Of Monsters and Bombshells, part two: Good guys and punchlines
By Karen Boyle, University of Strathclyde
Content note: this blog series focuses on media representations of sexual assault, victim-blaming and sympathy for abusive men.
The coincidence of Kobe Bryant’s tragic and untimely death with Harvey Weinstein’s ongoing trial led to some sharp juxtapositions in my news feed last week. Bryant – smiling, well-groomed, athletic, attractive – is the antithesis of the suddenly-elderly Weinstein whose physical appearance I discussed in the first blog of this series. Bryant, pictured with his 13-year old daughter Gianna, who died alongside her father in the helicopter crash, does not look like a monster. Despite the long-history of racist association of black men with sexual violence, Bryant’s professional success, wealth, family and his untimely death all make “rapist” an unusually difficult fit for this black man. And certainly a difficult fit in this context.
There is a lot at stake here and I am certainly not suggesting that Bryant should not also be remembered for his many qualities, nor that his death should not be mourned. Nor can the case against Bryant – or its media coverage – be divorced from the long-history of racism in the treatment of rape, particularly in the US, something Black writers in particular have been grappling with powerfully over the last days.
Bryant – and basketball in general – don’t have anything like the same profile in the UK, so Bryant has not been a part of my daily life the way he has for his many fans. But as someone researching the media coverage of the Weinstein case, I want to offer some thoughts on how the Bryant coverage relates to the arguments I presented in the previous blog. The key here is that whilst it is undoubtedly convenient for us to think of rapists as immediately-recognisable monsters –as Ailes or Weinstein have been portrayed in much media coverage - the truth is always infinitely more complex.
Moreover, the idea that rape – or the accusation of rape – is necessarily damaging to a man’s reputation requires critical consideration. In the previous blog, I noted that some of the same qualities which had been valued in Ailes and Weinstein before the sexual harassment stories were finally heard, became evidence of their harassment and abuse after the fact. However, because Ailes and Weinstein could relatively easily be fitted into the “monster” template, there has been little attempt to rehabilitate their reputations on the basis of these same qualities.
The same has not been true of other men.
As Bryant’s reinvention after the rape case reveals, whilst the investigation and charges had short-term costs in terms of his sponsorship deals, in the longer-term his reputation for aggression was to become a profitable one. After the case was settled, Bryant reinvented himself as the Black Mamba, appropriating one of the codenames used by Uma Thurman’s avenging-assassin in Kill Bill. So we have a black man accused of abuse, reinventing himself in relation to a celebrated white female character – herself an abuse survivor - who takes her alias from a deadly snake, in a film which has itself been widely criticised for cultural-appropriation. Complicating things further, in 2018 Thurman went on the record about the abusive production practices underpinning her celebrated performance.
There is a lot to unpack here, but for now, the significant point is that Bryant’s reinvention depended upon the sexual assault allegations and indeed built on them. Bryant was by no means unique in this respect. I have argued elsewhere, that both Johnny Depp and Kevin Spacey have tried, with different degrees of success, to do something similar following the allegations of domestic abuse and sexual violence (respectively) against them. These men – or those working with them - banked on their (sexual) aggression off screen being consistent with their cultural value on screen.
In the years after Kobe Bryant settled out of court with his accuser, the rape case virtually disappeared from public view. In a rare 2016 article which wrestled with the complexity of Bryant’s legacy on his retirement from basketball, Marlow Stern argued:
The Kobe Bryant rape case has, in the annuls of popular culture, been reduced to something of a punchline due to the aftermath – namely, Bryant’s $4 million, 8-carat purple diamond apology ring that he gifted to his wife, Vanessa.
Reading an article in the Mirror about the rape case, following Bryant’s death, I was reminded of this article. The Mirror included a large photograph of Vanessa’shand with the caption: “Vanessa was seen with an enormous purple diamond ring on her finger in August 2003, shortly after the allegations against her husband went public.”
The Mirror thus reminded readers of the “punchline” Stern alluded to: the reduction of the charges to an expensive joke, with Kobe paying (literally) for his “infidelity”, not only in the out-of-court settlement to his accuser, but also in the $4 million apology ring. These women cost him, and in doing so upset the balance of sympathy, not only from accuser-to-accused, but also – at least partially – from betrayed-wife to extorted-husband. At the same time, the payments affirmed his (spending) power and suggested the paid-complicity of both his accuser and wife. Vanessa’s ring shamed her more than it shamed Kobe. Arguably, it was not Kobe but Vanessa and the unnamed accuser who were the butt of the joke in “the annuls of popular culture”, with men invited to identify with the star “player” and his ability to buy himself out of trouble.
It is perhaps telling that the only place I have seen the ring mentioned in these past days has been in relation to the rape case. Kobe and Gianna’s deaths make Vanessa the focus of considerable, and entirely understandable, sympathy. However, with the inclusion of the ring photo, the Mirror article returns to the well-worn cliché that the rape charges and their aftermath were not his shame after all.
In Scotland, the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline is open 6-12 every night on 08088 01 03 02. If you are in Europe, the Rape Crisis Network Europe, Women Against Violence Europe, and the European Commission provide links to country-specific services across Europe.