Today, on the day of David Bowie’s death, people have been discussing an upsetting issue: Early in his career, David Bowie statutorily raped young teen girls—the underage “baby groupies” who were an open secret in the rock scene of the 1970s. This was despite the age of consent being 18 in California. (Their scene was the Sunset Strip.)
It’s difficult to receive this information while mourning Bowie’s death. It’s particularly complex to negotiate for those fans who are aware of the complexities of rape culture and who have made a conscious decision to believe women.
The idea that Bowie is a rapist (albeit a statutory one) places him within a broader behind-the-scenes pattern that is not uncommon enough among male stars. Bill Cosby. Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mike Tyson. R. Kelly. Michael Jackson. John Lennon. The list of famous men who have raped or battered women or children seems endless. Though these cases vary in significant ways, they all reflect the same underlying problems: criminally predatory behavior and entitlement in men’s celebrity culture.
But every time we learn another beloved figure committed horrible acts, it’s distressing. It’s unexpected. It’s a predictable pattern, but it’s not predictable regarding any one celebrity, so it always comes as a shock.
How can we, as fans, process such distressing information, particularly when it arises in social media conversations simultaneous to our mourning a widely loved figure?
I think it helps to remember the following:
1) Talented people do terrible things, too. Sometimes, their fame encourages such behavior, and it often enables it.
2) Being talented doesn’t excuse a person for committing terrible acts. Just because someone is an incredible artist doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye to how they have wronged people.
3) Calling out artists’ abuse of others doesn’t necessarily negate the cultural value of their bodies of work. (Depending on the nature of their oeuvres, though, it can render them hypocrites and make us suspicious of their intentions.)
4) It is a sad commentary on our culture that modern masculinity can be so entitled, so toxic, that we are repeatedly put in the position of both loving the art and hating the man behind said art for what he did to women and/or children. It’s a horrible position for fans to be in–to try to reconcile our admiration of their work with our loathing for their actions.
P.S.: I am a David Bowie fan. This piece evolved throughout the day in my responses to posts about the statutory rape, which filled my Facebook feed (alongside posts mourning his death and celebrating his life, several of which I posted, too).
The conversations I read tended to convey two opposing perspectives: That this information is a deal-breaker that ruins Bowie’s work, or that this information is no big deal, because the girl says she was consenting. I weighed in because I think neither assertion is quite right. Bowie’s work is still wonderful. At the same time, the girl’s consent doesn’t negate the fact that this was statutory rape. As a young teen (depending on which report you read, she was 13, 14 or 15 at the time), legally she could not consent—and as an adult, Bowie knew better. He should not have pursued and seduced a minor.
Ultimately, I agree with Amanda Marcotte, who a couple of hours after I published this piece wrote: “Even if the girl in question says she is consenting, the relationship is inherently exploitative, at best. It is good that attitudes about this have changed and that we take statutory rape more seriously now. […] This all shows that the takeaway from hearing this story […] is that changing the culture *works.* And that is a far more interesting and important conversation to have than whether or not you personally are a righteous person because you listen to David Bowie records.”
It’s a difficult discussion. My hope is that by engaging one another on these points, we continue to move the culture forward.
For further reading:
Primary source material: “I lost my virginity to David Bowie”
On the history of the age of consent in California: “The crazy quilt of our age of consent laws”
Secondary sources / analyses:
- “David Bowie and believing children”
- “David Bowie, Jimmy Page and that small issue of child rape”
- “Remembering Bowie: The man, the legend, the sexual abuser”
- “It’s not just Cosby: Hollywood’s long list of male scumbags”
- “Why the Daily Beast article about Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen is dangerously irresponsible”
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters.