Rick and Morty's Roiland Problem
Trigger warning: references to abuse, grooming, and the sexualisation of minors.
Justin Roiland, the co-creator of the popular animated show Rick and Morty is currently awaiting trial on felony charges of domestic violence, which include corporal injury and false imprisonment by fraud, menace and deceit against a former partner.
In addition to this, many women have come forward to share their stories about Roiland's alleged inappropriate behaviour towards them. They claim that Roiland has a long history of grooming underage girls. The screenshots that have been provided by many of his accusers on social media indicate a disturbing pattern of Roiland allegedly engaging in inappropriate conversations with minors. I am not going to go into the details here. A detailed overview of some of the testimonies can be found here: https://www.themarysue.com/what-did-justin-roiland-do-the-justin-roiland-controversy-explained/
While these accusations may still be unproven and their accompanying screenshots still be unverified, the amount and detail of the allegations are copious enough to suggest that there is at least some truth to these accusations. As a consequence, many fans of Rick and Morty have begun discussing the merits and (im)possibility of 'separating the artist from the art,' sometimes evoking 'Death of the Author' to justify their continued enjoyment of Roiland's work.
A similar phenomenon occurred when JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series of books exposed herself as a vocal and politically motivated transphobe. Many Harry Potter fans felt the need to justify their continued enjoyment of the series by invoking 'Death of the Author.' The video essayist Lindsay Ellis pointed out the traps of taking this approach in her video Death of the Author 2: Rowling Boogaloo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NViZYL-U8s0)
The engagement with or disengagement from media is not an act of political activism (regardless of what Twitter tells you). It is a personal (sometimes moral) choice that has to do with one's own ability to endure cognitive dissonance, one's willingness to support a problematic/harmful creator financially, and the perceived separation between the content of the work and the context of the creator's problematic behaviour.
In Roiland's case, this becomes incredibly messy. Justin Roiland voices the two main characters of Rick and Morty, whose dynamic and background form the entire basis of the show's narrative and appeal. Justin Roiland is Rick and Morty. If he remains on the show, then people will have to reconcile their moral principles with continuing to support a television series that has an alleged abuser and predator at its centre. If he is removed from the show (and it doesn't get cancelled) then his recasting would involve such a notable break from the previous seasons that many fans might feel unable to embrace the show's new direction.
Furthermore, mentally separating the content of the work & the creator's alleged misdeeds is even more difficult here. It has been noted by many people that Rick and Morty has a troubling habit of minimising certain taboo subjects. Jokes or plot points that implicitly or explicitly touch on things like incest & the sexualisation of minors appear occasionally throughout the show's six seasons. Most fans (including myself) just winced whenever this uncomfortable stuff came up and wrote it off as the show trying to cater to a certain edge-lord audience.
This is an attitude that will be very difficult to maintain now. In hindsight, the presence of problematic subject matter is prevalent enough to indicate an uncomfortable pattern of normalisation. The show's writing is not the work of one man, for example this has been shown by how the increased presence of female writers has lead to the improved development of female characters. However, given the context of Roiland's alleged behaviour, it becomes incredibly difficult to dismiss the show's problematic content as coincidental of unrelated to the sensibilities of its creators. For anyone with a keen eye and a sense of empathy, the show has been significantly tainted. Every uncomfortable scene or joke further reinforces the influence of a creepy and (allegedly) predatory mind.
Much like with JK Rowling and Harry Potter, Justin Roiland cannot easily be detached from Rick and Morty. His contribution is central to the show's identity and his removal would involve a drastic recalibration for the show and its fans. Furthermore, its occasionally disturbing attitude towards the sexualisation of minors has become almost impossible to ignore. Whatever happens next, I feel few people will ever be able to watch (let alone enjoy) the show in the same way.
Once again, we are forced to confront the dangers of venerating celebrity creators & are shown the risk of forming emotional attachments to pop culture properties. Once again, we are reminded of the ubiquity of abuse and predatory behaviour in the entertainment industry. As long as we allow people (especially men) to reach positions of unquestionable authority and unavoidable influence, abuse will remain commonplace. The only way to mitigate or even 'solve' this problem is to make accountability unavoidable and flatten as many hierarchies as we can. We must ensure that no amount of authority, fame, wealth or clout is enough to escape justice or avoid accountability. Abusers will not stop until we make them.