When Heroes Fall:
John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, is a creep and belongs in prison according to a tweet a saw recently. The evidence presented being the way that he, a grown man, described and wrote about teenage girls in his books. I have read, and enjoyed, several of John Green’s books, so I paused to reflect on his depictions of teenage girls, and, in a way, I can see where the author of the tweet is coming from on this one. Many of his books could be classified as coming of age novels, and they do tend to have some portions that reflect the teenage horniness that is a staple of the genre, so at times his depictions of teenage girls are perhaps overly sexualized. However, I have a little more data on John Green.
Long before I ever picked up one of his books, I watched John and his brother Hank on their YouTube channel, The Vlog Brothers. The channel, which started well over a decade ago now, is a collection of video messages between John and Hank that discuss, explain, and expound on a myriad of topics, from climate change and the gender wage gap, to what it is like being a New York Times Best-selling Author and also have extreme chronic anxiety and depression. The videos are well thought out, eccentric yet tasteful, and sometimes are downright heartwarming. John and Hank have started a number of other channels now as well, most notably their popular Crash Course channels which have become the gold standard for online educational videos. Some of their most recent work has ventured into philanthropy, and they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to reduce maternal mortality rates in Sierra Leone in West Africa.
So even as I reflected on John Green’s sometimes sexualized descriptions of young women in his books, I had a hard time getting on board with team “#lockupJohnGreen”, which if someone in that camp wants to borrow, they may. Then, I delved further into the comments on the tweet. A dangerous practice, I know, but I was interested to see what people had to say about this perspective. Amid people explaining more about John as I have just done, and others agreeing whole-heartedly with the original tweet, I found something that unsettled me a little. Namely, screenshots of a much younger John Green’s interactions with people on his old Tumblr account, in which he was pretty damn rude, crude, and offensive to presumably teenage girls and boys who had called him a name or done some other small thing to antagonize him. Here, I didn’t have an answer. The gentle, kind man I have grown to respect and admire over the years was being a total asshole in an internet comment thread, and I didn’t know what to think.
In this same week, Joe Biden has gone on television to publicly deny an accusation of sexual assault that, in my opinion, he probably committed. I am angry that the powers that be consistently choose old, white, predatorial dudes to represent us, and I am pissed that folks decided to go with Biden when we had a wide field of competent women like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris who were not in danger of being sexual predators. None of these feelings were conflicted, and I felt no need to re-examine my view of our former vice president in the same way I did with John Green. Why? Because I have never liked Joe Biden, and his track record of skeevy creepiness with women is a huge factor in me feeling that way. The rest of the factors are well… political, so when it comes to light that he is a sexual predator and has done horrible things in the past, I’m not really that phased. By some, however, Joe Biden is as respected and loved as John Green is by me, and these folks have been vocal about their full confidence in his innocence and have even speculated that the accusations against him are a plot by the Trump administration, Russia, or some other anti-democratic organization to make sure that Trump wins re-election.
These folks are the same who called the conspiracy theorist folks on the right misogynists and fools when Justice Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court under similar circumstances. It seems that many who were strong in their convictions to believe women and declare their support for victims of sexual violence have lost their fervor at the first sign of political inconvenience. This wavering constitution is played out thousands of times a year in our families and communities. Many progressive, feminist individuals are happy to support the movement to end sexual violence and bring swift justice to its filthy perpetrators when those perpetrators are in the abstract or at least a concrete that they don’t like, but once it’s a brother, a friend, a co-worker, a pastor, or a politician that they love, situations become messy.
The ultimate truth about perpetrators of sexual violence is that they are almost always not the monsters we see on tv. They are our brothers, uncles, fathers, sons, sisters, daughters, friends, co-workers, and they can even be our heroes. This is even true of progressively minded, self-identified, feminist individuals. Unfortunately, we were each born into a culture that devalues what society has deemed femaleness in favor of what society has deemed maleness. The work of reprogramming our own personal values away from these societal notions is the work of a lifetime. It takes concerted effort, education, and time.
