In 2010, if you were paying any kind of attention to what was going on in the zeitgeist, you were probably aware of a vast conspiracy on the part of Hollywood to make Russell Brand happen. Stateside, that is: the commentator, comic, and sometime-cinematic presence was already well known across the pond as a sort of millennial answer to Joel McHale’s “Talk Soup” persona. Brand served his time as a talk show presenter, an MTV VJ, a host on the popular UK reality show “Big Brother,” and for a time, Morrissey’s most vocal fan and defender. He was a verified hit in the UK in the late 2000s, and one of the few male celebrities who—in an age still steeped in homophobia and femmephobia—felt comfortable presenting in a more androgynous way onscreen and in public. In his breakout performance in 2007’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that was very much the joke: Brand played a man so assured of his (straight) sexuality that he could wear his hair long, dress in tight pants, and adopt queer mannerisms without casting a shadow of a doubt on his straightness. It felt, at the time, refreshing. It didn’t matter that Brand was dating Katy Perry, then of “I Kissed a Girl” fame. It didn’t matter that he was trying a little too hard for mainstream success, whether in a bellyflop like Arthur or a certified hit like Get Him to the Greek. This was the era of the Hangover franchise, and seeing a man appear onscreen who looked like he could not only dress himself but do it stylishly felt like a gigantic win for masculinity. He was open from the start about his many mental health struggles and addictions—including sex addiction—and in a time when it wasn’t yet cool to admit to any kind of mental health failings, it felt bold. It felt fresh, exciting.
Of course it was a lie.
Not the addictions, and not the persona he presented in his standup. Just the idea that he was somehow different from the men we saw onscreen in graduated Porky’s films and the burgeoning Apatow cultural takeover was false: he was exactly the same as the men we’d been told to admire in films since the dawn of time. He was just wearing a different skin.
The resurfacing of rape allegations isn’t surprising. It’s heartbreaking, yes, but as the trailer for an ITV4 report points out, Brand, like so many abusers (including his onetime talk show guest Jimmy Savile, to whom Brand allegedly promised to deliver his assistant for sexual favors) was telling us who he was from the jump. And despite many rebranding attempts—first as a prominent Buddhist, then as a podcaster, then as a crypto-COVID denier—he’s remained that person. Now, for the first time, we’re actually seeing who he is. But that information has been right in front of us the whole time.
So why was it so hard to see?
Probably for the same reason it always is: with white men in this country and in the UK, the idea is that we have to love them until we’re given a good reason to hate them. But by that time, we’ve already been subjected to years—sometimes decades, in the case of beloved pedophile Savile—of being force-fed this image of the handsome guy (Armie Hammer), or the quirky guy (Brand) or the loveable guy (Jimmy Kimmel.) We have to be forcefed these men because they’re commodities that are still being sold to us: we can’t be counted upon to care about them of our free will, because we have no use for them. We have to be prepared, culturally, to receive these figures into our hearts and onto our screens as they continue to reinvent themselves without changing at all. Brand is much the same as actor and comic as he is as a podcaster and Buddhist and spiritual guide: full of sh*t. But as an audience, we’re groomed to love these men. We’re told we should love them. That’s what makes it so hard for so many to prioritize the trauma of their victims. We don’t know those victims parasocially, and we haven’t been prepared to know or love them. And no matter how many of them come forward, die-hard fans—be it of Brand or Savile or Bill Cosby—will always want to defend the celebrities they see as their friends before standing up for the victims they see as strangers, disruptors of the cozy historical narrative.
“In the environment that I grew up in, you were taught that you deserve to be punished all the time.”
When queer and trans people try to disrupt the currently popular narrative that we’re groomers, that we’re child molesters, that we’re somehow unworthy of human rights, we’re fighting a grueling uphill battle. No matter how many times we point out that the groomers and pedophiles are far more likely to be serving on the state senate than at the local Drag Queen Story hour, we aren’t believed. Because the real villains have that veneer of respectability—or in Brand’s case, of Byronic rakery—locked in place. They’ve been packaged and sold to us as trustworthy, and understanding just how easily and continually they break that public trust can be an impossible task for some.
I’m not surprised to hear the allegations about Brand—no one should be. I’m not surprised to hear that he allegedly groomed a girl of 16, exposed himself to colleagues, and raped several women over whom he had professional and social power. There’s nothing surprising about it. Brand stands in the long shadow of public figures like Savile, who used their aw-shucks persona to wield sexual power over women and girls. Nearly eight years after Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s Harvey Weinstein expose, we’re still, as a culture, greeting each new case with shock.
But queer people know better. We can’t afford to be surprised by a culture that pretends men like this are our friends while insisting that we ourselves are sick and evil. We can’t afford to leave room in the culture for people like Brand, who are so desperate to escape fighting their own demons that they’ll try on a million different personae and careers just to create the illusion of cultural growth.
We can’t afford to be willingly deceived about violent, power-mad people any longer.