A Sociology of Celebrity Sanctions

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Bill Cosby is a household name, once associated with a long and illustrious career, now with an infamous string of sexual assault allegations dating as far back as 1965. After new rape charges arose in late 2014 and became the subject of pop-culture discussion, TVLand dropped The Cosby Show from its rerun schedule and Netflix postponed a Cosby comedy special. A sitcom he had in development was canned. Notably, Cosby had weathered such accusations for decades without losing the support of networks and business partners. This time has been different.

University of Texas-Austin sociology professor Ari Adut lends his thoughts in a New York Times article. When public knowledge about a scandal is limited rather than widespread, entertainment businesses are less likely to take action. Once an allegation leveled against a public figure and becomes common knowledge, though, businesses are compelled to respond: “[w]hen everyone knows that everyone else knows about the claim (and so on), society can judge people and groups that do not act on that knowledge.” So, though rape and assault accusations had followed Cosby for nearly a half-century, the latest set of allegations have been hotly discussed in the media, and groups like Netflix moved to distance themselves from the performer so as to avoid public perceptions of Inaction.

This sociological explanation for how businesses assess public opinion regarding scandals and act accordingly helps us understand many other occurrences in the entertainment industry. For example, after actor Charlie Sheen had a run-in with the NYPD regarding drugs in 2010, CBS soon dropped the star from Two and a Half Men, despite the fact that Sheen had notoriously faced drug issues before. Once Sheen’s 2010 crime became public knowledge, the axe fell swiftly. For the famous, what the public doesn’t know—or mobilize around—needn’t be a worry. When it hits the front pages, though, anything from “dirty laundry” to felony assault is likely to tarnish a even a star’s brand image (and paychecks).

Can a Rise in Rape Reports Be Good?

The 40th Anniversary of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre marks just one of the long-standing resources available to victims. It is funded both publicly and privately.

The 40th Anniversary of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre marks just one of the long-standing resources available to victims. It is funded both publicly and privately.

A recent Metro News article turned to social scientist Isabelle Côté for an explanation about an alarming rise in the rate of sexual assaults in Ottawa, Canada. Côté suggested that the data could point to something other than an actual increase in assaults: since Ottawa devotes resources to programs that help those who have been assaulted, Côté believes victims may be more likely to report the crime there than elsewhere.

Still, sexual assault is significantly underreported. Côté tells the paper only about 10% of sexual assaults are actually reported to the authorities. That means perhaps a number as low as 6,000 (the number reported in Ottawa last year) should be cause for concern. Côté told Metro News that issues of race, class, and gender stereotypes can influence whether the crime is reported—and whether the victim is believed.

Increasing rates of reported sexual assault may be a good thing if it means more victims are coming forward. Côté also discusses the importance of funding for rape prevention alongside support for victims. The key is to reduce assaults but dramatically increase reporting when they occur.

Are We All in Steubenville?

If we’re not all living in Steubenville, are we still subject to the rules of Guyland?

When people do horrible things, it is often too tempting to obsess over the individual perpetrator, to ask “What went wrong?” through a slew of news headlines, childhood photo montages, and impassioned Internet comments. However, one of the basic tenets of Sociology 101 is that nothing happens in isolation—we must also look at the social sphere around an individual.

Michael Kimmel reminds us of this maxim in a recent opinion piece on Ms. Magazine’s website. Writing about the community response around a now-notorious Steubenville, Ohio gang rape, Kimmel argues that public outcry against the individual perpetrators (and trivial “poster boy(s) for teenage male douchery” who make light of the event) misses the point. What about the influence of a male-dominated community that could protect the perpetrators—those Kimmel calls “The 18,437 Perpetrators of Steubenville” in his title? He writes:

As I found in my interviews with more than 400 young men for my book Guyland, in the aftermath of these sorts of events—when high-status high school athletes commit felonies, especially gang rape—they are surrounded and protected by their fathers, their school administrations and their communities.

They did what they did because they felt entitled to, because they knew they could get away with it. Because they knew that their coaches, their families, their friends, their teammates and the police department—indeed, the entire town would rally around them and protect them from the consequences of what they’ve done.