CONTENT WARNING: Rape and domestic violence.
Last Sunday, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash over Calabasas, California. His thirteen year old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people, including two other children, died alongside him. Tragedy strikes when nobody is ready, and to die alongside one’s child is an unforgiving and unquestionable tragedy. It is an unthinkable loss of life. As the news broke, Twitter momentarily froze due to over-capacity; it seems everyone was outpouring over Kobe, the Black Mamba, the legendary figure-head of basketball. After all, online grieving has become a rite of passage in celebrity death. Our presence online has thickened, become almost indistinguishable from our personal selves, so nothing’s off the table; when someone we love dies, performative grieving blares out and bleeds into the matrix of our online existence. Each time a beloved star goes, we dutifully and dramatically reiterate these public mourning rituals, like widows in the streets.
Stars die, but their light takes a long time to fade. When I was fourteen, before Twitter became the void into which we shout, Michael Jackson died. Jackson changed music at a cellular level, his voice and sensational movement imprinted on every drunken dance floor since. He entertained children for sleepovers at his house, Neverland, the place where kids never grow up, and later… Well, you know what came out later. I wrote my sister a letter that year, on her sixteenth birthday (she demanded we all did, ‘So I can read them when I’m thirty!). I wrote that I still couldn’t believe he was gone forever. 2011 saw the death of Jimmy Savile, the beloved children’s television host. My mum has told me many times how she wrote to him, begged to be on his show Jim’ll Fix It, to no avail. Savile was a child rapist and necrophiliac, and many people knew it. Nobody stopped it. He died in the light of public admiration.
In recent years, many heroes have faded – in 2016 it was David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince and George Michael who passed on, each with their own mourning stages; since then, artists Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Juice WRLD and Mac Miller, among so many more, have all passed away in the public eye. Dying while famous is an astonishing thing to watch from the outside — these deaths are brutal, horrifying but simple, like the thwack of a great hammer onto the consciousness of our culture. But like Jackson and Savile, some aren’t simple at all, not neatly knotted but continuing to haemorrhage, like an oil spill, smothering our opportunity to idolise. Rapper XXXTentacion was shot dead in 2018 at the age of just twenty years old. His fans were inconsolable. Nobody should die at twenty. Then came the discourse which smashes up the seeming simplicity of grief; two years prior, XXX battered his pregnant girlfriend and locked her in a room, “to heal”, until she escaped. He later admitted this on tape, saying, ‘I already got what I wanted, I already bashed her face’. David Bowie, too, who rocked my world aged fifteen, about whom I never wanted to hear a bad word spoken, was accused multiple times of having sex with underage girls during his career. It’s painful. We love these people, despite never knowing them truly. The love is real love, blinding and emotional, as love often is. Although we never met, a piece of them lives inside us, and their work, whatever it may be, fortifies us in times of personal hardship. Knowing that the same person inflicted unbearable wrongs on other people distorts our ability to deify our now-deceased Gods. We don’t want to feel it.
Kobe Bryant is one true star: spinning talent into pure gold his whole life, the span of his fan-base is almost incomprehensible. His death, as much as we want it to be, isn’t a tie-a-bow-on-it affair, either. Bryant himself was accused of, and later admitted to, raping a hotel receptionist in 2003. The story, like any account of rape, is violently nauseating. The accuser stated that Bryant asked her to show him around his suite, and then proceeded to assault her. ‘And that’s when I tried to back up and leave,’ she says, ‘And that’s when he started to choke me. […] He kept coming inside me and then he leaned his face toward mine and asked me if I liked it when a guy came on my face, I said no. Then he was like what did you say. Grabbed and like tightened his hold on my neck, I said no. He said he was gonna do it anyway.’
