Goblin King

The word is going around: David Bowie had sex with a 14-year-old girl.

Sometimes it’s put more forcefully: Bowie was a child abuser.

Others don’t think so (including the woman in question): It was consensual! “Who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity to David Bowie?” (A direct quote.)

The best piece I’ve seen so far is this one, which boils down to this line: “We want to be inspired be wonderful people, and to condemn the human excrement who do terrible things. We’re not comfortable with how grubby it is, here in the grey areas.”

Always the gray areas.

I like to think of myself as a feminist. (My mother raised me right.) And I like to think I’ve done some allied work—since ally is a verb, not a noun. I’ve praised the women and the genderless in my life to the skies.

But I was a borderline stalker in college. I developed a crush on “Jess” (not her real name). I asked her out, she said no. Since I was always “willing to wait”, though, I simply waited. We lived in the same dorm, and I would sit in the lobby, and every time Jess came by, I would ask her where she was off to. I thought I was expressing polite interest. Every now and then she would leave by another door rather than talk to me. Finally one of my friends took me aside and pointed out what I was doing.

Okay, so what I was doing was pretty borderline, maybe not stalking at all. I didn’t follow Jess, and once I was taught not to do it, I stopped. The fact is, though, anyone my age who was raised female would have identified the problem; anyone my age who was raised female would have learned to watch out for it as a danger sign, if aimed at them. I didn’t learn it. As a young white American man, I didn’t have to learn it. I did not realize it was a problem.

The fact that I didn’t know is itself a problem.

Here’s what bothers me about the Bowie story. Not that he had sex with someone whom he shouldn’t have but who was apparently happy to do so—this is not a Cosby case, this is not a Daniel Holzclaw case. That’s not what bugs me. What bugs me is that the fact that it’s pretty much routine now.

The second of the articles linked above summed up the author’s point this way: “There is no room for victimizers among our cultural icons.” Alas, I’m forced to disagree—not because I’m defending the victimizers, but because there are so many victimizers among our cultural icons.

For years I have been building a catalogue of men who were excellent—liberal, advocating for the oppressed, fighting for justice, etc.—except for how they treated women. Stokeley Carmichael is my ur-example, due to this particularly awful quote from 1967: “The position of women in SNCC is prone.” (I’ve written about it before.) Marx, that champion of workers, didn’t recognize “women’s work” as work. Gandhi got pretty weird about “resisting the temptation” of young girls, late in his life. Dr. King cheated on his wife. The recent scandals of sexism and harassment in progressive lobbying organizations just gives me plenty of new data. And for the less political, we could consider John Lennon (spousal abuse), Picasso (serial adultery), Hemingway (ditto), and that’s just off the top of my head. Then there’s the National Football League and the Roman Catholic Church. I could make a list out of college football players alone. But wait, there’s more. About the only hero that I have left without a rap sheet of doing women wrong is Jesus, and frankly, we know so little about him…

As I said: routine. The abuse of women is a benchmark in our society. Power is not power until it has been used against a woman.

I mean, could Bowie have been a rock star without this? If he’d been strict about adult, consensual monogamy, would we even call him a rocker? Would we not suspect he was hiding something? Or would we not suspect he was somehow lesser for not taking his “due”?

Now, I could rattle off a list of marriages that were a) worse than what Bowie is said to have done and b) totally legal. Nor do I want to condemn adolescent sexuality and deny teenagers their sexual agency. Nor can we allow this incident to wipe out Bowie’s magnificent legacy. But:

Bowie was the Goblin King. (Not “played,” was.) And the Goblin King was trying to seduce a teenaged Jennifer Connelly. It’s what a Goblin King does: steal the children, seduce the girl. It’s his nature. It’s what any powerful man would do. It’s why we like the Goblin King: that hint of danger.

Does no one remember that the Goblin King was the villain?

Most days I don’t.

~~~

Bowie was a hero. Bowie was a genius. Bowie was beloved. Bowie is immortal, or at least I hope he is. He deserves every accolade; he’s earned eternal fame.

Yet he did wrong, and we’ve got to face that. He did great good and also did wrong, and we have to remember both parts. We must not allow either part to be swallowed up by the other: his greatness must be visibly tarnished, yet must also remain great.

Moreover, he did a kind of wrong that is still insanely typical. We’ve got to fix that.

Bowie could even help with the fixing! His music, his image, his glamour, his graceful and gleeful disruption of convention—in a phrase, his Bowie-ness—are all powerful tools in the struggle against oppression.

But there are limits. We also have to say, “Dance your magic dance, your majesty, aye, it’s awesome—but there is a line, and no dance is worth crossing it.” We must draw a new pattern of power, a new typical, a new way. We have to stop falling at the feet of the Goblin Kings.

So Bowie was both brilliant and did wrong. We have to live with that now: a mixture, a blurring, a confusion. But that’s perfect Bowie. Just as he was a blend of genres, a blend of genders, he was also a blend of good and evil. As are we all, says the former stalker.

David Bowie, 1947-2015, Goblin King. Shall he have power over us?

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