CN: Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, J.K. Rowling, abuse (child, domestic, emotional, physical, sexual)
In the months since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, a famous man trending on Twitter often means one thing. First to fall was Harvey Weinstein. Others soon joined him: Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey; most recently, Aziz Ansari. Finally, people in Hollywood and around the world were taking a stand against abuse, so when Bill Murray started trending yesterday, you could almost hear the collective tw-intake of breath. But in seconds it became clear that Murray was trending for a positive reason – his ‘hilarious’ performance as Steve Bannon on SNL. There was a shared sigh of relief. People tweeted gifs expressing their relief that it was still ok to love their favourite cantankerous comic; it’s ok, he’s one of the ‘good guys’.
But the thing is, Bill Murray has been accused of abuse. It’s just that the abuse wasn’t sexual, and it happened inside the home. Jennifer Butler (formerly Butler Murray) filed for divorce in 2007, accusing her ex-husband of multiple counts of physical violence, as well as threats and intimidation. She sought a restraining order against Murray, after he allegedly hit her in the face before saying that she was ‘lucky’ he didn’t kill her. An article in Jezebel laid out in detail, almost three years ago, the physical and emotional abuse of which Bill Murray has been accused.
‘Bill Murray has been accused of abuse. It’s just that the abuse wasn’t sexual, and it happened inside the home’
Have people forgotten about this? Or do they just not care? I scrolled through hundreds of tweets, and what struck me was the resounding silence on this issue. Twitter is usually the place you can be absolutely sure to find someone who disagrees with you. Love a new Netflix show? You’re wrong. Think you understand how ageing works? Wrong again. For once, it was disconcerting to see such harmoniousness, and the consensus felt oppressive. I had expected some tweets praising Murray and a fair number of tweets criticising him, pointing out that he is an accused wife-beater, but no-one seemed to care. At the same time that people were rightly condemning Aziz Ansari after allegations of sexual harassment and assault emerged, the twittersphere seemed unanimous in its support of Murray.
I can’t speak for other survivors of domestic violence. I can say that for me personally, as a survivor of physical and emotional child abuse, the unanimous celebration of Bill Murray felt like a slap in the face. It felt tantamount to a statement: ‘We care about sexual assault now, and we are starting to take serious action against accused perpetrators. #TimesUp. But domestic abuse? Time’s not up on that yet.’
Hollywood’s apathy about domestic violence hit home in another recent episode: the case of Johnny Depp. Despite video evidence of Depp’s aggression towards Amber Heard, as well as texts from Depp’s own assistant, Stephen Deuters, apologising to Heard on his behalf – ‘”When I told him he kicked you, he cried” – Depp continues to play Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film franchise. J.K. Rowling, who for a long time people have hoped was a feminist, released a statement saying how ‘genuinely happy’ she was to have him in the series.
J.K. Rowling’s statement made me angry. David Yates’ statement, when he said that the Johnny Depp he saw was ‘full of kindness’ made me angry. But these statements didn’t make me feel isolated; a lot of people cared that Johnny Depp was going to continue starring in the Fantastic Beasts franchise. There was a sense that though we lost this battle, the supporters of violent Johnny Depp were on the wrong side of history. It’s harder to feel like this, scrolling through the tweets about Bill Murray.
One movement, even a hugely powerful one like #MeToo or #TimesUp, cannot be responsible for calling out everything that is wrong in the world. Rather than expecting this movement to take on domestic violence, perhaps we need to start a new movement which can do this. But the fact remains that these movements have started a global conversation about the abuse of power in Hollywood. It is in this era – an era of increased awareness about abuse, and of the related issues such as the gender pay-gap which arise from unequal power dynamics – that the praise of Bill Murray felt particularly jarring. If millions had been celebrating Bill Murray last year, I doubt I would have given it much thought. #MeToo and #TimesUp are not responsible for ending domestic abuse. But they have certainly raised the bar, in terms of who it is appropriate to lionise.
‘If millions had been celebrating Bill Murray last year, I doubt I would have given it much thought’
There are reasons why the praise of Bill Murray in particular hit home. My abuser, too, was an ageing comic. Less talented. He had some success a long time ago, but you won’t have heard of him now. There was a poster of him ‘Live at the Palladium’ on the dining room wall. There was a framed picture of him, arm in arm with Michael Parkinson. I remember him complaining that Parkinson had put his arm on top, as a way to assert his dominance. I remember doubting that Parkinson would have given my stepfather a second thought.
Like Murray, my abuser did impressions. He would pack up a small kit of wigs and props in his case when we went on holiday, and get them out in bars for a spontaneous performance. People would tell me how funny he was, and how lucky I was, and then we would get home and he would tell me that I was pathetic, or that I would never amount to anything; he would pander to the punters in expat-filled Spanish bars, and then he would be so relentlessly aggressive towards us that once we – my sister, mother and I – ran away, hid in a hotel, and looked for flights home. His abuse lasted for a decade, until finally we managed to leave.
‘This level of anger, this level of activism needs to be extended into other domains and other types of abuse’
If I had written this a few years ago, I would have felt the need to explain in far more detail what my stepfather used to do, to justify this label of abuse. I would have thought, ‘if I can articulate how devastating domestic abuse is, people will care about it’. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how much I explain; some people will care, and some people won’t. Right now, it feels like the conversation about abuse in Hollywood is mainly casting couches and hotel rooms. These abuses are real, and they are awful, but accountability should not stop when a Hollywood star heads home, and when the abuse is not sexual.
This level of anger, this level of activism needs to be extended into other domains and other types of abuse. If not, then when we boycott Spacey but celebrate Murray what we are really saying is not that abuse is intolerable, but rather that it is unprofessional: that if a Hollywood star does it to a colleague, abuse is unacceptable, but if he does it to his own wife, it can be overlooked. That, of course, is not the message of #MeToo. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are hugely important and influential. Let’s extend them beyond the red carpet, and beyond a single definition of abuse.