We can probably jump right in as this story is everywhere: Danny Masterson was convicted of multiple counts of rape and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis wrote letters in support of Danny to be considered by the judge for sentencing. (One report said he received 50-ish letters and many from other famous people, but I’m focusing on these two because they are the conversation right now.)
I’m not surprised by their support as Mila and Ashton have stood by Danny for years. Rapists have families and friends, too. Many times that’s part of their circle of protection. And we’ve seen many big names, from Bill Cosby to Roman Polanski (who got his own letter), receive this kind of support from colleagues. Only the absolute worst case, Harvey Weinstein, seems to warrant total expulsion.
Let me say I’m not knowledgeable about the US court system and there is the dark cloud of Scientology’s nasty tactics hanging over these victims. I hate writing stories about sexual assault. I’m a believer in victim-centered abolition but beyond reading about it, I’ve never had to practice it. Masterson’s victims have stuck with the judicial process for years and years and my hope is that this verdict gives them peace. Survivor Chrissie Bixler posted this.
I was surprised by this verdict and the sentence not because I think he’s innocent (he’s not), but because sexual assault so rarely ends up in conviction, even though years of procedural cop shows tell us otherwise. Here are the dreary stats in the US (here is information from RAINN) and here’s a report from Canada.
This piece isn’t about Masterson or his crimes but it is about Mila and Ashton’s court letters and the reaction to their letters, which were made public shortly after the verdict. This is about the pop culture angle because like many celebrity stories, the way people react to this story is reflective of value systems. The public reaction to Ashton and Mila’s letters has been visceral and the majority of people are angry, disappointed, shocked and disgusted by these letters.
After a flurry of online condemnation, they released a video. It did not help them. It feels like a hostage video. And I’m sure, right now, they feel under siege and misunderstood. But in a culture where it’s already so difficult for victims to come forward and receive any kind of justice or support, to see empathy extended towards the women rather than celebrities feels radical. It feels like a moment. A rare “win” in a horrific situation.
It is their right to write letters in support of Danny Masterson. Mila and Ashton chose to advocate for him in sentencing. Again, that is their right. They exercised it. But popularity and public support is not owed to them. Being liked is not owed to them. They can’t expect to use their clout to write their letters and then use that same clout to negate people’s reaction. Their intent was to defend him. If they wanted to do this for their friend, this is the (very foreseeable) consequence.
Many people can understand that knowing or even loving someone who has done horrific things is human. Nuance can be lost in online conversation but in a lot of comments I’ve read, people are not targeting their support per se, but that they used their powerful voices to actively help him after the verdict came in.
I can’t think of anything they could have said that would have made the letters more palatable. And the swerving of concrete language makes their motivation even more opaque. (For all the online chatter, no I don’t think this is a grand conspiracy or blackmail: I don’t think Ashton killed Ashley Ellerin [who was murdered by a serial killer who was stalking her] – leave this poor woman and her family alone already) and I don’t think it’s QAnon stuff. Maybe they are Scientologists but even that doesn’t excuse it because Scientology would want to protect them too, they would be cash cows in terms of donations).
I think the simple truth is this: they believe him, or at least believe IN him, and wanted to support him. That’s what all of their actions to date have demonstrated.
So what could they have done to absorb the criticism? The move here would have been to take it humbly and not try to win back the narrative in less than 48 hours. Some reflection would be required. Live with the choice.
I think I’d honestly have more respect for them if they said they believed him because that seems more like the truth, you know? Or if they said yes he did it but we don’t believe the carceral system is just. Something more than this. The fence sitting, for multiple counts of rape, does not work. No one is placated by saying you support and believe victims when you are fresh off writing a glowing character reference for a convicted rapist. This situation calls for more than “he was nice to me” as an explanation.
I read the letters from Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Debra Jo Rupp, Giovanni Ribisi, and Billy Baldwin, and the take away is this:— Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (@IBJIYONGI) September 8, 2023
A man can be an extraordinary father, friend, and colleague and still be a rapist. And a rapist often hides that side of himself from others.
This will be a sh-t storm for a few days, maybe a week, and then headlines will fade. Mila and Ashton will go on, but I do think the apology medium is worth a deeper look.
There is a reason they used a video and not a typical written statement. It is because they wanted to tap into their likability and their personas - not just the way they look but their voices and cadence, all that familiarity. All those years of being liked. All those years of reruns. Just like they hoped their names would carry weight with the judge, they hope that their faces will carry weight with the public. They want to literally get in front of it.
For people who are used to being praised constantly, this must feel like a blow. But let’s talk about the tangibles, not their feelings.
I have no doubt they are receiving support behind the scenes from friends in the industry. There is a big “anti cancel culture” sentiment in the industry and there will be sympathy for them. Trust me, people are reaching out. This will not affect their pocketbook, their job prospects, their investments or their social circle. But what this will affect is their reputation online, particularly where these conversations are less filtered by PR machines.
There’s three people who will engage with this story beyond the headline.
Group 1: people who are angry and disgusted and have “written off” Mila and Ashton for good.
Group 2: pop culture followers who think it’s gross but don’t see it as an unforgivable thing.
Group 3: fans who want to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Group one is lost to them and they know it. But they are appealing to group two and three, hoping that those two groups collectively drown out group one. That’s how you cultivate support.
We’ve watched these kind of super charged cycles play out so many times and it makes me wonder, perhaps cynically, if at some point down the road there will be backlash to the backlash. Has it already begun? At the very least, a PR plan is in place. I would not be surprised if some legal letters are sent. Let’s watch for that.
Update: active thread on The Squawk for this one here.