The outpouring of grief at the death of a very ‘imperfect stranger’ makes Madlin Sims wonder what it will take for society to start celebrating the lives of ordinary people who stare down those who sexually assault them.
On the 26th January 2020, NBA star Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Tragically, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna (known as Gigi), along with seven others were also killed in the crash.
Since the news of Bryant’s death broke yesterday, social media has been inundated with heartfelt stories such as how Bryant and his wife first met on the set of a music video in 1999. Family members, fellow NBA stars and celebrities alike have been sharing beloved memories of Bryant and paying their respects both to his life and his family.
This is all pretty normal stuff when somebody (especially somebody with celebrity status) passes away.
Then there’s the fans and the people who recognised Bryant’s celebrity status. I’m talking about the people who didn’t know him personally or have any sort of relationship with him, but maybe knew his stats in the NBA or watched him in awe from behind a screen or saw his endorsements with Adidas and Coca-Cola.
From these people, there has been an absolute outpouring of grief and heartbreak over Bryant’s death. Again, nothing too out of the ordinary in the event of the death of an adored celebrity.
But while this is seemingly normal behavior in the death of a famous person, I really can’t help but question what it is about celebrities, particularly those who have used their power to do horrible things to others, which makes complete strangers glorify their existence and seemingly give them a free pass for the things they have done.
Among the sorrow of fans (I use the word sorrow lightly given that the amount of sorrow one can feel for an individual they don’t actually know beyond their celebrity is questionable at best) and glorification of Bryant’s achievements as a human being, there has been mere chatter of the fact that in June 2003, Kobe Bryant raped a 19 year old girl.
The sexual assault occurred in a room at the Cordillera Spa in Colorado. According to court documents, Bryant invited the 19-year-old (who was working at the spa) to his room and requested a tour of the hotel, which she did.
After the tour concluded, Bryant asked her to come into his room. She entered. She said there was some flirtation and kissing, all of which was consensual. What was not consensual was Bryant groping her and then grabbing her by the neck when she tried to get away.
She did not consent to Bryant bending her over a chair and pulling down her underwear. She begged him twice to stop but Bryant made the decision to rape her instead.
The victim left five minutes after he stopped raping her. There was blood both on her underwear and on Bryant’s shirt, which matched her DNA. It was also confirmed that the blood was not menstrual.
Immediately after she was raped, the victim did everything she was “supposed” to do. She told a friend, she told her mother and she told the police. She went to a hospital. She had the bruises on her neck and lacerations on her vaginal wall examined and documented.
Official charges were filed against Kobe Bryant for sexual assault. As to be expected when an “average’ civilian makes an allegation of abuse or assault against a person with power, the case went something like this: Bryant denied ever having had sex with the girl. Bryant lawyered up and then admitted to having had sex with the girl but claimed the entire interaction was consensual. Bryant and his team of lawyers did everything in their power to portray the victim as a mentally unstable sl*t who wanted attention and/or money. Another victim came forward with a similar story but was scared out of testifying due to fear of being re-traumatised after seeing how Bryant, his legal team and supporters treated Bryant’s 19-year-old victim.
Bryant and his legal team succeeded in terrifying and intimidating the victim. She changed her mind about testifying and later agreed to settle in a civil case.
Pretty horrible stuff right? The kind of stuff we would be horrified to imagine happening to a loved one. But why is it that? Why is that a factor?
There’s a popular saying I’ve seen circulating online since the rise of the #MeToo movement (which I would like to acknowledge was started by the bravery of a woman named Tarana Burke). There have been variables of the quote but the gist of it says “She is not someone’s daughter, someone’s mother or someone’s sister. She is someone.”
Yes, Kobe Bryant was someone too. He was a father, a husband, an athlete and he was a rapist. Yes, he died in a horrific way. His family and those who loved him are no doubt going through the most painful time of their lives right now. Their grief may feel more normal in time, but it will never leave them.
Kobe Bryant’s family are rightfully entitled to mourn and grieve. But fans? The people who did not know him beyond his celebrity and admired him based off the persona he presented to the world? I do not believe they have the right to grieve a man who took the liberty of two innocent people away.
He stole the ownership they had over their own bodies. He raped them. I believe fans and admirers of Kobe Bryant have a responsibility to recognise that a freak accident which resulted in the death of a stranger is not the end of the road for what his victims have gone through, and most likely will continue to go through.
Often when a celebrity’s prior atrocities are brought to our attention, people (generally fans) are quick to defend them with the idea that “it happened years ago”. To that I say, when somebody is raped or sexually assaulted it isn’t just something that “happened” to somebody once. It was not an “incident”.
Whilst the physical experience of rape generally happens on one occasion, the affect it has on the mind and body of a victim normally lasts a lifetime or more (generational trauma). The experience of being raped does not go away, victims often just learn to live with it.
I personally couldn’t care less about how many young kids Kobe Bryant inspired with his basketball skills or how many sick children he visited in hospital. By this logic, should we be giving George Pell a free pass when he eventually kicks the bucket just because he did a few good things among sexually assaulting young boys and robbing innocent kids of their childhood?
And to those who say “but Pell was convicted, Kobe wasn’t”. Pell was convicted for his crimes over 20 years after they occurred. The allegations against Harvey Weinstein date back 30 years and those against Cosby date back 50 years. Given there were already two allegations against Bryant, we may still see further allegations come out even after his death.
As a society we are still working out the complexities and variables of why victims can sometimes take decades to speak their truth. But one thing I do know is that celebrity idolisation is doing more harm than good when it comes to protecting victims. Let’s also not forget that Winona Ryder was vilified for shoplifting more than Chris Brown or Johnny Depp were for abusing their partners.
If Kobe Bryant’s death should teach us anything, it is that the idolisation of celebrities is unhealthy and toxic. Society idolising celebrities is what allows them to continue to rape and abuse others. I mean, we are so quick to yell “burn in hell” to rapists who don’t have celebrity status. This toxic idolisation is exactly why the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Epstein, Chris Brown and even local celebrities such as musicians or performers or politicians get away with hurting people over and over.
We should be idolising the single parent working day and nights to put food on the table for their children or the preschooler who fled their war-torn country and had to learn three languages before they were of school age.
Instead of lionising abusive celebrities in their absence of life, let’s idolise the 19-year-old hotel worker who went through something horrific, but still stood up and fought for her liberty and justice even when a bottomless pit of money and power was fighting for her silence.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.