Let’s Talk About David Bowie’s Predation (And The Online Conversation Surrounding It)

While I’ve been grieving over the last few days, I’ve also been buckling in for the Bowie backlash. And it came, in the form I knew it’d take: Accusations of rape suddenly trending on blogs and social media after existing for thirty years.

I know about the 1987 rape allegations that never came to anything. I also know about Lori Mattix. I’ve known about Lori Mattix for a while, because I’m a Bowie fan and I read. In the 1970s, David Bowie, then in his 20s, had sex with Mattix, who was at the time 15. She told Thrillist about the encounter last year, and she insists that it was consensual, and that she is not a rape victim.

Nevertheless, The Establishment and Mic (and others) have latched on to the story now that David Bowie has passed and is getting widely positive press. “As the world mourns his death today, there’s been nothing nuanced about it. It’s all Bowie, all the time, with only the tiniest stones allowed to ripple the smooth surface of his legacy,” say the authors at The Establishment. Meanwhile, if you’re in feminist circles on social media and you happened to have posted something about David Bowie in the last two days, you might have been shot down by people who haven’t been concerned about David Bowie’s bad decisions for the last thirty years, but who are interested in policing other people’s grief by bringing it up now.

As #problematic as David Bowie is, there are #problematic things about this sudden concern, too. First of all, there’s the fact that Mattix is a grown woman who should be able to shape the story of her own life. Mic disagrees, and they put it this way:

“To this day, Mattix claims that her decision to lose her virginity to the pop icon was ‘consensual,’ Mattix told Thrillist. While Mattix is entitled to believe this, the age of consent would have made the alleged sexual encounter illegal.”

“While Mattix is entitled to believe this” is a wildly condescending way to brush aside an adult woman’s agency and replace the narrative of her own life that she knows for herself to be true with a narrative that, let’s be honest, is more click-worthy. I fail to see how telling a woman’s story for her advances women’s autonomy. Age of consent laws don’t exist for bloggers or interested parties on social media to tell women decades after the fact, “you’re a victim whether or not you believe that to be true.” They exist to prevent predatory adults from preying on children, and to provide children and adults with the language and legal means to get justice for themselves if they so choose.

It’s not reasonable or fair to put Mattix’s victimhood up for debate: That’s for her to decide. It is fair to put David Bowie up for debate as a predator. As an adult, he had sex with an underaged girl, regardless of the context in which it happened. (Some people are correctly pointing out that Bowie was coked out of his mind in the 70s, but I’m not sure that that matters, although I’ll say that he probably also went through some powerfully bad experiences during periods of time that he later said were completely blacked out of his memory. To me, that’s at least worth considering.) If we want to exorcise all of his demons, he also created an entire Aryan-supremacist character – the Thin White Duke, who was more than an Aryan supremacist character, but that’s not the point here – and in the course of living through that character, he did Nazi salutes and was arrested for possessing Nazi paraphernalia. “China Girl” is Orientalist, and plenty of people have rightly taken issue with Bowie for appropriating Asian cultures.

But again, knowledge of all of these things have existed for decades. Why take issue with it now? Well, of course, this is how the internet works: David Bowie is trending (because he died, and I’ve made up my mind on whether or not it’s exploitative to use a man’s death to get outrage-shares), so online media outlets have to generate content about David Bowie to be on top of the news cycle. It’s easy to generate traffic by calling something problematic, and so here we are, digging up whatever we can about a dead man that we didn’t care about thirty years ago or even two months ago, and manufacturing a damn because it’s shareable. Lori Mattix didn’t matter enough to social media shamers or bloggers or the media outlets who publish them to care about it in November, when it wasn’t part of the news cycle, so it’s also condescending to pose as if her (enforced) victimhood is what we really care about now – as if what really matters now isn’t, as almost always, getting traffic or the ability to pose your politics as better than someone else’s on Facebook.

Of course, I say “here we are,” but it’s not “we,” it’s not “us” digging up these stories, really. I knew about all of this, and I loved David Bowie anyway. It’s possible to come to peace with the worst decisions an artist has made, to know about those worst decisions and reject that behavior without rejecting that person’s influence or their legacy or their entire, 50-year body of work. Saying that “there’s been nothing nuanced about” the way people have been grieving Bowie is itself not nuanced. How could you possibly know how other people feel about all of this?

It’s patronizing to believe that you’re the one who’s really in the know, that if other people just had the information you do they’d feel the exact same way as you. It’s reductive to ask people to remember only the worst parts of a person’s life, or to remember the worst parts of a person’s life first, and not, say for me, being a lonely and alienated kid and feeling less alone and less alienated because of that person’s art. I’m not grieving because I don’t care about rape or about women: I’m grieving because I lost someone who mattered a lot to me. So are the fans who didn’t know about Mattix, the rape accusations, or anything else Bowie did wrong.

It’s not that a conversation about the age of consent, or that the age of consent itself, isn’t important. It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about David Bowie’s predation and how to reconcile it to our idolization of him (or not). It’s that I’m skeptical about the motivations for it in this online cultural climate, and who it really serves when someone edits and re-tells Lori Mattix’s life story on her behalf, who it really serves when someone polices a fan’s grief. One of the things I’d like to change about the internet is its “wake up sheeple” ideologies. Usually it’s just annoying to be on the receiving end of it, but sometimes it hurts, and sometimes it actually does harm.


[The Establishment]
Send me a line at rebecca@thefrisky.com.