Bryant’s statement on the matter was dutifully apologetic. ‘I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. […] I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.’ But apologising to someone you raped is about as useful as chopping down a tree, then trying to glue it back together. It’s done. The damage and trauma are irreversible and lifelong. Especially when the remorseful apology seemed forced out of him, and highly contradictory to his initial response to the accusation. When the police interviewer stated the girl was attractive, Kobe interjected, ‘She wasn’t that attractive.’ He threw his semen-covered t-shirt at a police detective. He seemed to express remorse only for his own stupidity at not covering his tracks better, as his friends do: “I should have done what Shaq [Shaquille O’Neill] does. Shaq gives them money or buys them cars, he has already spent one million dollars.” This ordeal peeled back Bryant’s good-guy status and revealed something much darker underneath: the putrid underbelly of powerful men and their ability to devour women like food, consent or no, paying them off and having each other’s backs at every turn. The accuser had lacerations, ‘too many to count’, inside her vagina from the rape. Bryant bought his wife, Vanessa, a $4million diamond ring, settled the case in civil court, and went back to playing basketball.
Of course, none of this means his death isn’t to be mourned. Grief demands to be felt unobjectively. While Bryant committed a horrifying act in 2003, he became a loving father to four children, and his sporting career inspired millions and millions of people around the world. He did good, was good, for much of his life. It’s hard, though, to look past such a thing as rape. It’s so much easier to pretend that the “real” guy is the talented, loving, caring man we saw for much of his life. That it was all one big misunderstanding, or that the accuser must have lied, or been paid off by a competitor. That he was young. Very young and drunk on success. Or just drunk. Or misread her protestations. Or thought she enjoyed violent sex. Or she gave off a slutty vibe. Or she deserved to get fucked. Or she wanted money. Fame? Definitely. Our society’s ability to forgive violent men is almost infinite. Chris Brown, who bludgeoned Rihanna’s face in and left her on the side of the road, still has a huge following of loyal fans who defend him at every turn. I could keep going: Dr. Luke, Roman Polanski, Kevin Spacey, Wesley Snipes, Brett Kavanaugh, Louis C.K, all continue their careers apparently untouched by the accusations of abuse laid against them. The only ones held accountable are the ones whose actions are inexcusable even by their male peers. Only the most hideously monstrous are punished. Does a man have to be Harvey Weinstein to be held accountable for rape?
And what is accountability? Like OJ Simpson, Bryant settled in civil court, paying his millions as penance. How many dollars does it take to be forgiven? Four million? Five? If not in a cell, how must he be held accountable? If not by the law then by his wife? His fans? Those who profess to love him, but refuse to look at his actions square on? Sex offenders, in the United States and most other countries, are placed on a register, restricted in their living situations, never stripped of the label their big mistake gave them. But the law and the people forgive those men who are loved by the masses, because their violence is outweighed by our ability to enjoy them. Their talents allow us to consume them gleefully, so we leave the violence alone. Or perhaps it’s fair to say that Bryant paid his dues the last seventeen years, in loving his wife, his four children and his sport. Perhaps that’s enough. I suspect that for the woman he raped and for other survivors, it is not.
Here lies the crux of this problem: it falls to women to be hard-hearted about these men. When a talented rapist dies, the men around him, and many women, too, pour nothing but valour and love on his name. If it’s going to be talked about, it won’t be men who start the conversation. And when it’s raised by women, or indeed by non-female survivors, we’re cruel, or we can’t just let dead people rest, or we’re holding onto the past. We do the work of raising the conversation because it’s one that never surfaces otherwise. It calls on feminist activists to question why everyone, from Barack Obama, to Beyoncé, to Laura f*cking Dern, idolised a man who, yes, did great things, but also was a rapist.
Carson McCullers began her novel Clock Without Hands with one simple line: ‘Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way.’ The roundness of death is always complicated, but consistently simple. In death, emotions are wild and fraught, yet death must not be the end of a conversation. Whether they are loved or hated, a person who dies does not exit our realm and slam the door behind them. Kobe Bryant was a great man, and a rapist. A loving husband and father, and a rapist. A world class athlete, and a rapist. A champion for African American culture, and a rapist. Those things don’t happily coexist, but it’s important that nuance is applied to any man — after all, humans are complex, and we deserve nuance. Let’s not tarnish Bryant’s name forever, but let us never paper over the cracks in someone’s character, all because they’re enjoyable. Survivors deserve better.
Madeleine Goode is a writer based in London. She is always looking for writing opportunities.
Instagram and Twitter: @goodegracious