Analysis: Yet Another Reminder That White Hollywood Heartthrobs Can Thrive Despite Scandal
Content warning: The following piece contains text descriptions of domestic violence.
Half a decade ago, the #MeToo movement exploded across Hollywood and society as a whole. The world told survivors their accounts of abuse would be believed and that individuals perpetuating it, or other predatory actions, would be held accountable – regardless of their power or status.
To an extent, this has held true: Harvey Weinstein, for example, was just sentenced to an additional 16 years in prison for three counts of rape and sexual assault. But as this year’s Oscars put on display, many white men in Hollywood, especially those deemed heartthrobs, are still able to fly under the radar, avoiding consequences for inappropriate or alleged abusive behavior.
While women directors were notably absent from the nominations and the world was still fixated on “the slap” from last year – which put on display the “unfair” burden Black men face – some white men who have recently made headlines for bad behavior were among this year’s prestigious Oscar nominees.
It illustrates a larger truth in society: our idealized perspective of white, male celebrities can be hard to square with allegations against them. They’ve likely been dubbed “America’s boyfriends” by the media, posters of their faces hung in teenagers’ rooms and adults naming them their “celebrity crush.”
“We are more likely to forgive or punish them less harshly.”
“They are in our homes, on our screens. There’s a false sense of connection and vulnerability we have with these celebrities, even though they are complete strangers,” Stacey Rose, a sexologist and the founder of Pearbond, a company that focuses on sexual violence, power-based personal violence, and Title IX education, tells POPSUGAR. “They are paid to produce a false persona. We let ourselves forget that because they are comforting to us. We give them permission to act badly, to harm people.”
For many, this year’s prominence of celebrities who have acted in rotten ways – yet are still upheld as Hollywood’s elite – is a glaring reminder that we so often let conventionally attractive white men off the hook. We spoke to experts about why this reality persists, even as society seemingly moves forward on holding powerful men to account.
Good Looks and Status Are Linked to Believability
A person with conventional attractiveness and elevated status can often get away with things for those reasons alone. Two psychological ideas play into this. One is the “what is beautiful is good” hypothesis, which posits people want to create romantic and platonic bonds with others they find attractive. People place positive qualities onto the attractive individual in pursuit of this, making them appear more desirable.
Then there’s the attraction-leniency effect. The theory is that people of greater attractiveness or status might face less blame and disciplinary measures. “Thus, we are less likely to believe that they are guilty, and even if we believe that they did it, we are more likely to forgive or punish them less harshly,” Elizabeth L. Jeglic, PhD, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of “Sexual Violence: Evidence Based Policy and Prevention,” tells POPSUGAR.
Take Brad Pitt, America’s leading man of the last three decades. In October 2022, his ex-wife Angelina Jolie filed claims of abusive behavior by Pitt against her and their children. Allegations include that during a 2016 plane ride, Pitt “grabbed Jolie by the head and shook her” before pushing her into a bathroom wall, “choked one of the children and struck another in the face,” and “he poured beer on Jolie; at another, he poured beer and red wine on the children.” Jolie filed for divorce from Pitt days after the trip.
The FBI conducted an investigation, which Jolie stated in the filing “concluded that the government had probable cause to charge Pitt with a federal crime for his conduct that day.” The United States Attorney’s Office discussed the investigation but “all parties” involved agreed not to pursue criminal charges, and Pitt’s career has continued without seemingly missing a beat. Last year, he starred in “Babylon” alongside Margot Robbie and Tobey Maguire. The film received three Oscar nominations.
“Men, in many ways, are automatically afforded a higher status that femme and nonbinary people do not have access to.”
Pitt was a producer or executive producer on other Oscar-nominated films, including “Blonde” and “Women Talking.” He also served as an executive producer for the 2022 film “She Said,” which tells the story of New York Times investigative reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, who first broke the story of Weinstein’s decades of abuse. Pitt has spoken little about the film, but his involvement has caused some controversy.
Of course, many audiences simply know him for being named “sexiest man alive” back in the 1990s and continuing to be touted as good-looking. “When someone is labeled a sweetheart or heartthrob, we make the mistake of viewing them as sweethearts only and not a sweetheart being a public persona,” Alice Mills Mai, LPCC-S, the founder and CEO of Centering Wholeness Counseling, tells POPSUGAR. “This means they are perceived as innocent because they fall outside our perception of an accuser. It can make it easy to forgive or disregard the allegations against them.”
The pattern of minimizing or ignoring the actions of a beloved public figure can, importantly, silence survivors, Mills Mai adds: they may expect not to be believed or even question their reality because it’s so misaligned from public perception.
