Trigger Warning: The following article discusses themes surrounding sexual harassment and contains some explicit language.
I had heard the name Russell Brand before. But recently I realised just how much of his content I have consumed in the past without necessarily realising. When I was younger, even from across the pond, his name was plastered across headlines. I knew him as the guy who divorced Katy Perry. The guy from those funny films who makes those funny jokes. That's it.
However, as I began writing this article, delving deeper in order to understand who he really is, I started to question why I had never raised an eyebrow regarding his content in the first place. Right then I saw an opportunity to learn, not only about his ongoing controversy, but also about the complex nature of sexual harassment within, and beyond, comedy.
Russell Brand is one of the comedy world's most prominent figures. The presenter, comedian and actor is best known for his time working for the BBC Radio 2 and Channel 4's "Big Brothers Big Mouth," as well as starring in Hollywood films such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and “St Trinian's.”
However, recently, Brand has faced grave allegations that have cast a shadow over his career and reputation as an entertainer.
Following a joint investigation by The Sunday Times, The Times and Channel 4 Dispatches, Brand has been accused of sexual harassment, rape, predatory behaviour, and emotional abuse by four women. The allegations pertain to a period in his career spanning from 2006-2013, which he labelled as a very promiscuous time in his life. When addressing the allegations, Brand emphasised that during this time of promiscuity, his relationships were “always” consensual, and continued to “absolutely refute” the allegations. Instead, he commented how he was the victim of a “co-coordinated attack” made by the media against him.
Despite these shocking revelations, they appear too hardly come as a surprise to those in the comedy world. In an article by The Guardian, a female comedian stated that the allegations against Brand are "just the tip of the iceberg” for the comedy industry. This comment echoes the sentiments of other comedians such as Kate Smurthwaite, who commented how "we all knew" about Brand and that these allegations "barely scratch the surface" of the underlying issues plaguing the comedy world.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Along with the allegations, Channel 4 Dispatches aired a documentary titled “Russell Brand: Hiding in Plain Sight.” As I looked back at Brand’s career, it now became easy to identify several instances that might have served as warning, or so-called “red flags,” about his behaviour towards women.
As mentioned, Brand’s promiscuous past is no secret. Awarded "Shagger of the Year," in 2006-2008 by The Sun, the entertainers’ public persona, movie roles and comedy bits all follow one theme: sex. I found multiple interviews where Brand makes comments such as: "Don't be afraid of your own sexuality, do be afraid of mine though" and "Look at the women in this room. Even a bold estimate would be that I’ve slept with half of them. Currently.” Perhaps most disturbing, is the leaked BBC Radio 2 interview with "guest star" Jimmy Saville, where Brand jokes about sending his female assistant to visit Saville, naked.
Since the interview was leaked, parallels have been drawn between the rise of Brand to that of the notorious Saville. Andrew Neil, journalist and broadcaster, sparked this discussion by criticising the hypocrisy of individuals and prominent institutions as they urgently distance themselves from Brand following the allegations. Neil raises questions regarding their association with Brand in the first place, and draws a parallel to Saville, not in terms of their actions, but rather in terms of how the media and public elevated the two to be figures deemed worthy of interviews and shows for the BBC and Channel 4. Notably, both broadcasters have been linked to the allegations, following reports that Brand sent a BBC car to pick up a 16-year-old schoolgirl whom he was allegedly having an abusive relationship with, and allegedly pursued audience members for sexual encounters during the filming of Channel 4’s Big Brother Spin-off. Both of these claims currently being further investigated.
Despite the fact that Brand’s film roles do not serve as evidence for his behaviour. Some have questioned whether the characters he portrayed in his films seem like a magnified version of his off-screen self. For instance, in the comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Brand plays a former drug addict and lead singer, who spends most of his screen time discussing, engaging in, and making references to sexual activities. Shortly after the film was released, his co-star Kristen Bell revealed that she had to intimidate Brand to prevent any unwanted sexual advances, casting an uneasy link between his on-screen and off-screen behaviour. Similarly. in “St Trinian’s,” one of his Hollywood hits, Brand plays a corrupt businessman who has a crush on a school’s head girl. This might now be seen as a disconcerting foreshadowing of the allegation regarding his relationship with a 16-year-old schoolgirl.
