When Bill Clinton reflexively pointed out to the Today Show that he left the White House $16 million in debt, implying that he suffered appropriately for his treatment of Monica Lewinsky, he was criticized by progressives as profoundly Not Getting It. But 20 years after the end of Clinton’s presidency—amid a wave of recent political turmoil and a renewed awareness of sexual misconduct that’ve held celebrities publicly accountable for their bad behavior—pretty much the only suitable solution we have to punish powerful assholes is still to simply drain them of their cash.
During the height of #MeToo, a slew of projects involving accused men were spiked or rewritten entirely: “House of Cards” will continue without Kevin Spacey, while Louis CK’s film distributor canceled I Love You, Daddy’s release almost immediately. When Roseanne Barr went on a racist Twitter tirade, not only did ABC cancel her show but other networks decided to pull “Roseanne” reruns, too. After Bill Cosby was found guilty on all counts of aggravated indecent assault back in April (a rare instance of a rich celebrity actually being charged with and found guilty of a crime), several networks discontinued syndication of “The Cosby Show.”
Part of this strategy is almost certainly meant to diminish these famous people’s cultural dominance—a punishment that’d probably be felt more harshly by younger, zeitgeisty celebrities but has thus far mostly hit elderly icons past the prime of their careers. And of course, it’s a far more cynical calculus on the part of organizations, networks, and distributors to decide who gets erased from the public narrative. But the immediate and tangible effect of smudging an artist’s societal imprint seems to be that it’ll cost them cold, hard cash.
It’s cash in the short term: When a celebrity goes down because of bad behavior, they often throw money at the problem by hiring fixers and lawyers, absconding to expensive rehabs, and “laying low” while a team of staff presumably attends to their every need. It’s also cash in the longterm, both through the loss of income and the slew of lawsuits, past and present, that often accompany accusations of sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination—especially if a criminal conviction seems insurmountable.
Still, the punishment of taking famous people’s money doesn’t quite seem to fit the crime; I’m skeptical that making already-wealthy stars a little less wealthy has any real effect on their overall sense of remorse—or that the retroactive loss of royalty income means much to the people they’ve hurt. Take Harvey Weinstein, the original catalyst for #MeToo, who has been accused of horrific offenses ranging from lewd comments to rape. He has arguably lost more than virtually any other man taken down by the movement. The Weinstein Company has filed for bankruptcy; he and his wife just settled their divorce, entitling her to millions; and his team is reportedly bracing for more lawsuits.
And yet, his personal net worth is still reportedly upwards of $50 million. That’s more than enough to cover his $58,000 rehab stint, which included creature comforts like pool time, acupuncture, and green detox juices. And it was enough to post his $1 million bail, via cashier’s check, after being arraigned on sex crime charges in New York. He’ll have enough money left over to live a quiet, luxurious life once this whole thing blows over, and judging by our penchant for redemption narratives, he may even have earning potential in the future. (Never forget OJ got both a book and reality TV show deal.) When we’re talking about unimaginable wealth, even losing the vast majority of one’s net worth likely won’t touch a scorned celebrity’s genuine wellbeing. If you can pay your dues while still having a comfortable life, have you really paid at all?
I get the feeling more people agree that flagrantly using wealth as a prophylactic against legal or reputational consequences is unconscionable; before #MeToo, R. Kelly doled out settlement after settlement while still enjoying a lucrative career that spanned decades. But a surprising amount of people seem to think losing wealth and paying up is a path—or at least the first step—to eventual redemption. The most insidious thing about racists, loose cannons, or serial abusers being able to take the phrase “paying dues” literally isn’t just that, in the end, it won’t make a dent in their lifestyles. It’s that it allows them to sidestep more painful and meaningful consequences, while still creating a public narrative that they’ve suffered.
There’s a reason why this transactional form of punishment starts to feel reasonable: It’s often the easiest, most straightforward way to address bad behavior in the absence of better options. Faced with a system wherein the rich routinely avoid arrests, guilty verdicts, and jail time—and women who accuse powerful men of sexual assault are historically dismissed—a settlement often emerges as a more appealing option for both DAs and victims (especially since civil cases have a lesser burden of proof than criminal ones). A dropped TV show is a tidy way for a network to save face while conveniently washing its hands of further responsibility. When a rich star has done something legal but morally repugnant, the protocol is even trickier: Who’s responsible for punishing them, and what will come close to resembling justice if they have untold millions to spare?
The answer to that has become clearer in the last week or two, as numerous Trump administration officials have been forced to confront the public’s ire about their complicity in carrying out cruel and inhumane policies. Ultimately, justice should not be about cathartic revenge or a dollar amount, so much as losing the privilege of shielding oneself from the rest of society’s disapproval. Wealth and celebrity often afford people access to those shields—both physical (gated communities, bodyguards, private islands) and social (yes-men, groupies, superfans). Celebrity promises extreme wealth, but it also promises adulation and a force field of exceptionalism.
Taking those things away from someone whose self-worth and self-importance is built upon them is more potent than all the settlements in the world. One can easily imagine the rude contrast between the way Weinstein used to glide through the world and the moment a random restaurant patron decided to slap him. That slap must have hurt worse than losing any of the five multi-million-dollar properties he was forced to sell.