Last week, the internet tore an actress apart, limb by limb, for having the audacity to send her dog to California.
Apparently, what Lena Dunham did or did not do to her rescue dog, Lamby, was unforgivable enough to warrant accusations of unfit motherhood, as well as myriad apologies, defenses, and in-depth analyses. Meanwhile, a new scandal in which the troubled Shia LaBeouf wielded racist rhetoric against his arresting officers is merely a new item in the actor’s lengthy catalogue of “bizarre antics.”
This gendered double standard is, of course, not news. Controversies and misbehavior attach themselves to female artists like mold, poisoning even the most promising careers—the “difficult” Katherine Heigl being a prime example. For whatever reason—the reason is misogyny—we’re quicker to write women off as irredeemable or morally bankrupt, and more likely to give men second chances. Big-time Hollywood actors aren’t defined or limited by their first, second, or even third “mistake” (which can range from DUIs to physical abuse and assault).
No matter how incriminating the TMZ video or how unflattering the leaked mugshot, we have found, time and again, that severe misconduct rarely impacts a man’s career. It’s a particular brand of injustice that ensures that Amber Heard will always be known as the woman who cried abuse, and fans will quickly forget that Johnny Depp was the alleged abuser.
Sure, you might be thinking, Hollywood actors get a lot of leeway when it comes to being drunk, abusive assholes. But what if a male celebrity were to, say, be caught on camera, during an arrest, taunting a police officer by saying that his wife “watches porn, she probably watches x-fucking videos and shit, like looking at black dick”? Or, just a few minutes later, telling a black cop that he’s “going to hell” and calling the officers “racist,” explaining that, “A black man arrested me for being white,” before going on to brag, “I got more millionaire lawyers than you know what to do with, you stupid bitch”? What would happen then?
Well, we’re about to find out.
After being released on a $7,000 bond by the Savannah Police Department, the 31-year-old LaBeouf offered an apology for his aforementioned verbal abuse, saying, “I am deeply ashamed of my behavior and make no excuses for it.” LaBeouf, who was charged with public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and obstruction, continued, “I am certain that my actions warrant a very sincere apology to the arresting officers, and I am grateful for their restraint… It is a new low. A low I hope is a bottom. I have been struggling with addiction publicly for far too long, and I am actively taking steps towards securing my sobriety and hope I can be forgiven for my mistakes.”
For the famously unconventional LaBeouf, this “very sincere” statement is uncharacteristically traditional. But the former child star is still a new kind of celebrity abuser—a man who hides his hateful rhetoric and misogyny behind ostensibly “woke” politics and an artist’s statement of intent.
To compare and contrast LaBeouf with an old-school case, let’s take another look at Mel Gibson, whose infamous anti-Semitic cop rant landed him in the Hollywood dog-house for a decade. Gibson’s tirade was just the most spectacular example of his complete and utter odiousness; he also pled no contest to misdemeanor battery, admitting that he slapped his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva “with an open hand.” (Grigorieva alleged that Gibson gave her a concussion and chipped her front teeth, hitting her while she was holding their baby daughter.)
Gibson is a textbook example of a triple threat, combining misogyny, abusive behavior, and racist rhetoric in one alcohol-soaked package. Throughout his celebrated career, Gibson took frequent breaks from making money to piss off a multitude of minority groups, from Jews to gay men to Frank Rich. In other words, Hollywood enabled an atrocious individual for years, only to clutch their collective pearls when his truest self was caught on tape.
After being exiled from the entertainment world for 10 years, Gibson was quietly pardoned and brought back into the fold—ostensibly because Gibson is the only male director who can be trusted to make a mediocre World War II movie (Hollywood’s favorite genre of useless films). If Gibson could be forgiven on the strength of Hacksaw Ridge and/or our collective amnesia, something is clearly awry. That said, at least Gibson had to pay, a little bit, for his crimes.