Gender Biases Are a Key Factor
Gender biases are a vital element in perpetuating these issues. “Men, in many ways, are automatically afforded a higher status that femme and nonbinary people do not have access to,” Rose explains. “We ignore warning signs, indicators, and small actions that then give them permission to harm more.”
Tom Cruise has previously exhibited questionable behavior towards women in relation to his beliefs and with the alleged help of the Church of Scientology (which the Church has denied). They allegedly sought to tap ex-wife Nicole Kidman’s phone toward the end of her marriage to Cruise, and Cruise famously slammed Brooke Shields as “irresponsible” for spreading misinformation when she publicly discussed taking antidepressants for postpartum depression. His third ex-wife, Katie Holmes, allegedly fired anyone close to Cruise, used a burner phone, and stayed in a secret New York City apartment to divorce Cruise in 2012.
Yet Cruise has recently rebounded, enduring, like Pitt, as America’s sweetheart. Most recently, Cruise starred in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the second highest-grossing film worldwide of 2022. The sequel to the 1986 hit “Top Gun” has Cruise cast alongside some of the next generation’s leading men, including Miles Teller, Glen Powell, and Jay Ellis. The film garnered five Oscar nominations, including one for best picture, and it won for best sound.
More than a decade after many of his controversial moments, all seems to be forgotten. In Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue, he called out Cruise, lauding “Top Gun”: “Everyone loved ‘Top Gun.’ Everybody. I mean, Tom Cruise with his shirt off in that beach football scene?”
In cases where the man faces any blame, excuses for bad behavior tend to follow, such as “he was under pressure” or was “misunderstood,” Jeglic says. At the same time, women are often dismissed as manipulative or lying when accusing a powerful man of wrongful actions, Jeglic adds.
Such was the situation during last year’s live-streamed defamation suit filed by Johnny Depp against Amber Heard for a 2018 article she authored in The Washington Post. A jury found that Heard had defamed Depp by describing herself as a representative of domestic abuse, ultimately awarding him $15 million. But the spectacle of the trial was deeply triggering for many survivors of domestic abuse; despite testimony in which Heard alleged Depp physically and sexually abused her, much of the public cruelly disparaged Heard in what some dubbed “an orgy of misogyny.”
With so many high-profile examples of men seemingly being able to hold onto their power, many women are left wondering: how do these institutions – from the legal system to public opinion – change?
Holding People Accountable For Their Actions
Power, wealth, and status may sit in men’s corners. These are immense barriers, but it’s still possible to hold men who have done wrong accountable, says Mills Mai.
While the public may have sympathy for heartthrobs, their minds can change as facts grow, Sarah Klein, a sexual abuse attorney at Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, a survivor advocate, and the first known survivor of former Olympic women’s gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, tells POPSUGAR.
The shift in public views of Leonardo DiCaprio is a testament to this. DiCaprio, a 48-year-old man, made headlines last year for finally dating someone over 25 – 27-year-old Gigi Hadid. They reportedly dated for a few months following his separation from long-time girlfriend Camila Morrone last August – whom he split from two months after she turned 25.
The world, and Hollywood in particular, is full of older men dating younger women. However, the continual pattern has led some to call DiCaprio’s behavior a red flag, especially on social media.One Twitter user spoke out about how inappropriate it was for much older men to have dated her as a young woman, regardless of whether it was legal. Another person mentioned the informal rule that a partner shouldn’t be younger than half your age plus seven. At the same time, DiCaprio still works steadily, starring in this year’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Many advocates say more work is needed to ensure Hollywood heartthrobs are held accountable for their actions. Societal education is a crucial component here for adults, as well as at a younger level in schools. Reneé Rodriguez, the founder and custody consultant of Best Foot Forward Consulting, tells POPSUGAR that education about coercive control would effectively change public perception. Many “coercive controllers [use] subtle, psychological manipulation . . . to convince the world that they are innocent – even magnanimous – beings,” she adds. Studies have shown school-based interventions improve awareness of these issues.
Elite institutions such as the Academy of Motion Picture and Sciences are responsible for evaluating who they uphold and making systemic changes. Many advocates agree that the Oscars shouldn’t serve as a platform to praise men who act without consequences.
Still, the onus also falls on individuals to evaluate their biases and think of celebrities as people responsible for their actions. As Jeglic explains, “it’s important to recognize that factors such as status and appearance can impact our perceptions of guilt and punishment and to address those biases when we hear that a celebrity or someone in a position of power has engaged in abusive behavior.”