Thursday, June 25, 2009

Euphemisms and Michael Jackson in immediate review

I am surprised by the coverage of the Michael Jackson in blogs immediately after his demise. The media has focused on Jackson's alleged pedophilia for the last decade; however, all mention of this was absent from most immediate memorial posts. The only post that I have seen thus far that makes reference to these tragic charges is Pandagon:
Of course his body gave out---god only knows how many drugs a plastic surgery addict and pedophile must take to escape the reality of himself. I think it shook me because I mentally chose to believe that the Michael Jackson that I loved died within minutes of releasing “Smooth Criminal”. ... But even if you plug your ears and try to pretend that there was only one Michael Jackson---the Michael of the Jackson 5, of Off The Wall, of Thriller---it’s hard. His earlier music that displayed his practically supernatural talent is impossible to listen to without occasionally hearing portends of the child molesting freak show shell of a human he was to become.
I know we shouldn't speak well of the immediate dead especially. I understand that this may be in poor taste (I've never been great with etiquette). Certainly he was a musical genius and a tremendously talented man who put a lot of positive energy into the universe. I don't object to highlighting or focusing on those accomplishments. I also understand that he was never found guilty, but he is the man most associated with a serious evil and even that is worthy of mention.

Glossing over, marginally mentioning, or using euphemisms discounts extremely serious offenses towards those in society who need the most protection. Sexual predators are a serious threat to all children, and all too often their crimes are ignored (often because of class privilege). Some bloggers that I respect a great deal completely erased these serious evils - especially my most recent fave blog Shakesville, which posted two articles on his death without any sort of reference to his issues with children at all. Jon Pareles of the New York Times also went almost completely without mentioning his pedophilia, despite going into some detail about his career.

Obituaries and media coverage of one's death are the first drafts of their legacy. I don't object to remembering Jackson primarily for his music, much as we respect major misogynists such as Ernest Hemingway for their brilliance (though Hemingway's mistakes were far less evil to my knowledge). But Jackson's wealth was a prime example of how class privilege can constitute exemption from responsibility in our penal system. Child molestation is not something to turn into a historical footnote.

ETA: Commenters at the Shakesville threads brought something that I missed to my attention: Jackson's childhood abuse. Just as the repeated accusations against Jackson should merit mention, so should the abuse that Jackson and his brothers faced as child performers. Jackson was as much victim as victimizer in the cycle of abuse, and his tortured childhood should not be forgotten. It's a valuable example of the way children and child performers are sometimes treated. Comprehensively his personal life is a tragic case of the cycle of abuse that is independent of his astounding, almost mythic talent and music for the ages.


  1. I completely agree. Even though right now I don't think that we need to be focusing on the child molestation, it says something about our society that it is barely even being mentioned. I'd be anxious to see how we view MJ and what we remember about him in 10 years...20 years.

  2. Exactly...I'm not saying that it should be the focus, but feminist websites particularly need to pay mind to the victims he has likely incurred.

  3. To be fair, on CNN they were discussing it. It was glossed over a bit -- the reference to scandal and litigation was brief -- but there definitely wasn't a pretty, tribute-esque portrayal going on in any case; the head editor of Rolling Stone was basically talking about his obsession with regaining the fame he gained from Thriller and how it turned him into a giant weirdo, and made a reference to how as a child he acted like an adult and as an adult he was "child-like", which seemed again to reference the allegations of abuse.

    Personally, I wish if they had been talking about such things they had been really discussing it instead of sort of gossiping about the dead, though.

  4. Absolutely - this isn't a universal admonition. The New York Times' obituary also devotes a proportionate number of sentences to it.

  5. (And of course, the New York Times probably had a well-considered and thought-out pre-written obit - most of the folks I link are writing off the cuff.)

  6. I think MSNBC has mentioned it tonight a few times, btw.

    When I think of him, even before his death, I have usually think of his music and early life separately than his later years, which I usually just remember about his odd behaviors and physical looks.

    I had mostly forgotten about the trail and accusations. I don't think I ever made a decision as to whether or not I felt he was guilty, but he was found innocent by a jury in the trial.

  7. I don't really want to gossip or play "was he or wasn't he". I don't really feel the need to re-iterate my reasons for thinking what I think about him - they're not original or particularly insightful. If folks do not think that he was a child molester, I'm not going to try to convince them otherwise.

