These past couple of weeks have shown the power — and the limitations — of social media. Specifically, the way collective sentiment online can push high-profile people to own up to hurtful or destructive words and actions.
The news cycle’s almost frantic pace has a weird and unsettling way of granting absolution before we even realize that’s what is actually happening, as countless other stories tumble down our timelines and grab our attention. Celebrities are counting on that.
Over the weekend, “The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison announced he would be “stepping aside for a period of time” from the show. His statement came after an interview aired earlier in the week, in which he defended this season’s front-runner for attending an “Old South”-themed formal, an event steeped in the kind of antebellum tropes that are inextricably linked with the enslavement of Black people. A few days after that interview, Harrison posted a statement to Instagram acknowledging that “by excusing historical racism, I defended it” and that by doing so, he “invoked the term ‘woke police,’ which is unacceptable. I’m ashamed over how uninformed I was.”
It was only in October that he was saying that “The Bachelor” franchise was making it their mission to become better informed in the wake of the social injustice and racial equity protests of this past summer. “Does change ever come fast enough for those that want it and need it? No it doesn’t,” he told the digital publication Insider.com. “You can’t just flip a switch because when things have been going a certain direction for a long time, it takes awhile to turn around a big boat — and ‘The Bachelor’ is a big boat.”
This kind of framing is a deft way to sound focused on the need for change without publicly committing to measurable goals, bench marks or timelines.
“I have spent the last few days listening to the pain my words caused,” Harrison wrote in his recent Instagram post, and it certainly sounds like the concern expressed on social media was intense enough that he (and ABC and Warner Bros, which produces the show) had to provide some kind of response.
But how meaningful is his vaguely-phrased “stepping aside,” anyway? I asked ABC to confirm whether or not Harrison is a producer for any of the shows in the franchise and did not get a response. The aforementioned Insider story reports that he is an executive producer on both “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” and in television that title often comes with points, which are a percentage of the revenue a show earns. Would his public apology have more or less impact if we had confirmation either way if there were also financial repercussions for defending racism?
“The work of actually changing how you see and move through the world is complicated, messy, and long, and that’s hard to capture in a ‘statement,’ which is part of why I’m having a hard time thinking of an example of a good one,” he said. “We change over time, not in the moment we first acknowledge harm or failure. Change is active and nonlinear. But so often we see someone post a statement and then just go back to business as usual, which is part of why we often view these statements so suspiciously.”
The Harrison Instagram post comes on the heels of a similar, if briefer, Instagram statement from Justin Timberlake. Celebrities may have upgraded beyond the notes app apology, but these statements retain that same nonspecific quality that makes them feel so empty. In Timberlake’s case, his intent was to “specifically apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson” for the “times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what is right.”
Heaven help the digital archaeologist who unearths this post decades in the future, sans context, and wonders to what the singer could possibly be referring. That Timberlake left out important information might be the point.
A quick primer: His public treatment of Spears turned ugly when they broke up in 2002, goading press coverage that was primed to paint her in a negative light; she was the cheater, he was the angelic wronged party. His apology to Jackson is reference to their halftime performance at the 2004 Super Bowl, when he grabbed her costume and exposed her breast. In the aftermath, Timberlake could not distance himself fast enough — from Jackson and the subsequent controversy — and it was her career that took the hit, while his own flourished and he became the darling of “Saturday Night Live” and was even asked back to perform at the Super Bowl in 2018.
So why an apology now? In his own words: “I’ve seen the messages, tags, comments and concerns and I want to respond,” he wrote. It was a perfect storm of timing that seemingly brought that pressure to bear, with the New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” airing on FX just a little over a week after this year’s Super Bowl, which has become an annual reminder of Timberlake’s less than honorable behavior.
The #FreeBritney movement has been an online phenomenon for years, but ironically it took an old media format — a TV documentary from the New York Times — “to take it to the next level,” said Stedman. “And for all the ways social media can be used by individuals to organize and advocate for change, it’s easy for existing power structures to harness social media to their advantage, too; a celebrity can just upload a statement and keep it moving, trusting that the rapid-fire nature of the timeline will move on to the next topic soon.”
