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At what point is a public figure not allowed to have redemption from infamy?

Earlier this week, a lot of arguments about this whole sort of thing got started after Louis C.K. showed up at a New York comedy club at 11 PM last Sunday night. C.K. was one of the most critically acclaimed comedians until recently, with a highly praised series on FX and popular stand-up specials. However, for years, rumors had circulated that Louis C.K. had a habit of exposing himself to women and then masturbating in front of them. But like a lot of rumors, it was never confirmed by anyone on the record. With the developments in the #MeToo movement and the general atmosphere change which encouraged women in the entertainment industry to come forward, these rumors about C.K. were confirmed when five women told their stories to The New York Times last November. Just one day after the Times published their story, C.K. admitted to the behavior, and the bottom fell out of his career. Ten months later, C.K. showed up at the Comedy Cellar for an unannounced set and people started wondering what it means.

With reports Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose are planning comebacks, and there being considerable consternation and debate when Aziz Ansari decided to start making moves in public again, the fact these men who were at the center of media scandals are able to at least attempt re-emerging into their old careers might say something about how far things have (not) progressed. And the ensuing debates online have varied between commentary on whether it’s “too soon,” some wondering how exactly is someone in these positions supposed to start over, the varying degrees of acceptance people should have based on the severity of conduct, and another contingent which find the entire spectacle is sexist and think these men made their beds and now have to lie in it.

So this got me wondering where the line is for a point where a public figure forfeits their ability to have their old careers? When does a person’s actions become so infamous he or she can’t live it down?

From Melana Ryzik at The New York Times:

He appeared around 11 p.m., said Noam Dworman, the owner of the Cellar, the Greenwich Village club with a long tradition of surprise appearances by famous comedians. Dressed in a black V-neck T-shirt and gray pants, he did a 15-minute set that touched on what Mr. Dworman called “typical Louis C.K. stuff” — racism, waitresses’ tips, parades. “It sounded just like he was trying to work out some new material, almost like any time of the last 10 years he would come in at the beginning of a new act.” … Mr. Dworman said Louis C.K. “was very relaxed,” and the audience, a sold-out crowd of about 115, greeted him warmly, with an ovation even before he began. (Mr. Dworman was at home asleep, but club staff texted him about the appearance, and he later watched a tape of it, he said.) One audience member called the club on Monday to object to the surprise set, the owner said. “He wished he had known in advance, so he could’ve decided whether to have been there or not,” Mr. Dworman said. But several other patrons responded to a standard email follow-up from the club to say they were happy they caught the show.

According to reports, similar to the Times’ one above, while the reaction that night was warm, there were some audience members upset they didn't have a choice in whether or not to arguably support the whole thing by knowing what was about to happen beforehand. At least two women who were present at the Comedy Cellar that night  told Vulture they were uncomfortable, especially when one of the jokes made reference to a “rape whistle.”

“It felt like he was being thrust upon the audience without telling them,” one woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told Vulture. “The audience was very loud when Louis C.K. walked in. They were clearly supportive and surprised when he showed up, but there were a number of women sitting in the front row,” the woman said. From her seat to the left of the stage, she could see a pair of women sitting stone-faced. Her friend, who asked be identified with the initials S.B., noticed the same reaction: “There were at least four to five females that I could see, and three or four of them were not having it. They were just looking at him, deadpan, straight, not having it.” S.B. said the audience was mostly white, with lots of couples. Both women say the set was awkward, but the first woman was particularly upset by it. “It was an all-male set to begin with. Then, it’s sort of exacerbated by [C.K.’s] presence,” she said. “If someone had heckled him, I think they would’ve been heckled out. It felt like there were a lot of aggressive men in the audience and very quiet women. It’s the kind of vibe that doesn’t allow for a dissenting voice. You’re just expected to be a good audience member. You’re considered a bad sport if you speak out.”

After this appearance made news, Michael Ian Black got himself into some trouble on Twitter when he wondered out loud whether if those that wrong someone “serve their time” how do they get to “move on” after a scandal.

The overall tone of the tweet is reminiscent of a sentiment which seems to go in the “Haven’t they suffered enough?” direction.

This tweet got considerable blowback, with many arguing that if we were talking about a bank manager who jerked off in front of his co-workers and acquaintances would we really think ten months of going away would be considered serving his time and people would be advocating letting him come back to his job?

And, to this end, many see this entire event and debate over the past week as an example of how women and women’s suffering are discounted. That when push comes to shove, a man (especially wealthy and powerful men) can overcome any social obstacle no matter the amount of pain they may cause with their actions.

The current president seems to be a sterling reminder of this.

