In my Culture Complex column in Time this week, what will hopefully be–but don’t bet on it–my last word on Michael Richardsgate. Namely, with so many figures exploding into racism lately (George Allen, Mel Gibson, Richards, etc.) maybe the question is not what it says about them but what it says about us. If politicians and entertainers live and die by their audiences, why do so many of them seem to think we’ll applaud bigotry?
One explanation, which I didn’t have space to elaborate on in the column: maybe because so many acts of bigotry have so few consequences. Trent Lott, of course, proved that the statute of limitations for praising segregationism is four years in the Senate. And in the column, I mention another recent example from pop culture: Isaiah Washington of Grey’s Anatomy, who reportedly, in a confrontation with Patrick Dempsey on set, referred to a fellow cast member as a "faggot." (The reference, according to reports, was seemingly to T. R. Knight, who came out publicly after press reports of the incident.)
The other day, I was watching preschool network Noggin with my two kids and saw an ad for a charity fundraiser, which included a lunchbox autographed by Washington. Something tells me they would not be peddling Michael Richards or Mel Gibson-penned kids’ accessories at this juncture. So why hasn’t there been as much fallout for Washington?
Well, the first reason is that the reported, alleged incident was, to some extent, just that: reported and alleged. Washington apologized later for his behavior and his "unfortunate use of words" in the argument, but–as with Gibson’s early, insufficient apology for his anti-Semitic outburst–he didn’t specify just what the "words" were. But clearly more than one person out there knows. Other Grey’s cast members have spoken about the on-set altercation in the press. If Washington didn’t say "faggot," then they do him a disservice by not clearing his name unambiguously, publicly and loudly saying that he never used the term. If he did say it, then they do the rest of us a disservice by trying to smooth it over.
But another reason is, let’s be blunt, in our society, it’s still safer to insult gays than blacks, allegedly, actually or otherwise. If the incident had played out exactly the same way, except that the white Dempsey had (allegedly, reportedly) used the equivalent racial slur for the African American Washington, does anyone seriously believe there wouldn’t have been greater fallout? I have no way of knowing whether show creator Shonda Rhimes (who is also black) would have McFired McDreamy, but his name would have been McMud in public regardless. Like it or not, "faggot" is considered impolite, but it is not a career-ender, period.
Finally, nobody–so far as we know–recorded the Grey’s incident, unlike both Richards’ and Gibson’s trangressions. In Gibson’s case, even though we never saw the recording, his initial vague apologies suddenly, miraculaously became specific and pained once we all learned that there was audio and videotape.
And as for Richards–well, you’ve seen the footage. Pop audiences may love scandal, but they are also a surprisingly forgiving lot. Nobody out there wants to hate Kramer, or to believe that the actor who played him could have been so hateful. If tmz.com hadn’t posted video of the breakdown, we would have only heard about it, if at all, in secondhand press reports. That would have left more room for face-saving interpretations–he was just making a joke! he was playing a character!–which a lot of people, wanting to think the best of Richards, would have chosen to believe. The video made it impossible to ignore or minimize what really happened, or to explain it as anything other than Richards playing himself, the pissed-off, racist comedian.
Which means that the audience had to confront the truth about Richards, like it or not. The YouTube era promises to be harsh not just on out-of-control celebrities, but their fans too.