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Ian McKellen’s Comments About Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey Are Not Great

Sir Ian McKellen is a force of nature in the world of acting—and he’s also a gay icon, out to the public since 1988. Yet recent remarks about the allegations of sexual assault lodged against director Bryan Singer and actor Kevin Spacey, as well as the #MeToo movement, would seem to place the 79-year-old actor as dangerously out of touch.

As a fan of Ian McKellen’s work and someone who has appreciated his forthright approach to discussing sexuality, his comments are disappointing, to say the least. According to Pink News, McKellen’s remarks were made during an interview with the BBC’s Evan Davis at an event for National Student Pride on February 23rd. I don’t think this is the sort of message students—or anyone—needs to hear about gay pride.

McKellen has worked with Singer on the X-Men movies and Apt Pupil, and with Spacey when Spacey served as the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre. At the pride event at the University of Westminster, he was asked about the sexual abuse allegations surrounding Singer and Spacey—of which there are many, going back many years, for both men:

“The 79-year-old Lord of the Rings star told his interviewer that the allegations against Singer and Spacey were down to them coming out later in life.

“‘Both of them were in the closet,’ McKellen told the audience at the University of Westminster in London. ‘And hence all their problems as people and their relationship with other people. If they had been able to be open about themselves and their desires, they wouldn’t have started abusing people in the way they’ve been accused.'”

That is … not how sexual abuse works. Harvey Weinstein was certainly not in any kind of closet and was allowed to be totally open about his sexuality, and he still faces many accusations of harassment and abuse by multiple women. Donald Trump lacked closet confinement and yet freely admitted to how much he likes to grab unsuspecting women by their genitalia; the President of the United States is a famous man with three marriages under his belt who stands accused of harassment and assault by dozens of women. Sexual abuse is about power, not sexuality.

To suggest that being “in the closet” was the reason that Singer and Spacey are involved in multiple allegations of assault is outrageous. It’s also an insult to the untold numbers of people, both high profile and not, who were (and still are) in the closet and have somehow managed not to commit aggressive sexual acts as a result. I’d further mention that both Singer and Spacey’s allegations involve underage victims; it’s hard to understand McKellen’s correlation between hiding one’s sexuality and forcing underage victims into sexual acts.

McKellen had previously expressed similar sentiments in regards to Spacey, saying, “You get into problems, don’t you, if you lie, if you pretend.” Back in 2017, he also slammed Spacey’s decision to come out as a gay man in response to actor Anthony Rapp’s accusations that Spacey made sexual advances on him when Rapp was 14. “I think it’s a matter of celebration when anybody comes out because their life is going to be better, but the circumstances in which he chose to do it are reprehensible because it linked alleged underage sex with a declaration of sexuality and that’s murky and undesirable.”

Being in the closet is certainly a fraught position for some, exposing them to potentially difficult situations—there’s the possibility of exploitation, blackmail, and the threat of the loss of livelihood or status that they believe being out of the closet would induce. It’s no doubt psychologically trying, but to assert that the mere act of being closeted equates with the development of abusive tendencies is, quite frankly, one of the worst takes I’ve read in a very, very long time.

Unfortunately, McKellen didn’t move his comments in any more positive directions from this puzzling and upsetting assertion.

“McKellen addressed the issue of whether Singer and Spacey ‘should be forced to stop working,’ telling the crowd: ‘Well, that’s debatable.’

“He continued: ‘I rather think that’s up to the public. Do you want to see someone that’s been accused of something that you don’t approve of? Do you ever want to see them again?

“‘If the answer is no, you won’t buy a ticket, you won’t turn on the television.

“‘But there may be others for whom that’s not a consideration, and it’s difficult to be exactly black and white.’”

It’s … it’s pretty black and white in here, Sir Ian. I don’t want to see a new movie by Woody Allen, a man accused of abusing his own daughter when she was a child, and I don’t want to see a new movie by Bryan Singer, a man accused of preying on teenagers. Whether some members of the paying public don’t care—as was clearly evidenced in terms of, say, Bohemian Rhapsody—doesn’t mean these men should continue to be offered big Hollywood projects for lots of money, where they are in positions of considerable power and influence. Sending the message that this sort of behavior is unacceptable and has actual career ramifications is important.

On the subject of #MeToo, McKellen’s remarks were also … not great. “Well frankly, I’m waiting for someone to accuse me of something,” he told Evans, “and me wondering whether they’re not telling the truth and me having forgotten.” Here, he seems to be acknowledging the validity of #MeToo, and at the same time admitting that he could be called out with a credible accusation about past incidents that he has simply “forgotten.” While the audience awkwardly titters when McKellen first says he’s waiting to be accused, it’s not evident that this was any sort of joke.

This isn’t the first time that the actor has faced criticism about his framing of Hollywood abuse scandals, so it would follow that he might take a bit more care in discussing such sensitive subjects—but that doesn’t seem to be the case. When you watch the video above of McKellen’s remarks, I think it’s clear that his instinct was to suggest to an audience of young university students that it was vital to be open and accepting of their sexuality—to warn about how damaging it can be to remain in the closet. That sentiment may have come from a good place, but it was badly deployed in the context of Singer and Spacey’s situations.

(via Pink News, image: 20th Century Fox)

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Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.