Monica Hesse: R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK: How pretending to be bad boys helped them get away with being bad men

Actor Kevin Spacey departs from district court on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Nantucket, Mass., after he was arraigned on a charge of indecent assault and battery. The Oscar-winning actor is accused of groping the teenage son of a former Boston TV anchor in 2016 in the crowded bar at the Club Car in Nantucket. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The Nantucket courtroom in which Kevin Spacey was arraigned Monday was a real courtroom, not a Hollywood set: Instead of a dramatic mahogony judge’s bench, it had a plastic laminate desk. Instead of a coiffed character in costume, it had a 59-year-old man — puffy and pasty without the benefit of a makeup department — who responded to his given name of Kevin Fowler as he pleaded not guilty to sexually assaulting a busboy in 2016.

The job of a performer, of course, is to perform. To create a persona in which the audience invests itself. One, for example, like Spacey’s Frank Underwood from “House of Cards” — an oozy reptile whom viewers nevertheless root for. Not because they like him, but because they want to see how he’ll slither out of his latest jam.

Recently, it’s seemed as if Spacey wanted us to conflate him with his most famous character. On Christmas Eve he posted a bizarre video, titled “Let Me Be Frank,” in which he implored the viewer in Underwood’s molasses accent, “I showed you exactly what people are capable of. … I challenged you and made you think.” Was Spacey referring to the assault allegations against him, the actor? To his murderous on-screen alter ego, Frank? The answer seemed to be both. It was the opposite of a celebrity asking us to separate the art from the artist. He was begging us to accept the two as symbiotic.

We’re currently muddling through Chapter 2 in the #MeToo story: the chapter in which we decide whom to punish and how, who gets a comeback and what it looks like. And what I keep thinking of is how these bad men are still creating performances. How they were always creating performances. How we, their audience, weaved their public personas with their private misdeeds until the lines between real and not real were all mixed up.

Louis CK has been testing out new material recently, which is making headlines for its crudeness: jokes about Parkland survivors, jokes about transgender teens.

But then, his set was always based on crudeness. It was based, explicitly, on the kind of crudeness it later turned out he was actually engaging in, which was masturbating in front of stunned women. He joked about “spraying the world with [his semen].” He joked about showing strangers his penis. He joked about the shame of it all, the compulsion.

We’re very forgiving of geniuses and their compulsions. We expect brilliance to be accompanied by neuroses. Howard Hughes and his shoeboxes. Beethoven, who refused to wash his clothes to the point that well-meaning friends would steal them while he slept. As a culture, we’re accepting of all of that, so long as we believe the true demons are being worked out on the page or the screen and what we’re seeing is a persona.

This past weekend, Lifetime aired the multipart documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” a six-hour dissection of his alleged crimes and misdeeds.

The documentary is an indictment of him, but even more, an indictment of our own willful blindness. Throughout his career, Kelly did such a convincing job pretending to play an R&B bad boy — a cheeky commentary on music culture — that it apparently took years for it to sink in that in real life, he actually was a very bad man.

In concert venues, he pretended to cage a woman onstage. Then he went home to mansions where he’d actually imprisoned women, allegedly, starving them for days and forcing them to ask permission before using the bathroom. He produced singer Aaliyah’s first album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” in which a teenage girl fantasizes about an older man. Then he married Aaliyah in real life, obtaining forged documents to make her appear 18, not 15 as she actually was.

He hadn’t been coy about his proclivities; he’d been screaming them. He hadn’t been a wolf in sheep’s clothing; he’d been a wolf in a wolf costume, convincing everyone that there was really a sheep inside.

And so, for more than a decade, he allegedly got away with it. He had the assistance of a complicit staff and he had the assistance of a complicit public — journalists, pundits and regular people who heard about a video featuring Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old and lined up on street corners to buy bootlegged VHS copies. Child pornography was rebranded as a “sex tape” and marketed as another installment in the outré R. Kelly narrative.

Next time there’s a performer with R. Kelly’s lyrics, or Louis CK’s set, I hope we’ll ask ourselves to be more discerning. Is this person making a commentary on outrageous behaviors? Or is this person in fact behaving outrageously?

Now, it’s time to do what we should have done all along: Treat them not as characters, whose lives we consume for our own sense of drama, but as sad, damaged humans. Not the lewd genius R. Kelly, but Robert, the desperate tyrant who on Monday threatened to “expose” his accusers in an attempt to regain control of his narrative. Not Louis, the introspective based-on-real-life television protagonist, but Louis C.K., who apparently wasn’t telling jokes but confessions.

Not Kevin Spacey but Kevin Fowler. Sallow and tired and ordinary-looking in a Massachusetts courtroom as he scheduled his next court date and waited to see whether he’d go to jail.

Monica Hesse | The Washington Post

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”