Spacey vs. Trump: Comparing the repercussions for Presidents on screen and off

Sharon Pan/Staff

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Kevin Spacey didn’t come out the way other people do. On Oct. 29, 2017, in response to allegations of sexual assault, Spacey broke his long-standing tradition of guarded privacy and admitted that he “(chooses) now to live as a gay man.”

The use of the verb “to choose” is troubling. Is it meant to suggest that being a gay man is a choice, or merely living as one? In many ways, the articulation of Spacey’s coming out is marked by the disturbing circumstances that gave rise to it.

In the weeks after the article that catalyzed his response, a number of accounts have emerged — accounts going back decades, accounts about underage boys, accounts about publicly groping men’s genitalia without consent — all of which name Spacey as the perpetrator.

Spacey has not engaged the new allegations, which suggests that he maintains his initial position of detached, calculated power. In his evasive response to Anthony Rapp’s allegation, Spacey offers an apology encoded in an if-then statement. “If I did behave then as he describes,” the apology states. This is a delicate line to walk. It places Spacey in the position to both preserve a degree of innocence — to weather the political storm, the PR, the damage — without explicitly denying the events. This resistance to explicit denial, this subjunctive apology, strikes at what appears to be a calculated effort. There is an air of concession in Spacey’s acknowledgment that if Rapp’s allegations are founded, his actions “would have been deeply inappropriate.” But if Rapp’s allegations were met without corroboration, Spacey has left the door open to move away from the situation still maintaining his innocence, appearing understanding, sympathetic, diplomatic — neither confirming nor denying.

It is challenging not to believe that Spacey explicitly capitalized on the political currency of coming out of the closet. The way it appears, Spacey purposefully positioned his humanity — his identity as a gay man, an identity built around political ideas of love and equality — between himself and allegations of sexual violence. Spacey positioned himself in such a way that in order to get at him — at the truth about his long and chilling history of sexual assault — it is first necessary to respect his humanity, to honor his coming out, to not attack his choice to “live as a gay man.”

The brazenness of this tactic suggests that it could only be conceivable to a person who believed they held all the cards, knew all the stories, could distance themselves from one truth by offering the press another.

Kevin Spacey played the president of the United States on “House of Cards.” While his character may have been capable of power plays and mass media manipulation — of controlling the narrative — in real life, Spacey has been met with powerful repercussions for his abuses of power. Netflix has canceled his contract for “House of Cards” and will be moving forward without him. Sony Pictures’ “All the Money in the World” is reshooting Spacey’s scenes in the movie with a new actor. His Emmy Honor has been rescinded. While some believe that Spacey’s industry connections and strong presence may allow him to rebuild his career, it seems increasingly unlikely that recovery is possible.

Spacey is, to some extent, paying for what he has done. It does appear that Hollywood is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to sexual violence. This says something. But so does this: Donald Trump used eerily similar tactics to sexually assault women. The element of surprise. Grabbing them by the genitalia. Taking pleasure in a shocking, invasive gesture and then walking away. And we all know how those womens’ stories were overlooked.

We should all be asking ourselves why that is.

Heather Unruh, a former Boston news anchor, spoke out last week about Spacey sexually assaulting her 18-year-old son last year by grabbing him by the genitalia. “Nothing could have prepared my son for how that sexual assault would make him feel as a man,” Unruh said. Her response hits at something crucial. There is not a strong cultural narrative for men who are survivors of sexual violence. It seems antipodal to what being a man is. It seems that being sexually violated robs men of something profound, something closer to the self than their bodily autonomy, something that touches on the ability to express, and exist, and perform their gender.

The repercussions facing Spacey are important to acknowledge because, to some extent, they suggest that survivors’ stories are being taken more seriously and acted upon. But in demanding justice for survivors, it is critical to examine other survivors in different circumstances who are not given the same kind of cultural support, whose perpetrators do not lose their social and financial backing, whose assaulters go on to occupy seats of power — the presidency, for instance.

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].