From Anna Merlin at Jezebel:

CK’s cautious reappearance comes at the same time as the latest in a series of Page Six stories about Matt Lauer’s hopes of reappearing on TV. The former NBC host was accused of a truly disturbing series of violations, including reportedly locking a woman in his office— via a special button he’d had installed under his desk— and sexually assaulting her until she passed out. (“I’ve been busy being a dad,” he reportedly told a group of well-wishers recently. “But don’t worry, I’ll be back on TV.”) Aziz Ansari has quietly begun performing standup again after a much-criticized Babe.net story about a woman who said he made her feel sexually pressured during a date. After flatly denying his own series of sexual harassment allegations, actor Jeremy Piven—whose TV show was canceled in their wake—has begun making a stab at a career at standup comedy. Mario Batali and Charlie Rose and Garrison Keiller: they’re all looking for a way back in. This behavior runs a gamut: not all of these allegations were the same (a point that’s obvious, but that we’re required to repeat so that tiresome debate trolls can’t accuse us of conflating harassment and rape). But one thing all of these stories have in common is that these men have chosen not to directly address the allegations against them (or, in CK’s case, behavior he admitted to, after many years of lying about and discrediting the accounts of the women he harassed). All of them appear to be closely following the same publicist-approved playbook: go to ground for a while, then quietly test the waters. The other thing all these stories share is their timing; it’s fascinating, in fact, how closely spaced all of these comebacks and attempted comebacks are. Each of these men decided in the space of, at most, nine months or a year, that now was a reasonable time to make a reappearance. (In Batali’s case, he was reportedly looking for a “second act” back in April, just four months after the harassment and assault allegations against him first broke. He remains under criminal investigation.)

This dynamic is not new. Nor is the behavior and reaction of certain segments of the public to these attempts at rehabilitation.

In 2002, singer R. Kelly is one of the most successful R&B singers inthe history of the musical genre. He is also someone was charged with 21 counts related to child pornography for videotaping himself engaged in sexual acts with a 14-year old minor. Even though a videotape exists of the act, he was acquitted of all charges in 2008, and other legal actions were settled out of court.

In late 2013, Jessica Hopper at the Village Voice published an extensive interview with writer Jim DeRogatis, who uncovered the information about Kelly while a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. The interview included copies of official documents from the 2002 indictment, which are graphic and unsettling. Since then, every so often there’s a conversation about how Kelly has seemingly gotten a "pass" to the point he can still release albums for a major label (i.e., RCA, a subsidiary of Sony), make appearances at events like the BET awards, the racial implications of the case, and where the line of acceptance should be with this sort of thing when it comes to an artist's perception in pop-culture.

In recent years, Kelly has been accused of having his own harem/cult. And a piece run in The Washington Post this May details how the music industry knew of Kelly’s proclivities and looked the other way. And, in some ways, it still does. 

A similar situation exists with public perceptions of Chris Brown. Brown has been very successful as an R&B artist and actor. However, he's also known for very public disputes, legal problems, and most notably domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend Rihanna.

It's one thing for Rihanna, or any other abused significant other, to rationalize themselves into a "well he's really a good guy and he's going to do better" position, but when people looking at it objectively from the outside still lay out money for concert tickets and tracks on iTunes for someone that's an asshole, are they separating Chris Brown the person from Chris Brown the performer? Or do they just not care? And not only do people buy up his music, but there are fans of Brown that take to Twitter and Facebook to defend him and profess their desire to sleep with him. And one would think post-O.J. sensibilities about domestic violence would have changed to the point that being an Ike Turner wife-beater would doom a career.

It hasn’t.

Brown is a physically attractive man. Brown can sing and dance. Brown’s fans have not abandoned him no matter how crazy the stories have gotten or how much of a prick he’s become. And neither has the industry.

And to bring this back to Louis C.K. and the other men seeking a foothold on their old lives is how nothing is ever really learned, just a series of events people “move on” from until the next fuck up. 

From Maureen Ryan at The Hollywood Reporter:

Let me be absolutely crystal clear about what's brought me to this moment of pure rage. One word. On top of all the chances he's squandered. I was taken aback when I learned he took the stage at a comedy club a few days ago (and I'm not mentioning that club, because its management team is reprehensible for putting patrons and staff in that situation). I was angry when I found out that he took the stage without warning, which meant that workers and patrons didn't get a chance to decide whether they wanted to be present when a man who admitted to terrorizing women got on a stage a few feet away from where they sat (or served drinks). In one sense, this almost didn't surprise me, because that is Louis C.K.'s thing: Having control. He made comedy specials and an entire TV series on his own and dropped them on his website. He had total mastery of those rollouts. Creative control is something a lot of artists long for. I don't have a problem with that. Here's what I do have a problem with: He controlled, in a monstrous way, the manner of his professional return — and then he used the word "rape" in his set. For laughs. For a "joke" about how rape whistles are "unclean." What the fuck? What the FUCK? He's not done narcissistically inflicting pain on unsuspecting people. This past week proves that beyond a doubt.

One line from Ryan’s column which stood out is her assertion: “a lot of the TV of the last couple decades has been designed to make us feel sorry for monsters and sociopaths.” Ryan, a television critic who was sexually assaulted by a television executive, makes a good point that many of these programs come at their topics from the perspective of the perpetrator.  

The news media covers these cases in a similar way, with a classic Behind the Music-esque storyline. They build people up to break them down, only to build them up again as a story of redemption for ratings and clicks.

But sometimes there is no redemption, apologies, or meaningful sorry’s to be had. Sometimes there’s just a dude holding his dick in his hand waiting things out to get his old life back.


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