It's a question that social-justice-loving pop culture nerds have been asking themselves forever: Can you separate art from the artist? If an actor or musician does something terrible, can we, after we've had our obligatory rant on Twitter, ever justify engaging with their work again?
In music at least, the ongoing success of Chris Brown and the slowness to do anything about R. Kelly have seemingly answered that question. But survey results out this week by Morning Consult, claim to have answers about our relationships with TV and movie stars too -- and, apparently, once again, "the potential fallout" is "limited."
On first glance, the survey is extraordinarily depressing. It strongly suggests that, unless an actor is an habitual abuser like Kevin Spacey, the public will still quite happily watch his art regardless. That seems to confirm everything assault survivors have suspected for a long time: even if they speak up, the consequences are minimal -- if not non-existent -- for the abuser. (It should be noted that there's an unanswered question here about whether homophobia played a role in getting Spacey more harshly judged than anyone else on this table).
Initially, the worst thing about these results is that they're trying to tell us that nothing has changed. They suggest that, even after all of the efforts of the last few years, viewers still don't care if they support the careers of abusive men. That sentiment apparently increases for fans of particular shows:
"Notably, when asked generally about shows or films starring unnamed actors facing #MeToo allegations, nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said they were less likely to tune in, while 34 percent said such allegations made no impact on their viewership. Nine percent said they’re more likely to watch. Attitudes became more lax when specific actors and shows were named."
In 2018, these findings are even more depressing than usual. Things are supposed to be changing and getting better. So why do these poll results sound so apathetic? Well, it might actually just be a problem with the design.
The first most glaring issue is the choice of subjects. Danny Masterson didn't make the list, having been accused of rape by five women, but Aziz Ansari did, even though few can decide with any finality whether or not his behavior can be classed as sexual harassment. Also absent? The most high profile of all of the recently accused men (and the only convicted one of the bunch), Bill Cosby. Sure, there isn't a person on Earth who'd still publicly admit to wanting to watch The Cosby Show again -- but wouldn't it be useful to see how many would admit to it anonymously?
Also notable in their absence are Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, who each have a multitude of accusers. Okay, they're not actors, but they've been a far more regular fixture on our screens in recent years than the likes of Andy Dick or Scott Baio, who are included in the survey. Isn't getting an idea on the public mood regarding Charlie Rose far more pertinent than figuring out if we still want to watch a couple of D-list actors? Especially given the rumors that Rose is planning a new show, in which he interviews other men publicly brought down by #MeToo.
To exacerbate problems, the survey was limited to 2,202 participants, and there is no suggestion that there was any effort to ensure that different age groups were all represented equally. In fact, age doesn't get raised in the results at all, which is hugely problematic. 2017 research by Mekko Graphics states that: "18-24 year olds attended 6.5 movies per year, on average, while those 60 and over only attended 2.3." The opposite happens if you look at stats for TV-watching; older groups watch far more than younger ones.
It stands to reason then that, when figuring out which actors' careers will be most impacted by sexual harassment and assault allegations, the age of respondents and appropriate consideration of who is watching what are very significant. Morning Consult writer, Joanna Piacenza, writes, "Of the 20 actors we surveyed on, majorities said they hadn't heard *anything* on allegations against 19 of them." This rings loud alarm bells about how much of a feeling, one way or another, respondents could even have about these subjects.
Overall, the actors at the very top of the list that people were most likely to watch and most likely to ignore allegations about were Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, and Richard Dreyfuss, which strongly suggests the age of the survey takers veered on the older side. And this stands to reason. If you've ever worked in a call center, you know that the majority of people who (a) pick up the phone and (b) willingly participate in market research, err on the senior side.
Most of the attention this survey has received so far focuses on the elements that suggest America is a largely indifferent place, as long as it's being entertained. The thing that's getting significantly less attention is what happens to these numbers when you limit the survey respondents to regular movie-watchers (i.e. “people who go to the theater *and* stream a film from home once a month”). When you look at what that more engaged group had to say, everyone fares worse, particularly Ben and Casey Affleck, and TJ Miller.
This survey leaves us without a solid conclusion or proof that America doesn't care when its stars are accused of horrible crimes. Rather, this is just a vague median of random people who aren't necessarily representative of either the people most likely to buy movie tickets, or watch TV, or help shape pop culture.
The reason no one has conclusively managed to answer the tricky question about separating art from artist is that this is an issue that is probably too complex to sum up in a single survey -- certainly not one that only features a little over 2000 people and fails to effectively break up their demographics.
The danger is that a survey as patchy as this one might be held up by studios as a justification to re-hire actors accused of sexual misconduct. That would undo much of the good work -- and consequences -- of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and would perpetuate the idea that if you're a powerful man in Hollywood, you can still, even after all this, do whatever you want. If we're ever going to find out how audiences really feel, the research has to be a lot more meticulous than this.