    However, Jackson was the face of this serious social ill, and media coverage of him centered around his pedophila for the last decade and a half. To pretend that he didn't represent or wasn't connected to this issue is a denial of the reality of the last 15 years and also disposes of a lot of the conversation about the sexual abuse of children during that time period.

    Even if he wasn't guilty - and really, none of us KNOW if he was - it's the way he's been seen and portrayed for a long time. That in and of itself seems worthy of some direct note - not focus, just notation.

  8. I think that the omission of this part of Jackson's life is just part of the immediate reaction. Everyone suddenly remembers how much his music affected their lives, and they are showing how grateful they are. I'm sure that in time the news surrounding his death will turn into tabloid headlines. After this initial shock/glow wears off, everything else about him will become the focal point of the discussion.

  9. I'm glad you mentioned this-- I can't help feeling like he may have been found guilty if it weren't for his celebrity status, as has happened in trials before (cough, cough *oj*), so I've always looked at his found innocence with a large dash of skepticism. There have a few terrifying cases in which children, swayed by parents, etc., have lied about abuse, but it is rare. So when I saw his creepy face plastered on MSN with a headline of loss, I couldn't help but feel indifferent-- or at least ambivalent with the prevailing emotions being an abstract appreciation for the effects of his work and charity counter-balanced by relief at the loss of a possible-pedophile.

  10. PPJ: That's an excellent point. Omissions are later filled, but the initial omission is still important.

    Jess: I'm with you on the mixed feelings - I appreciate his legacy, I'm sad about how tragic his life was and how much talent he wasted, but I also think that, even if it's just possible or alleged, the privilege that Jackson existed could have allowed him to cover up his actions and carry on.

  11. Yes, MJ was talented, but touching children inappropriately, collecting the bones of the Elephant Man , naming your "child" Blanket, and living with a chimp equates to: Having a few f***ing screws loose...

  12. Like you said, he was found NOT GUILTY! In which case, there are no victims. And what a shame, for this by all evidence INNOCENT man who have his legacy be influenced by such nastiness. Not only to have to face it when you are alive, but also in death. Not to mention his children who are old enough to read by now.

    There is nothing worse then to be accused of pedophilia while being innocent. The falsy accused people are the victims here, and the criminals are the false accusators who make it more difficult for other to come forward and ruin peoples lives. You would think that in death, people would leave MJ alone. But I guess not..

  13. "There is nothing worse then to be accused of pedophilia while being innocent."

    I disagree. Just for starts, it is worse to have been a victim of pedophilia and not be believed than it is to be accused of it while innocent.

    Do I know if Michael Jackson was innocent or guilty? No, I don't, and neither do you. The fact that a jury found him innocent doesn't mean he was innocent in that particular case, and it doesn't mean there were no other victims. Anyone who has been through a sexual abuse trial sympathetic to the abused side knows how that works, even when the accused is not a rich and famous rock star. It's a hard crime to prove.

    Michael Jackson did some exceptionally stupid things, presumably because, as a victim of abuse himself, he had poor boundaries. The fact that he had poor boundaries is a matter of record; he admitted it himself. Whether his boundaries were poor enough that he actively abused, only the children who've said he abused them, or others who never spoke up, truly know.

    But after being accused of sexual abuse once, and resolving that issue outside of court, he continued in the same activities and ended up facing a second accusation and a trial. If he found the first instance traumatic - which he clearly did - why did he continue to act in ways that led to the second accusation?

    Michael Jackson was a dancer to rival Fred Astaire and a singer with the cultural impact of Elvis, but he was also a deeply disturbed man who did not seek help when his actions made both him and his friends vulnerable to accusations and suspicions. From my perspective, to remember the former while ignoring the latter is to refuse to allow him to be the fully human person he was.


  14. RMJ,

    People have to tread carefully because nothing was ever proven against Jackson. It can be a legal issue - in certain countries, the Jackson estate could be well within its rights to bring a libel suit toward any publication that unquestioningly calls the man a pedophile.

    Besides that, if nothing was ever proven, some people have a hard time *not* using euphemisms. I use euphemisms. I prefer them, because I feel much more honest that way. I've accepted the fact that this issue is never going to be clear for me.

  15. I'm seeing a lot of "we can never truly know" followed by "but I really think he was guilty!"


    Maybe we WILL eventually know. Never know what could turn up when going through his personal effects.

    However, I know one thing for sure: he violated a social norm.

    That on top of the fact that he was, well, sometimes a weird guy? (Blanket dangling, unfortunate plastic surgery, etc) That's enough for some people to believe anything against him.


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