An apology doesn’t translate into real change.
Leslie Kay Jones is a sociologist at Rutgers University who studies the way online spaces affect social movements. “The Justin Timberlake post was not an apology,” she said. “I think there’s an elision in American culture between acknowledgment (the apology) and truth and reconciliation (actual change). So we get this surface-level, ritualized apology that doesn’t really ask anything of the system in the first place.”
In other words, once that apology is filtered through the algorithm of trending topics as well as entertainment media, the narrative becomes centered on the apology, rather than “any call to action that would require the actual stakeholders to do anything,” said Jones. “Justin Timberlake’s apology isn’t directed at Britney Spears or Janet Jackson. The audience for that apology are his fans, which is what I mean when I say it’s an empty ritual, because it happens apart and aside from the actual harmed people — and I’m including in that the disabled community that has rallied around Spears and the Black community that has rallied behind Jackson.”
Jones added: “I would argue that social media calls for accountability should look like what’s happening with Joss Whedon.”
Whedon has a long list of notable Hollywood credits, as the creator of influential TV series such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” and as director of major blockbuster films, including two of the “Avengers” movies for Marvel. More recently, he took over directing duties on the 2017′s “Justice League” for Warner Bros. when the original director, Zack Snyder, stepped down following the death of his daughter.
This past July, Black actor Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg in the film, accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional and completely unacceptable” behavior during their work on “Justice League” and he has been seeking redress from Warner Bros in the months since. (Fisher also says the studio enabled Whedon’s abuse.)
Fisher has mostly been a lone figure on this until last week, when Charisma Carpenter, a white actor who starred on “Buffy” as well as it’s spinoff “Angel,” posted a statement with the caption: “My truth. #IStandWithRayFisher.”
“For nearly two decades, I have held my tongue and even made excuses for certain events that traumatize me to this day,” she wrote, detailing the ways in which Whedon “abused his power,” which she experienced “firsthand. Repeatedly.”
Carpenter’s post has resulted in words of support from several co-stars who also worked on those shows (including “Buffy” star Sarah Michelle Geller) and, suddenly, there’s considerably more attention on the issue. “But I’m not sure the mechanism behind that was because she was a white woman and people started to listen,” said Jones.
It was more subtle than that. “It was about how people started to immediately change #IStandWithRayFisher to #IStandWithCharismaCarpenter — that’s what stuck out. People are investing intellectual resources into mobilizing behind her in ways that I think does speak to racialization and disinterest in a Black person experiencing any type of hostile work environment.
“But,” she added, “this is also a story about how it took 20 years for people to pay attention to these concerns.”
As recently as 2017, Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole wrote an essay for The Wrap calling out what she saw as his hypocritical behavior, and yet Hollywood more or less shrugged off her concerns. During their marriage, she wrote, she believed “that he was one of the good guys, committed to fighting for women’s rights, committed to our marriage, to the women he worked with. But I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.”
Whedon has a new TV series set to debut on HBO in April called “The Nevers,” though he stepped down as showrunner last fall, saying he was “genuinely exhausted, and am stepping back to martial my energy towards my own life.”
Both HBO and Warner Bros. share the same parent company, WarnerMedia, but HBO head Casey Bloys told The Wrap “we had no complaints or no reports of inappropriate behavior.” Not long after Whedon left the show, WarnerMedia concluded its “Justice League” investigation, saying only that “remedial action had been taken” as a result — action in regards to whom and for what reasons has not been specified.
What makes the social media response to these allegations against Whedon so different, in Jones’ view, is that people aren’t hoping for just an apology. They want concrete action from the corporation that has paid him handsomely over the years — and others that might consider employing him in the future.
“It’s an important distinction,” said Jones, “otherwise it’s that apology ritual stuck in the same old cycle of report-outrage, report-outrage, where everyone in the media is making money.”
But nothing meaningful is actually happening.
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