#FreeKesha, Free Us: What Kesha’s case teaches the American worker
Despite my cynical nature when it comes to dealing with celebrities and various Hollywood activities (one of the hazards of growing up here in Los Angeles), I never thought anything in entertainment would disturb me quite as much as the legal case of Kesha.
For those who don’t know her, Kesha was a pop star who was sort of the antithesis of Lady Gaga — strange, but more gritty and grimy versus the latter’s high-fashion polish. Most people were hit and miss on her music, but I always thought she was interesting; a different take on the clean, perfectly polished pop princess, and I respected her for it.
So imagine when you find out that her producer has possibly been the source of emotional manipulations, rape and abuse. How he aggravated her eating disorder and even supposedly forced her to do drugs. And that he was allowed to keep control of her career, despite allegations of committing crimes, because there was a contract between the two of them. The fact that she was a woman who probably went through hell didn’t matter, as long as there’s money on the line.
So many things scare me about the Kesha case — and it goes beyond rape, abuse and the sad reality of being a woman seeking to make a career in the entertainment industry, which are hard enough to stomach on their own. It goes to the concept of personal safety and mental wellbeing being worth a lot less than professional stakes and the almighty dollar. This should not only scare women. It should scare every working person in the United States.
As a young working woman, I have seen it firsthand. When women (and men) are in terrible, abusive romantic relationships, they are told to leave immediately. Get out, no matter the consequences, like how a person leaving an abusive situation is more likely to die in the first two weeks of leaving than any other time in the relationship. If a victim doesn’t leave, they are often viewed as weak-willed and in constant danger.
However, eight hours a day you’re at a job, and if someone is there who is psychologically manipulating you or even harassing you, you’re often told to shrug it off. Ignore it, maybe it will go away. Report it, they’ll help (and although sometimes they do, there are times that they can’t or don’t). Go find another job in the off hours, in pure secrecy, or hang in there no matter how bad things get, because things will get better. If a person does choose to leave a job when things get unbearable without another job in hand, they are often viewed as irresponsible. Yet the emotional, mental and physical drain can be just as strong, if not stronger, than the romantic situation.
Like those who stay in abusive relationships, those who opt to quit jobs due to difficult, abusive circumstances before finding another one are also viewed as weak. Somehow, this seems slightly contradictory to me. And in the case of Kesha, it is nothing short of heartbreaking.
It was unfortunate that two of my first bosses out of college were very abusive, and I witnessed the behavior above firsthand. One editor’s favorite trick was to get me into a side room on a daily basis and berate me, telling me that I was the worst writer that he had ever seen. After he was fired for sexual harassment, it turned out I wasn’t the only person he was doing this to, but I was his favorite target. Yet no matter where I was, from sobbing in my car to sitting at the dinner table, I was told to “hold on.” His behavior shaped me for years to come, although on a positive note, it made me really think about treating others better in the workplace.
Unfortunately, the next boss after that one was worse — an anti-Semite who would needle me about not having gone to UCLA and, even though I was well liked by sources and readers, would tell me I constantly needed overwhelming editing. When I finally quit because I couldn’t take his abuse anymore, he said, “Oh, so this means you’re probably going to be marrying some rich guy and having 20 babies.”
When I came home and told my now-ex that I quit, I was yelled at and told how stupid I was, how I live in a fantasy world, how dare I walk out the door on a job without another one in hand, because that was common knowledge that everyone knows you don’t do. He was the most vocal; others were tut-tutting in the background. Yet barely anyone bat an eye four years later when I walked out the door due to his behavior.
Over the years, I wanted to think that my case was singular; after all, in the years after I never had bosses quite like those two mentioned above, and some are still my favorite people. That was, until my friends started talking. Each of them had a story about people at work whose behavior was unacceptable. They were actions that would normally get people fired, but for some reason there was a blind eye turned in each case. Each of these people were in different industries, but the stories were eerily similar, and they were all hurting from their treatment at the hands of their team members and their bosses.
One friend was so upset, his head was in his hands. “I wish I could just quit,” he sighed, and he felt scared of being fired while looking for another job due to the level of harassment he was experiencing at his job. Another friend said he didn’t have enough money in his savings to quit, and if he did how he would walk out of his 50-hour a week job where he is often emotionally manipulated and never look back. One girl, who is normally so warm and fun to be around, seemed to be dimmed out by her controlling boss, and I would give anything to help her. But all I can do, sadly, is listen. Like Kesha, we can end up trapped into the spiraling bad behavior of others who seem to get away with it. And in her case, Kesha is being preventing from making a living at it.
I’m not suggesting giving up when things get difficult; we do have to work through them. We have extensive obligations that we have to make sacrifices for, like long days and difficult people, and sometimes that’s necessary to push through. What are we sacrificing over the long term, though, is the most important question. If we are placing on the altar our mental stability, physical health or emotional well being for the sake of money, this is not freedom. When you see a woman forced to work for someone who has abused her, having to relive unspeakable trauma over and over again and fighting desperately for her livelihood, that is not liberty. And we, as people who have friends who love us and family who need us to be there, should not tolerate this.
We need to think about Kesha as well as the work culture we have created. We need to solve these problems together: Human relations, upper management and those who are willing to make workplaces easier places to be on a day-to-day basis must combine forces. We don’t necessarily need fancy lunches, ping pong tables and open floor plans to be happy. We do need to feel safe when we come in, be able to work with level-headed people and not be put on trial if we are being treated horribly. People as individuals who can change the world are worth more than just their jobs, and it’s time we start acting like it.