During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I had a few conversations with those from my old religious community who were concerned that we as a society haven’t made enough room for forgiveness anymore. They offered, that if Justice Kavanaugh had assaulted Dr. Ford as a teenager, that he surely had grown up since then and had an opportunity to improve and be forgiven. At the time, I remember thinking they were wrong, and I still do in that particular case because the enormity of the role of supreme court justice, I believe, deserves to be held to a higher standard than other positions. Then again, I don’t like Brett Kavanaugh, or what he represents for the future of the United States Supreme Court. Now, however, I would like to revisit their argument as it might apply to perpetrators of sexual violence generally.
There is a tendency in progressive communities to pretend like we were all just born “woke”, but we all have said and done things in the past that we now look back on and cringe. As a Mormon high school student, I once wrote anonymous letters to all the girls in my social circle after the prom thanking them for “dressing modestly” at the dance, so that “I could enjoy myself without having to have improper thoughts”. I look back on that and hang my head in shame. I was perpetuating norms that shamed female bodies and disrespected female bodily autonomy. While this was not the same as committing an act of sexual violence, it was still an act that overtly sexualizes young women’s bodies and young men’s minds. It was a distinct piece of rape culture that teaches young men that they are ravenous sexual creatures that can’t control themselves, and that they should instead seek to control the way the women around them dress and act.
I believe in accountability, and since we know from the research that sexual violence is not the result of a few bad apples acting out but is instead an expression of how our society views power and control as desirable and inherent to masculinity and weakness and submissiveness as undesirable and inherent to femininity, we need to also hold the system accountable alongside individuals who perpetrate sexual violence. That means that we might need to offer a level of compassion along with accountability in some cases. It means that there might need to be room for growth and forgiveness. It means that we might need to examine if we ourselves ignore bad behavior and excuse it when it comes from a political candidate or party that we agree with or a YouTuber that we like. It means that accountability is going to be messy, complicated, and sometimes without concrete answers, but we must do a better job of having the conversation. The time for, “All perpetrators of sexual violence of any kind are monsters, and anyone who makes excuses for them is a monster.”, and camp, “Sexual violence isn’t that big of a deal. Women lie, and boys will be boys” is over. I don’t know where I even fall yet on this spectrum, but I do believe that it should be handled case by case.
Where I am certain is when it comes to survivors. Those who have been victims of sexual violence deserve to receive care, compassion, and equitable treatment, full stop. I also believe that believing survivors and providing them with the support that they need for recovery doesn’t have to mean a total crucifixion of all perpetrators regardless of their own backgrounds or circumstances. I do not believe that all perpetrators of sexual violence, with a few rare exceptions, are monsters. Many are simply a product of their cultural milieu, but I do believe that the effect of sexual violence is real regardless of the intent of a perpetrator.
Figuring out where the line between mercy and justice falls is necessarily going to be difficult, and we are going to make missteps along the way. I am sure that in a few months I’ll look back on this article and see my own mistakes and wonder, “How could I have thought or said that?”. That is a risk that I am willing to take because we must find ways to make conversations about accountability safer in order for them to take place. We must also acknowledge that the people we admire and respect are human beings, and they are capable of misdeeds large and small just as we are. We must find ways to give and extend compassion to them as well as ourselves. It is the only way forward to a future wherein accountability, justice, mercy, and most importantly, real and lasting change are a reality.
So yes, I can simultaneously be critical of John Green’s writing and actions from years ago and still support who he is and what he represents today. I can be a registered democrat and support progressive political action while recognizing that the democratic party is flawed and has chosen a likely sexual predator as their presidential candidate. I can recognize that I myself have a past that is full of mistakes that perpetuated rape culture and still want to be part of the solution to that culture. I don’t have to be happy about it, and I may change my mind in the coming years, but I’m working to acknowledge the “and’s” of life. I am doing so messily, haltingly, and at times, hypocritically, but always hopefully.
Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on May 6, 2020.