As we discussed Moises Kaufman’s play Gross Indecency, I kept coming back to the question posed about why people have latched onto Oscar Wilde as an icon or idol. It is clear to modern audiences and represented in the play that what Wilde did was problematic, even if it was not problematic in the way that people thought at the time. There is something almost insidious in Wilde taking men as young as sixteen out for dinner and buying them gifts, presumably with the understanding that they will then sleep with him. Even so, Wilde has become an icon largely because he was imprisoned for his identity. That development raises an interesting question about how we engage with celebrity.
When I first set out to write this blog post, I planned on critiquing Wilde and arguing that, in the modern day, his behavior would not be accepted–not because of his sexuality, but because of his use of power. However, I then started to think about our society and the kinds of things that we let men get away with. In particular, it is relatively easy to name successful male celebrities who date or have dated very young women with little criticism or impact on their lives and careers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal are only two examples of men who repeatedly date women who are considerably younger than they are to that point that it is creepy. And they are two of the most successful actors in Hollywood. Clearly, we don’t care that much about inappropriate men as long as they do not go so far as to be abusive. I wonder if Wilde’s case occurred today, what would happen. I had a hard time thinking of an example of gay male celebrities who engage in similar behavior, in part because the sample size is smaller. The closest example I could think of was the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. The characters in the film have a seven year age difference, and the actors in the film had an even larger age difference. More importantly, the younger character is only 17, making the dynamics in the film feel predatory if you stop to think about it. There was considerable backlash against the film–Queer Eye star Karamo Brown said that the movie appears to be “glorifying” a sexual assault kind of relationship–but the film still was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and won for Adapted Screenplay. It seems as if there is still a part of our society that is willing to accept inappropriate age differences like the ones that existed between Wilde and the men that he slept with.
We are left with a bad taste in our mouths when we read the lines about how young the people involved with Wilde were, but we as a society have not actually moved that far forward in our criticism of these kinds of relationships. I wonder if that made it easier for Wilde to become an icon for the queer liberation movement. The fact that he was imprisoned for “gross indecency” has a large role to play in how he is remembered–he was one of the few famous people during that time that was open about who he was and was punished for it. That makes him a prime candidate for remembering fondly and holding up as an idol. When a person is punished for their identity, that identity becomes a rallying cry, so it makes sense that Wilde became an icon in the way that he did. After reflecting on our own society, it also makes some level of sense that people didn’t care enough about the specifics of his relationships with men. He was a talented writer in his own right beyond his queer identity, and I think that the common denominator in how we dismiss creepy behavior in men is that people who are talented have an easier time receiving forgiveness.