Last night I gave myself the gift of finally finishing TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which, despite its frustrating offness about race and its Girl with the Dragon Tattooism, entertained and evoked. Still, I was relieved to see the finale and move on to less passively torturey entertainments.
So when the R. Kelly story broke–or rather, when the latest in a multi-decades-long string of R. Kelly pedophile/abuser stories broke, I was already dwelling on assholes using religion to justify structural domination of women, people of color, and gender/sex minorities.
And while a woman’s grieving parents, not the reporter, likened Kelly’s abuse to a “cult,” Buzzfeed should have chosen a different headline. Because Kelly’s “cult” is really just garden variety domestic abuse, made more exotic by his wealth and fame. Calling it a “cult” frames him and his victims as mentally ill, as “crackpot,” as deluded by manipulative narratives of bogus spirituality. Calling it a “cult” masks a dude who simply wants to control women and is wealthy, famous, and experienced enough to do so on a larger-than-usual scale.
If one of the women involved says “Nope, it’s not a cult, I’m fine,” that doesn’t mean she’s “brainwashed.” It means she’s probably like any other victim of domestic violence, protecting her abuser so she can protect herself.
And when the FBI says nope, it’s consensual, why the fuck aren’t they pursuing this as a domestic violence case? With published reports of physical punishments of women who defy Kelly’s elaborate, restrictive rules? How can investigators trust a victim of violence to speak as if from a reality in which she will not be punished for speaking?
Gilead (book): not a cult.
Gilead (TV show): not a cult.
R. Kelly’s entourage: not a cult.
Fox News: not a cult.
A charismatic person subjugating multiple people under the guise of religion/fame/politics: still not a cult.
People are beautifully complex and can believe many wackadoo ideas. But these ideas are developed in a society that makes yachtloads of money from violence against women–in media, in private domestic spaces, in public policies. From TV shows and films that depict violence against women so graphically that any intended feminist critical content is drowned in blood. Our society systematically, routinely devalues black women and girls such that we can’t even see what is happening to the women in Kelly’s orbit.
We are Gilead. We are the women in R Kelly’s houses. And we are R Kelly.