It’s Time to Look Away From Kanye West

All week, entertainment publications have been downplaying, if not outright romanticizing, the rapper's abusive behaviour in the name of news. It needs to stop.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Feb 18 2022

11 mins read

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Image: Netflix

Content warning: this newsletter contains references to stalking, harassment and intimate partner violence.

I would conservatively estimate that I’ve spent at least half of the past three years—and all of the past week—just… unsure how to talk about Kanye West. I never used to have this problem; I've been a fan since the College Dropout days, so I've spent a lot of time arguing that his arrogance was justified by his genuine talent, not to mention explaining why a lot of people who criticized his lack of modesty weren't bothered by white rockers' similar egotism. But, he has become less and less defendable over the years and now, any conversation about the rapper is complicated by three things: his insistence on playing the provocateur, his mental health and his abusive behaviour. (I went into this on TikTok earlier this week, too.)

First, he tends to generate interest in himself and his work by saying deliberately outrageous things, which encourages the idea that every outrageous thing he says is part of a marketing strategy. (How many times have I personally tried to square being a fan of his music with his increasingly outlandish behaviour by telling myself, “He’s just saying [insert offensive statement here] to accomplish a goal—he doesn’t really think that”? Too many.) This is why, when he started his Instagram posting spree late last week, so many people were quick to connect it to the arrival of his new Netflix documentary, Jeen-yuhs, and the imminent release of his next album, Donda 2.

‎He has always been open about his mental health, even before he revealed that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder on his 2018 album, Ye. But he's been remarkably candid since then, describing what his manic episodes feel like and his frustrations with his treatment options to David Letterman in 2019 and reportedly including vulnerable conversations about his mental health in Jeen-yuhs. Unsurprisingly, this has led to many jokes that he’s “off his meds” or “crazy” this week; there has also been a lot of speculation over whether he’s in the midst of a manic episode. This is not only ableist, it's also irresponsible—experts and mental health advocates are clear that mental illness doesn't cause misogyny or abusive behaviour, but blaming his actions on his mental health does contribute to very real stigma.

‎And then there’s the most important point here; over the past several months, West has demonstrated an increasingly scary pattern of behaviour. In January, I wrote about how he was trying to use his children as a way of maintaining his access to Kardashian, from buying the house next door to accusing her of curtailing his visits with them, actions that were very much rooted in misogyny. But, in the past two weeks, things have escalated. He has disclosed private details of their conflicts (though it’s hard to tell how accurate those details are), mocked Pete Davidson—I mean, Skete?—not to mention repeatedly threatened him, loudly proclaimed his love for Kardashian and sent her a truck full of roses, posted private texts despite her asking him not to, apologized for leaking those messages, then resumed posting about her within hours. In short, his actions have been a textbook case of post-separation abuse that has unfortunately been amplified by an audience of millions, who are consuming, engaging with and sharing his posts.

All of which is to say, I get that the news cycle we’re currently in is a tricky one to navigate, and there may not be one perfectly right way to talk about West. But I do know there’s a wrong way—and I’m seeing it everywhere.

Media outlets’ play-by-play of Kanye’s Instagram posts are part of the problem

Screengrabs of Pop Crave tweets featuring three of Kanye West

‎Starting with… whatever Pop Crave is doing right now. If you don’t follow the entertainment-focused media brand on Twitter or Instagram, you may not know this, but it has been reposting every single thing West publishes for days now. When West called for Billie Eilish to apologize to Travis Scott because she stopped her concert to make sure a fan was okay, Pop Crave had it. When he called out Kid Cudi for his friendship with “you know who” (that is: Davidson), it was up on the brand’s feeds within hours. Same with the edited Captain America: Civil War poster that he shared (it replaced Chris Evans et al. with West, Kardashian, Davidson, Eilish and Scott, among others), his mocking allegation that Davidson once dated Hillary Clinton, his short-lived apology post and everything he’s published since.

To be fair, this type of coverage is very much par for the course for Pop Crave; it’s not interested in providing analysis, and it often will post exceedingly banal ‘updates’ about what celebrities are sharing on their social media accounts. But in this case, business as usual was totally inappropriate. For starters, these shares and the resulting engagement definitely encourage him to post more; he clearly feels like he has support from the public, which empowers him to continue behaving this way, and since he's surrounded by yes-men IRL, there's no one to tell him otherwise. What's more, these reposts turn what is actually very scary behaviour into just another gossip story for wide consumption, and worse, remixing. When West posted a photo of himself standing with a pad of yellow lined paper, with the words “My account is not hacked” and the date written in Sharpie, ‘Kanye’s Notepad’ almost immediately became a meme. I even saw a California environmental group use it in a transparent bid for reach and engagement.

Established entertainment news outlets got in on the game, too.

‎And it’s not just the upstart gossip outlets or the ones with no ethics anyway (coughTMZcough). Respected entertainment news outlets, like E! and Entertainment Tonight, have also mined West’s posts for content, which has the serious side effect of downplaying them or, worse, positioning them as romantic. (No, E!, Kim, Pete and Ye are not in a love triangle. Wtf?)

