryantobituary.html#commentsContainer
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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