6.26.2009

Why do we remember Michael Jackson and J.M. Barrie differently?

It's been a decidedly unpleasant day. A big contrast, indeed, between last night, when @amandapalmer tweeted an impromptu vigil and a tribute song to the death of Michael Jackson, and today at work, where I heard any number of truly embarrassing jokes at Mr. Jackson's expense.
I don't write this post to be an apology for Jackson's life - if nothing else, I don't KNOW enough about Michael Jackson to judge the man, thank God. But, as I considered this today, it suddenly reminded me of another figure: J.M. Barrie.
For those unfamiliar with J.M. Barrie (yes, I'm afraid Finding Neverland was not fully acquainted with fact, I'm led to understand), he was, much like Jackson, a very strange man. In ways that at times were endearing, and others were disturbing (Finding Neverland - which was, by the way, a beautiful movie - glosses past this in the scene during the cricket match). The Telegraph published an interesting article on him, here. But, much like Jackson, the facts are murky, and have been quietly covered over the years.
Again, whether or not we ought to indict Barrie or excuse Jackson is, honestly, outside the realm of my question here. Taking out personal judgement, I am more curious as to what the societal difference is - why can society accept Barrie as a child's hero, and not Jackson? After all, can you imagine a film of Finding Neverland Ranch?
I can think of four basic reasons for the difference:

1) There are substantive differences in the two cases. Again, I'm not a historian. Perhaps the fact in Jackson's molestation cases are clearer than the Barrie history. In this case, perhaps it's excusable to assume the best of Barrie. However, as the Guardian article points out - there are some awfully strange things we know about Barrie. Frankly, it's difficult for me to imagine someone writing some of the lines quoted in the article, today, and being encouraged to hang out with small children in bookstores and libraries.
2) The difference is simply that child sex crimes have become more important in our psyche over the last 100 years. I frequently here about how when our parents were children they didn't think about stuff like child molesters. Fair enough. However, the Edwardian period was famously prudish, and far more sexually aware than me now remember it to be. This was the period of yellow journalism, when reporters were not loath to make up sensationalist tales to sell papers. If Pulitzer felt like he had a story about a famous British children's author being a pedophile, it's difficult to imagine he wouldn't throw it into the paper to sell more copies. Think of, for instance, the coverage of the Oscar Wilde trial, who was at least having sex with boys who were of age.
3) Our national character has changed. We like to make monsters in our popular imagination, and Jackson was an easy target. Fair enough, but in what way have we changed? And why?
4) It's just been a longer time since Barrie. OK, but... the Ormond Street Hospital seemed pretty glad to get the rights to Peter Pan, right when he died, and the government got together and made special provision that the copyright on Peter Pan would never expire.. I'm not sure it would be the same story today...
So, there's the question: Why do you think the popular narrative of Jackson and Barrie are so different?

7 comments:

Amanda said...

I do think a lot of it has to do with the times, as well as global media. I don't know much about Mr. Barrie, but I don't think people were as apt to accuse or even THINK of people as child molesters back then. Plus, that sort of stuff was generally hushed up. With Oscar Wilde it was different, stupid as it sounds, because they were of age. Molestation was hushed up, just like abuse, rape, and promiscuity, but homosexuality where both parties were adults and where, like Wilde, at least part of the party was open about the whole thing, that was shouted on the streets and vilified. How many people back then were arrested and prosecuted for molesting their daughters? I'm not a historian either, but I do know a lot was hushed up.

Nowadays, we talk about everything, and everything is easily communicated everywhere. We also don't allow adults to freely interact with children for fear of molestation. I don't know if MJ did anything bad to kids. I don't know enough about it. But I do know that if the circumstances were the same then as now, we'd be more likely to accuse now.

And, don't you think, if MJ had left all his money to some children's hospital, they'd be grateful, despite his possible history?

Jason Gignac said...

I agree, that if, say, St. Jude's received a lump sum of cash from Jackson, they'd be more than happy to receive it. That being said, if Jackson decided to give the copyright to Thriller - another iconic work, I suppose - to the hospital, I do not think that the US Senate would all get together to tack their names onto the event by voting to extend the copyright indefinitely. And, I don't think St. Jude's would identify themselves with the work in the way that, it seems, Ormond Street has identified itself with Peter Pan. It would be a practical gratitude, rather than a spiritual one. I think when Barrie gave Pan to Ormond Street, it meant more to people than if he had given an equivalent sum of cash. I think people would be somewhat embarrased to think they were forever associated with Jackson, now. If nothing else, I can imagine a lot of pretty awful jokes about teh Jackson wing of a children's hospital, not to be too coarse about it.

Amanda said...

Perhaps not, but can you see the federal government doing that for ANY artist, really? I mean, alive today.

Jason Gignac said...

Yes. Imagine (god forbid), for a moment, if J.K. Rowling was in a car accident today, with her family. Her husband and children die instantly (Ms Rowling, if you should ever read this, I apologize, I wish you no ill). She is taken to the hospital with terrible internal bleeding, and they know she is going to die. The doctors tell her what's happened, and they tell her she is going to die. She asks for her lawyer, and asks that the copyright on Harry Potter be transferred to some particular charity. Easy political capital for the Parliament, to be cynical about it.

Amanda said...

US govt. Not British.

Mish said...

No need for me to repeat what you or Amanda already said. Celebrities' lives are no longer as private as they once were. Esquire, People, etc swing their doors wide open.

I highly recommend seeing, or reading, Gross Indecency: the Three trials of Oscar Wilde. It's well written and gives some insight into the whole debacle. My only regret is that I couldn't see it a second time.

Jason Gignac said...

Mish - I had not heard of that one, I'll have to watch out for it, thanks.