I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about West at all; in fact, I think it’s actually really valuable to identify what he’s doing as stalking and abuse, because it can help the general public understand that those things may not look how they do in movies, and maybe even make us better equipped to identify them in real life. But treating this like just another Kardashian-West drama is wrong.

Kanye’s behaviour isn’t sweet or admirable. It’s abusive

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a lot of media outlets, and their audiences, are doing. According to Annie Seifullah, a Brooklyn attorney whose work focuses on sexual privacy and online harassment, the fact that we’re talking about two celebrities—and a Kardashian in particular—makes it easier for people to diminish what’s happening. “This situation is being treated as celebrity spectacle or like your typical Kardashian drama, but the behaviors are really familiar to us because of how much it mirrors real-life examples that we deal with in our law practice all of the time,” she told Jezebel earlier this week. “Targets of this type of abuse know that once they physically separate themselves, they’re still going to be the subject and target of the ex-partner’s obsession. And when the abusive ex-partner no longer has… physical or emotional control of the victim because they have left the situation, the ex-partner often resorts to causing havoc around their target in order to maintain power and control even after they’ve left their relationship.”

‎‎The fact that we’re talking about two rich and powerful people doesn’t change this dynamic. Abuse can happen to anyone, and in fact, West’s behaviour almost perfectly mirrors what many advocates call the Separation Cycle: Step one is Indifference, when the abuser claims they don’t care about the victim anyway. (I would argue that implying you can create a new version of your ex at any point fits into this thinking.) Step two is Manipulative Anger. At this stage, according to the Oregon-based Center for Hope and Safety, “he may claim his outrage is because the survivor is keeping the children from him and ‘I demand the right to see my kids!’” Which… sounds quite familiar. Stage three is Manipulative Courting, when the abuser “tries to hook the victim back into the relationship” by reminiscing about good times. Step four is Defaming The Survivor, usually by telling lies designed to make her look bad—for example, that she’s having an affair, or maybe that she accused him of putting a hit on her. And step five is pretty scary, because it’s Renewed Manipulative Anger, and at this point, the victim may be in physical danger. This is when “the abuser is more likely to carry out threats he made during the relationship and earlier in the separation cycle.”

That’s what these outlets are minimizing, unintentionally or not, when they position West’s behaviour as Kanye being Kanye.

There are other factors at play here

‎I don’t think entertainment media has ever been very good at talking about abuse, but it’s worth acknowledging that a couple of specific factors help explain why this story is being told in this way. First, over the course of the pandemic, we have become much more attuned to the day-to-day lives of celebrities. Obviously, we had those ‘celebrities, they're just like us!’ photo spreads in the before times, but when their usual methods of engaging with fans—movies, albums, product lines, etc.—dried up, many stars began using social media and paparazzi photos in increasingly strategic ways. Remember Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas’ incessant dog walks and coffee runs? That was literally just a way to maintain a public profile! Similarly, without movies, albums, product lines etc. to write about, celebrity-focused publications increasingly wrote entire stories about who was doing what incredibly quotidian thing on Instagram or TikTok—which meant audiences became even more used to consuming this type of coverage.

The second thing is not new, but it is important: we have some fucked up ideas about what love looks like. Thanks to pop culture—and, frankly, high culture—we believe that love is dramatic. That it’s about never giving up, making grand gestures and fighting for your relationship against all odds, especially if you’re a man trying to convince a woman to love you, or to come back to you. That’s why E! referenced a love triangle and not abuse. It’s also why the comments on West’s posts were full of people saying he ‘deserves’ to have his family back, while other people were tweeting about how Kardashian should forgive West because he's sorry.

The question is, now that we have recognized his actions for what they are, what are we going to do? And I think the answer is actually very easy, for both pop culture brands and individuals: Look away. At the beginning of this newsletter, I mentioned that I often don't know how to talk about West and when I do talk about him, I try to be really careful. But I should note that I often choose not to cover him at all. I really only write about him when there's a bigger issue that I think we really need to address. In the past, that's because I've been worried about exploiting him. But now, there are other people to consider, too—Kardashian, yes, but also their four children, who definitely don't deserve to be dragged into the situation their father is creating.

And you know what? I think more of us should consider that an option.


And Did You Hear About…

This powerful Modern Love essay on dating with imperfect teeth. 

The Cut’s smart take on the ‘uncancellability’ of Dolce and Gabbana.

Writer Rita Wenxin Wang’s excellent article on Russia’s figure skating success—and Eteri Tutberidze, the abusive coach who’s behind it. If you’ve also been paying attention to this week’s biggest Olympics story (that 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva, one of Eteri’s girls, was allowed to compete after testing positive for a banned substance), this is essential reading.

This really thoughtful piece by Nylah Burton about Euphoria, and the way the show deals with abuse, addiction and Blackness.

The half-siblings who found one another thanks to DNA testing—and uncovered a Montreal baby-selling operation in the process.

Bonus: Sylvaniandrama, a TikTok account that uses those little flocked animal figurines to act out the most dramatic scenarios. Here’s an explainer from Bustle, but truly, you just need to watch.

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