LaBeouf, on the other hand, seems to be following in Gibson’s footsteps, but eliciting more confusion than consternation. In 2015, LaBeouf was recorded getting into an argument with his girlfriend Mia Goth. The fight was broken up by a group of passersby, who intervened and offered to take LaBeouf to the airport. The actor was heard saying, “I don’t want to touch a woman. I don’t want to hit a woman. But I’m getting pushed.” He continued, “I gotta get out of here, bro. If I’d have stayed there, I would have killed her.”
The next day, Goth was spotted with a black eye, and LaBeouf reportedly sported an injured hand. This kind of violent behavior would not be uncharacteristic for LaBeouf, who has been arrested for slapping audience members’ butts at a Cabaret performance, gotten into multiple bar fights, and once chased a homeless man down the street demanding his McDonald’s bag.
LaBeouf also has a history of disrespecting his exes; in a scorched earth interview with Details magazine in 2011, the actor shared that he and Megan Fox had an affair on the set of Transformers. He revealed that he went on to have a different on-set affair with his Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen co-star Isabel Lucas, who was also in a relationship at the time. LaBeouf explained that his romance with Lucas “was sort of disastrous”—although probably not as disastrous as the actor’s propensity for sharing personal/sexual details with the press.
LaBeouf has so far skirted the entertainment industry blacklist through self-imposed isolation—the “you’re not firing me, I quit” approach to celebrity exile. While LaBeouf did continue to get roles even after his various arrests and indiscretions, he also made a deliberate effort to distance himself from acting, even going so far as to proclaim himself “not famous anymore.” Since 2014, LaBeouf has been focusing the bulk of his creative energy on a series of performance art pieces, co-collaborating with artists Luke Turner and Nastja Sade Ronkko. One of the part-time actor’s most recent projects, titled “He Will Not Divide Us,” gained notoriety after the Trump protest piece was targeted by trolls, and marred by violent outbursts and brawls.
By obfuscating his actions through art—is this outburst “real,” or is it some form of meta commentary?—LaBeouf is able to sidestep potentially career-ending stigmas. We’re predisposed to allow an artist his eccentricities, or to forgive “bizarre antics” if they’re an attempt to make a larger artistic or political statement. An interesting example is Joaquin Phoenix, who fooled the public into thinking he was completely unhinged, before revealing in the 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here that his erratic behavior was just an elaborate performance. In an effort to tap into “Joaquin Phoenix” the character, Phoenix and director Casey Affleck created an over-sexed on-set environment that fostered alleged sexual harassment and verbal abuse. (One of the few women on set claimed that Affleck and Phoenix locked themselves in her room with two women.)
Of course, people are responsible for their actions, even if they’re in the name of art—and being an artist doesn’t grant you permission to disrespect or abuse others. LaBeouf’s violence and intimidation, particularly with these new accusations of racism, appear to be directly at odds with his larger intent/politics. The actor has certainly presented himself as something of a leftist figure, launching his “He Will Not Divide Us” piece in direct response to Trump’s divisive election. “Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” the livestream was intended to run “for four years, or the duration of the presidency… as a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.” When I visited the original performance site at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York (the museum shut down the project in February 2017), it was populated by a mix of curious passersby and dedicated LaBeouf comrades who populated the livestream for hours and days at a time, articulating their attendance as an act of solidarity and political protest.
It’s LaBeouf’s resistance-themed art that makes his latest tirade so remarkable. Even his arrest rhetoric appears to be the drunken logic of a white man who truly believes himself to be woke—attempting to sympathize with the black cop even as he rants that he’s going “straight to hell, bro,” and presenting himself as one of the “white people who give a fuck.” LaBeouf didn’t just think that he was above the law; he thought that he was fighting the good fight against a racist police force (when he was really being verbally abusive, combative, drunk, and generally just wasting everybody’s time). LaBeouf has every right to make his political art, but there’s a clear contradiction when he’s going on drunken tirades that are antithetical to the pacifist, anti-racist politics he’s promoting. It’s too soon to say if LaBeouf, like so many actors before him, will be given yet another free pass.
But if nothing else, let this be a lesson that politically conscious dudes can be just as abusive and cruel as people with “bad” politics—and they might even be more likely to get away with it.