Since documentary’s release, several women have come forward with further allegations about Brand’s behaviour. As more instances are revealed, I have heard people question: “Why did they not come forward earlier?”
This question frequently emerges when high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, within and beyond the entertainment world, are reported.
However, raising this question can be problematic.
While some individuals might ask it out of genuine curiosity, perhaps without understanding the complexity behind it, others might use it as a tool to shift the blame and divert the attention away from the more critical issue at hand. Take, for example, Donald Trump. As E Carroll Jean defended her case against him in court, Trump’s lawyers attempted to cast doubt over her story by questioning: if what she is claiming is true, why did she not report it immediately?
Research conducted by the University of Exeter sheds light on the persistent fixation surrounding this question. The researchers compared the needs and actions of individuals who have experienced sexual harassment (experiencers), with the expectations of those who have not (imaginers). The findings revealed a significant gap between the two. The experiencers seem to prioritise a wide variety of needs including safety and social support, over pursuing justice through formal actions such as filling a complaint or contacting the police. The experiencers noted that they were more likely to discuss the instance with friends and family or even keep it entirely to themselves. In contrast, the imaginers anticipated themselves as being more proactive and assertive if found in that situation, envisioning themselves as more likely to seek justice by taking more formal actions.
While reporting the instance might seem like the number one priority, the reality is that victims often prioritise actions to meet a wide range of needs, not just the need to seek justice. Something which I recently came to learn as well.
Throughout my research I came to realise that the accusations against Brand are just a drop in a pool of allegations made against comedians. Another example dates back to 2017, when The New York Times released a report detailing several women’s accounts of instances where the renowned comedian Louis C.K. made inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances towards other female comedians, something which C.K. has confirmed. Similar to Brand, C.K.’s behaviour was an open secret.
If we know this is happening, why do we ignore the warnings?
One reason might be that the comedy itself disguises the issue. In terms of Brand, he might have used his comedic style to inadvertently mitigate his inappropriate behaviour, perhaps fooling the public into thinking it was just a public persona. Much like me, his audience might have not given his content much thought. We might have been too distracted by the laughter and applause to question whether jokes with strong sexual innuendo, might have been a genuine cause for concern. We see comedians successfully using comedy to make light of their inappropriate behaviour. In C.K. return to comedy, for example, he unabashedly joked about his confirmed allegations, making comments such as “I like to jerk off, and I don’t like being alone.”
Ellie Tomsett, a media lecturer at the University of Birmingham, investigated the barriers that hinder women’s participation in comedy. In an article, she commented on how there seems to be a pattern where woman who do complain are often met with comments such as “it is just a joke” or “it is just part of my character” as well as accused of lacking the sufficient sense of humour to appreciate it. A point which has been reiterated by several female comedians.
This does not just happen within the comedy world. I often find myself saying “you cannot say that” as a response to a “joke” about a woman passing by. A statement which I usually accompany with laughter and a playful push, ultimately leaving me confused. As a young woman in my twenty’s, still figuring out who I am, I find addressing these comments to be a tricky thing. If I say something I feel like I am being “too intense,” If I do not, then I am not supporting women? If I do not laugh then I get told “relax it is just a joke” but If I do laugh I feel guilty?
Writing this article has given me an opportunity to continue to understand the complex nature of sexual harassment, not just within, but also beyond comedy. Amidst the chaos surrounding the accusations against Brand, I hope society also sees this as an opportunity to keep learning. It might not always be easy to call someone out regarding their behaviour or comments, I know I do not always. However, I believe the focus should be on why these comments are made in the first place, whether in front of a large audience or just one person.