If 2016 was the year of the celebrity death and 2017 the year of the celebrity sex scandal, then 2018 has been the year celebrities have been held to account for things they said in the past that no longer wash in these suddenly, if somewhat belatedly, enlightened times. Quite what to do next remains slightly TBD.
Many high-profile comedians have come under this kind of fire, from Sarah Silverman to Amy Schumer to Ricky Gervais, and this month it was the turn of Kevin Hart. He lasted precisely two seconds as the named host of the 2019 Oscars before his prior fondness for outrageously homophobic comedy and his predilection for similarly hilarious witticisms on Twitter were deemed, as the modern lingo goes, problematic.
Hart initially refused to apologise, saying “I am truly happy people... there is nothing that you can do to change that... You LIVE and YOU LEARN & YOU GROW & YOU MATURE.”
Eventually, Hart — or someone in Hart’s retinue — decided this didn’t need to be the hill he died on, and he apologised for his “insensitive words” and stepped down from the Oscars.
Some have come to his defence, saying previous Oscar nominees have done worse and that’s true, but the whole point of #MeToo was to raise the standards. There have been the usual complaints that it’s unfair to hold work from the past to modern values, which is also true to a certain extent: only the most determinedly offended can be outraged by, say, the lack of diversity in Jane Austen’s novels, as some students reportedly are now. But complaining that a comedian shouldn’t be criticised for having been homophobic, er, a few years ago, is the updated version of older men insisting that sexual harassment was totally fine in the 1970s, because, well, they wanted it to be.
As Hart was quitting the Oscars, two other furores were brewing over things that are now deemed unacceptable: Lena Dunham — who hasn’t said something without causing offence since about 2013 — and the Christmas classic ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, proving the potentially offensive is a truly broad church these days. And both of these cases revealed something about the perils of this new enthusiasm for outrage.
Dunham was recently criticised for her open apology to Aurora Perrineau, who last year accused Murray Miller, formerly a writer on ‘Girls’, of assaulting her, which Miller denies. Dunham publicly dismissed Perrineau’s claim, but now admits that was a “mistake” and thanked Perrineau for making her “a better woman and a better feminist”, as if Dunham’s emotional growth is the story here.
Whereas Hart’s reluctance to admit wrongdoing showed his arrogance, Dunham’s enthusiasm about doing so revealed a modern form of narcissism. Her mistake, like Louis CK before her, was to make her apology about herself. This may be a reflection of how those in this kind of spotlight now feel so under attack that in their eyes they are the victims. But that is hardly an excuse.
Objections have been growing for years to ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, in particular its lyrics “Say, what’s in this drink?”. The song, once thought of as a jolly festive duet, is now regularly damned as a paean to spiked drinks, AKA date rape, and this year one US radio station banned it.
“In a world where #MeToo has finally given women the voice they deserve, the song has no place,” decreed host Glenn Anderson.
It’s always amusing when a man tells women what they need to be protected from. Alas for the station, one particular woman, songwriter Frank Loesser’s daughter Susan, used her voice to point out that they were talking nonsense. As she explained, the song was written in 1944, when women had little sexual freedom, so the song is actually about a man and a woman coming up with silly excuses so she can stay — like, it’s cold outside, and she’s drunk. A song that is now being condemned for being “rapey” was actually about a reach towards sexual liberation.
Outrage is a helluva drug, and the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ palaver is a handy reminder of just how blunt a tool it is, and how ludicrous it is to ban things deemed offensive. Neither Hart nor Dunham have been banned from anything; they have been called to account, and that is right. Part of growing up is looking critically at the past, but this needs to be done with the kind of measured self-awareness we are now asking of celebrities, otherwise it’s just a clumsily destructive teenage rebellion.
So Merry Christmas, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ — you can come back in from the cold. Other people, meanwhile, might benefit from some quiet contemplation in front of an open fire.