Recent documentaries have exposed the patterns of abuse committed by two superstars. How should we react?

When I was in middle school, I fell in love with jazz and tap dance. I’d go twice a week to my local dance studio and learn dance after dance in preparation for our yearly show. The music my instructors played varied from Top 100 hits to years-old jazz, but one of their favorites was always Michael Jackson. The speakers would blast “Billie Jean” or “Thriller,” and we would dance our middle school hearts out to the popularly-regarded King of Pop.

I can’t say I ever was a Michael Jackson super fan, but he constantly surrounded me. I tried learning the “Thriller” dance when I was 12. I think I cried when he died; if I didn’t, my mom definitely did. One of my first DIY-ed clothing pieces was a distressed Michael Jackson t-shirt. I wasn’t so much raised on Michael Jackson, I more so grew up with him. He was everywhere; his songs played at every school dance, his image was on merchandise in every Target, and his children were always in the news. Michael Jackson was everyone’s childhood, and I never suspected the more sinister things that laid underneath his dreamlike persona.

Jackson’s captivation of young boys isn’t new information. There were allegations of sexual abuse from children in 1993 and 2003, with the ones from 2003 resulting in a trial, yet Jackson was never found guilty and was able to gloss over the drama and continue with his career. The abuse continued to be swept under the rug by the Jackson estate and fans alike, until the recent HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland.”

“Leaving Neverland” didn’t just rip out the rug from under us, it burned it up. The documentary focuses in on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who were sexually abused by Jackson when they were adolescents. The two describe the years of abuse, both sexual and emotional, they were subjected to at young ages, and the long-lasting impacts it has had on their lives. For the first time since 2003, all eyes were on Michael Jackson’s pattern of pedophilia and abusive behavior, and it’s become clear that whether the public likes it or not, it’s a part of his legacy that can’t be erased.

“Leaving Neverland” isn’t the only documentary that has thrust a popular figure’s pattern of abuse into the spotlight. The Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” centers around R&B superstar R. Kelly’s abuse of girls. Kelly would often lure young girls to him with promises of mentorship and fame, and then take advantage of the girls by making them perform sexual acts. The most notorious instance of this was the “tape,” in which R. Kelly videotaped himself urinating on an underage girl he had promised he would mentor.

Both Jackson and Kelly used their fame to lure in adolescents. When you’re young and hungry for fame, you’re willing to take every opportunity that’s given to you, and if that opportunity is giving to you by a superstar, you’re going to discount red flags in the hopes of reaching your dreams. Children have an innate ability to trust, and to take advantage of that and abuse them is disgusting beyond words.

The details of Kelly and Jackson’s abuse have been public for years because both were put on trial, but both documentaries packaged that information in a way that a broad audience could understand and connect to. The documentaries allow you to witness the victim, their trauma, the pain in their eyes — once you put a human face to an issue, it’s harder to sweep it back under the rug. “Leaving Neverland” and “Surviving R. Kelly” were both highly publicized, garnering lots of media response and public outcry against the two artists. Suddenly, it feels like the whole world is restructuring their opinions of men they’d previously admired, something that was a long time coming.

When “Leaving Neverland” was announced, a common question was: why now? Why years after Jackson has died? Why not after his 2003 trial? Why not in 2014, when Robson and Safechuck were suing the Jackson estate? There’s no easy answer. There’s a lot of factors that play into the timing, but one of the biggest factors seems to be the emergence of the #MeToo movement. More and more artists are publicly called out for their past wrongdoings because the public is more readily prepared to hear and believe victims than ever before. Having an open-minded public is especially important in calling out Michael Jackson for numerous reasons. First, he always seemed remarkably innocent. He was known to be childish and whimsical, spending lots of time building up his now-infamous “Neverland” home to be full of wonders. Second, Jackson was the soundtrack to almost everyone’s childhood. His songs played at graduations, parties, and in teenager’s bedrooms for years. It’s hard to believe that someone you were raised on can be capable of such heinous acts, so it’s natural for an audience to be immediately skeptical. Third, this is one of the largest cases that has arisen where the victims are men. There’s not much attention on the sexual abuse of men in the #MeToo movement due to the understanding that men are seen as sexual beings who are incapable of not enjoying sexual acts. Although some people see it as too late, I think right now is the perfect time for “Leaving Neverland.” The general public seems to have become more and more liberal, which makes them a more accessible audience for stories of sexual abuse committed by an icon, and more likely to believe the victims. 

It’s refreshing to see the world stop supporting R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, from R. Kelly being dropped from RCA to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis removing Michael Jackson memorabilia. Would it have been better if people stopped supporting these artists when the news of their abuse first broke years ago? Yes. It’s frustrating that it took a documentary and intense media coverage for people to believe the artists’ victims, but we can’t change the past. We can only look forward and construct change so it doesn’t take another Lifetime documentary for people to stop supporting abusers. Change comes from believing victims, whether it be a case as big as Michael Jackson or as small as the sexual assault of a friend.

In both documentaries, victims and other sources described how members of both artists’ teams knew about the abuse, yet said nothing. When the people around an abuser recognize what is happening and don’t say anything, they become bystanders to the abuser’s behavior, whether or not they think it’s wrong. By enabling abuse, bystanders help to make spaces, such as the music industry, feel unsafe to victims. By being a bystander to someone’s abusive behavior, you’re letting the cycle of abuse continue. We need to hold each other accountable — not only those in the music industry, but everyone. Holding people accountable doesn’t only mean speaking out when the situation gets severe. Holding people accountable means calling someone out when they talk down to the women around them, when they grope someone, when they do something that’s often see as “mild.”

It’s ridiculous that R. Kelly wasn’t convicted for the “tape”, but with the recent discovery of a video of him harassing an underage girl, he finally needs to be indicted. We need to stop supporting these artists: stop listening to their music, going to their shows, or engaging with them in any capacity, because that allows abusers to continue to stay relevant and gloss over their wrongdoings. Change comes from the public making it clear that these cycles of abuse can’t continue to go on. We need to start unwinding sexual abuse from the music industry by holding others accountable and not supporting abusers.

By Mackenzie Glaubitz