Should We Consume The Media Of Bad Actors?

The drama surrounding “Beef” actor David Choe brings up the age-old question: Can fans separate the art from the artist?
“Beef” actor David Choe once described sexually assaulting a massage therapist, but has since claimed he made up the story.
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin via Getty Images
“Beef” actor David Choe once described sexually assaulting a massage therapist, but has since claimed he made up the story.

Critics have hailed Netflix’s “Beef” as one of the best shows of this young year. It’s getting loads of praise for its inky-black humour and a cast extremely dedicated to the conceit; I’m only on Episode 2, but I can tell that I’ll want to move slowly through the 10 episodes to savour it.

Unfortunately, the show started trending a few weeks ago for the wrong reasons: the past of David Choe, who stars as Isaac in “Beef” and whose paintings are used as the show’s title cards.

In 2014, Choe co-hosted the podcast “DVDASA” with porn star Asa Akira; in one episode, Choe shared a detailed story in which he described committing a full-blown, unambiguous sexual assault against a massage therapist. I’ll spare you the details here, but trust me, it’s bad.

BuzzFeed News posted a story about it back in 2014, and Choe was met with protest when he was commissioned to paint the Bowery Wall in New York City in 2017. Following the outrage over a man admitting in extremely specific and graphic detail his “rapey behaviour,” Choe claimed that the whole account was performative and simply a “bad story” gone awry. Choe also apparently had Twitter take down the video of him telling the story, citing copyright violations.

Of course, Choe wouldn’t be trending right now if “Beef” didn’t have overwhelmingly positive buzz, and folks are understandably curious why the show’s producers would earmark such a significant role for a man with a sketchy background that they certainly knew about beforehand.

The widespread condemnation of Choe forced “Beef” stars Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, along with creator Lee Sung Jin, to issue a statement denouncing Choe’s comments but insisting that he “put in the work” since the story ― and also backing up Choe’s insistence that the whole thing was a fabrication.

Whether or not you believe Choe’s prevarications is between you and your god. But the controversy begs the question: To what degree should we be willing to consume the art of people whose personal actions directly offend our moral sensibilities? Should we still listen to the music and watch the films of people accused of doing things that we’d cut our best friends over?

As someone who has lost Facebook friends over the topic, I wager the answer is heavily subjective and nowhere near as cut-and-dry as some people wish it to be.

Hollywood has examined this topic for decades with filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is still allowed to make films despite pleading guilty to raping a minor in the 1970s. For Black folks of a certain age, though, R. Kelly is the most obvious bad actor to consider in this conversation.

Most rational folks have condemned Kelly given the mountain of evidence we have of him being a trash bag of a human. (That it took a three-night documentary in 2019 to finally get him locked up after decades of open indiscretions is a conversation for another time.)

His music is a more complicated conversation: On top of a couple dozen albums of his own, he’s written and produced music you love but don’t even realise he touched. If you enjoy R&B music from between 1990 and, say, 2003, there are (or were) at least a couple bangers of his on your playlists.

Like many, I can’t enjoy Kells’ music like I used to, especially the cuts in which he’s singing about sex. “Your Body’s Callin’” hits differently when the titular body could be that of a teenager. But my line is not as thick and red as others’: I still play Sparkle’s “Be Careful” and K-Ci & JoJo’s “Life.” I’m also not above letting a song with one of his “nananananaaahh” ad-libs rock. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a slight twinge of guilt when I’m enjoying a song in which his voice pops up.

Several Black women who were in the demographic he’s preyed upon have admitted to me with hushed tones that they listen to R. Kelly with the doors closed and the windows rolled up. Some justify it by listening in a way that doesn’t line his pockets: He’s still nabbing about four-tenths of a penny when you stream the “Bump N’ Grind” remix on Spotify; a friend admitted to me yesterday that she’s waiting for Kells to die so she can stream “The Greatest Sex” again.

Fortunately, a lot of people my age can still put their hands on R. Kelly CDs (yours truly included) and play the music in a way that doesn’t pay him.

It gets more complicated when discussing Harvey Weinstein, who has about four decades of film and television credits to his name. He was a known savvy businessman, so figure anything you purchase or stream from The Weinstein Co. or the old days of Miramax will somehow line his pockets. We’re talking “Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting,” the “Scream” franchise ― you probably love at least a few films he helped make.

I’m good with streaming Weinstein films for two reasons: First, creating a film is an extremely collaborative effort involving people for whom residuals matter far more than they do to Weinstein. The other is that Weinstein will almost certainly die in prison, so I won’t lose sleep contributing to the Nutter Butters he’s buying from commissary to get by.

I believe cultural impact and ubiquity also play a role in the terminability of a piece of work. Though “The Cosby Show” has aged like cottage cheese left out in the sun (especially in contrast to its spinoff “A Different World”), the show is an important staple of Black culture from the 1980s. I think people who’d otherwise never forgive Bill Cosby for being a date rapist should be able to watch the show sans guilt.

It seems easier, and more sensible, to defund bad creators who are still alive, but what about all the dead celebrities whose work we adore? Many are prepared to say goodbye to Jonathan Majors if we learn unequivocally that he’s abusive toward women, but so many nonliving legends were domestic abusers ― James Brown, Biggie Smalls, John Singleton, Miles Davis. Do I never listen to “Funky Drummer” again? Should I (gasp) ignore rewatching the brilliance of “Snowfall”?

On the topic of dead legends with profound cultural impact, even if you’re convinced Michael Jackson was a sexual predator (still a massive “if” in my book), is it possible or even reasonable to dismiss the entire oeuvre of arguably the greatest musical artist of all time? His music is woven into the fabric of our reality ― find me the corner of the world where you can hide from “Billie Jean.”

If we had a machine allowing us to go down the rabbit hole to see all the personal indiscretions of our favourite artists, actors and athletes, chances are our playlists would be a lot emptier and our Netflix queues would consist only of Tom Hanks films. Factor in writers, producers and the dudes controlling the boom mics, and there’s probably zero clean media out there.

As such, I don’t think people should judge others on what media they choose or choose not to consume, as it’s a slippery slope that falls right into a pool of hypocrisy.

If someone standing on a moral high ground insists that they can’t be friends with you because you listen to your “12Play” CD in your Toyota Corolla from time to time, they probably weren’t your friend to begin with. If someone criticises you because you can’t enjoy “Off the Wall” any longer, tell them to kick rocks and maybe reserve some choice words for their mama.

Because even with the highly flammable drama surrounding Choe’s stuff, I’m planning to finish “Beef. The folks on this show are insane and I’m all in.