Vilifying Our Heroes: How We Understand Our Problematic Faves

I wrote a column about public figures as our heroes and villains for Ruby Hornet, featuring fictional Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird and not-so-fictional Bill Cosby. Read the article here or click  below to view the article in plain text.

“Vilifying Our Heroes: How We Understand Our Problematic Faves”
By Danielle Levsky
Posted on July 27, 2015

“I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
—To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Atticus Finch, of Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird, was every high schooler’s literary father, teaching not only his fictional children, Scout and Jem, but every pimpled-faced teen about how important it was to respect anyone and everyone, regardless of their race, family, or social standing. In Lee’s recently released Go Set a Watchman, a new novel that the author wrote as an early To Kill A Mockingbird draft, Atticus is a deep segregationist who attends White Citizens Council meetings. What happens to our perception of our civil rights hero? What happens to our perception of the award-winning novelist Harper Lee?

At the same time as Harper Lee’s new character development, TV’s favorite father, Bill Cosby, admitted to a startling number of rape and assault accusations. The is the same man who paved the way in nightclub comedy and network television, combining entertainment with civil rights activism. He addressed racial equality, family values, and words of wisdom, like one of his most famed sayings: “You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it.” What happens to lessons like this? What happens to the roads Cosby paved for civil rights?

This is not the first nor the last time a well-respected public figure reveals horrible things they have done or supported. Michael Jackson was accused of being a child molester; Woody Allen is an alleged child molester; Roman Polanski has a warrant for his arrest for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl; John Lennon was a woman beater, and the list goes on.

On one hand, bad deeds are hard to be overlooked. So many talented, genius-like figures in the spotlight hold some kind of unexplainable darkness within them. Perhaps they commit such treacherous crimes to go against their over marketed public persona. Still, it’s hard to perceive them the same way once new information surfaces about what happens outside the spotlight. The meaning behind their work changes from artistic to questionable, such as Allen’s portrayal of young girls in his films.

On the other hand, should one set of actions discredit another set of actions? Growth and change is a part of life, be it negative or positive. It is easy to question the sincerity of a public figure’s good deeds, but it’s very constructive to shut down someone’s past because of present information. The old saying goes, “Separate the art from the artist.” Roman Polanski is a genius filmmaker but should probably be in jail. We can defend his work, but not his actions. Perhaps it is best to learn from each in light of each.

Both spectrums of opinion have their merits and their faults. No matter how much we separate the “art from the artist,” we will never feel the same way watching The Cosby Show or read To Kill A Mockingbird without criticizing Harper Lee and reading into every one of Atticus Finch’s actions, searching for hints of racism and white superiority. It’s just like the proverbial river: you can’t step into the same one twice.

Perhaps it’s best to settle this as a byproduct of humanity. With extreme reverence and public adoration comes a certain need for imperfection, for darkness. It’s important to see all the reflections of contradictory public figures, to praise them but also scold them, to recognize the good but not forget the bad. The beauty of humanity is that it is not black and white, but a fumbled ever-changing, tone of grey.

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