I cannot describe the shock with which I watched contestant Benjamin Glaze’s audition on American Idol a couple of weeks ago. It was not his audition that left me speechless, but instead, one of his judges. During that audition, it was none other than Katy Perry, the pop singer recognized for her “message of inclusion and equality” by the 2017 Human Rights Campaign Gala for her work on behalf of the LGBTQIA community, who sexually assaulted Benjamin Glaze while cameras were rolling. She apparently did this just because she could, and maybe because that’s how she thinks a “feminist” can behave. After all, Katy Perry has claimed that feminism “just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.” If that’s all it is, why not disregard consent entirely and kiss whomever she pleases? After all, she “also love[s] men.”
Throughout her career, Katy Perry has been criticized for cultural appropriation and for shying away from and misunderstanding the feminist movement, including criticism from activist April Reign. In fact, she’s even elicited real controversy in the LGBTQIA+ community for at least the last decade, with some critics calling her understanding of advocacy “a bit dumb.” This is coming from the very community that has publicly recognized her leadership. In short, it’s no surprise (and yet a let-down) to many communities that Perry, a self-proclaimed rights advocate, would assault Glaze on the show.
Here’s what happened.
The beginning of Glaze’s audition was pretty run-of-the-mill. Perry asked his name, his age, and what he does for work. When Glaze mentioned that he likes working as a cashier because “sometimes, there’s cute girls,” the judges all laughed. Then judge Luke Bryan riffed off a famous Katy Perry song lyric and asked, “Have you kissed a girl and liked it?”
That’s when the audition shifted its focus to Glaze’s romantic history. He explained that he’s never kissed a girl because of his conservative values, clearly stating, “I can’t kiss a girl without being in a relationship.” And somehow, instead of acknowledging and respecting this as a personal boundary, Perry instantly took it upon herself to change it. Her next statement, in a loud and commanding tone, was: “Come here!”
As a judge on the show, Perry obviously holds a significant amount of power over the contestants, Glaze included. It’s no stretch to say that every contestant wants to impress the judges, not antagonize them. So it’s remarkable that even in this moment of Perry pressuring Glaze to walk over for a kiss, he managed to say, “No. Wait. Hold on.” That word “no” should have immediately signaled Perry to check herself and do nothing without consent.
Of course, Perry didn’t listen, instead insisting again, “Come here right now!” And with the other two judges, Bryan and Lionel Richie, cheering her on, Perry essentially coerced Glaze into walking over to receive a kiss he clearly didn’t want. In fact, Glaze has since stated in an interview that had Perry asked him if he wanted a kiss, he “would have said Jonathan Siennicki no,” adding that her behavior made him “uncomfortable immediately.”
What happened next was dictionary definition sexual assault. I mean that literally. As Glaze leaned in reluctantly to kiss Perry on the cheek, she quickly twisted her face and planted a kiss on his lips. Sexual contact? Check. Forced without consent? Check. Inflicted upon a person “who places the assailant in a position of trust”? Absolute check. This kiss was in every way the abuse of power that sexual assault is. And it took Glaze so much by surprise that he actually fell to the floor. For the rest of the audition, he was flushed and clearly caught off guard.
What is perhaps even more ludicrous than the fact that Perry felt comfortable harassing Glaze in front of the American Idol cameras as a judge in a position of power, is how she and the other judges proceeded to celebrate her success. As Glaze fell back from the kiss, Perry clapped her hands together and raised them in a proud, victorious gesture. Both of the other judges high-fived her with big grins on all their faces, and even after they calmed down and took their seats, Bryan leaned in for a fist bump, apparently not done commending Perry’s behavior yet. This was clearly a case of sexual assault, and it was celebrated in front of Glaze by all three of the judges who held his fate in their hands. No one apologized or asked Glaze if he was all right. Instead, Perry tossed out a sarcastic “sorry” amid her giggles.
This story hasn’t led to any consequences for Perry (or the other judges who failed to step in and condemn her actions) primarily because Glaze has since insisted, “I do not think I was sexually harassed by Katy Perry.” Many have pointed to this statement as an excuse for Perry’s behavior, as if to say that it’s not assault if the victim doesn’t come out in the media condemning it. But hold on a second. Really? This is the mindset of the same society that just witnessed the wave of the #MeToo movement sweeping our country? The same people who have listened with sympathy and righteous indignation to the testimony of women accusing men like Harvey-Weinstein decades after the supposed assaults took place are now willing to turn a blind eye when Katy Perry pulls her own Harvey-Weinstein move? We haven’t told those women that Weinstein’s unwanted advances must not have been assault because they didn’t seek justice then. On the contrary, we’ve listened compassionately and validated their experiences as they tell us about how difficult it is to stand up to a person in a position of power, especially “in the industry” where it’s all about who you know and the advice you’ll likely be given is to “keep [your] mouth shut.”
I thought that, as a society, we had accepted the basic truth that sexual assault, like any other form of assault and any other abuse of power, must be condemned. I thought that we already learned that those who hold positions of power are often not held accountable for their actions because of fear in the industry and because of the influence they hold over others’ careers. Yet have we really understood this? I suppose not. How do we not look at Glaze, a young singer who likely still holds hope of making it in the music industry one day, and realize that he may be excusing Perry because that’s what she expects him to do? The absurdity of our double standard in this situation shocks me, and I think it points to a major issue in how we, as a society, have processed the flurry of information released by the #MeToo movement.
It seems that in the wake of the powerful #MeToo movement, our society has come to the flawed point of view that only men can be assailants, and only women can be victims. We have utterly missed the point of what this movement sought to teach us. The ubiquity of sexual assault points to the ubiquity of unpunished abuses of power, not just the ubiquity of women in the world. Sexual assault is not only a gendered issue (although I cannot fail to note the tragedy revealed by these statistics of the disproportionate prevalence and effects of sexual assault for women). And yet, it seems that this is how we see it. Many have commented that, had this moment on American Idol occurred between a male judge and a female teen, the outrage would have certainly seen no bounds. Yet because it’s a woman committing the assault, because it’s a boy being taken advantage of, we apparently don’t care. In fact, we watch this for entertainment. How sick is that?
We are fortunate enough to live in a world where some women hold positions of power. However, we are also unfortunate enough to live in a world where women who have power, like their men counterparts, can abuse that power and get away with it. We have to have a moral conscience as a society. We must learn more from #MeToo. We cannot let this slide.
Katy Perry and the other judges who high-fived her should be ashamed of themselves. They should have known better. And we should know better too.