For those who haven’t caught up with the cringeworthy Natalie Portman-versus-Moby saga, sit down and grab some popcorn – it is equal parts creepy and hilarious.
Earlier this month, Moby, an electronic artist who rose to fame in the late nineties, released his second memoir (that’s his second memoir in three years), yes – a gruelling exploration of his own angst, littered with celebrity names and uncomfortable sex scenes. According to The Guardian, the memoir has “so many dropped names that the index, if it had one, would make the book half as long again.”
The issue of contention is that in his book, Moby claims to have briefly dated Natalie Portman, who he describes as 20 years old at the time. A couple weeks after the book’s publication, Portman clapped back with this statement:
“I was surprised to hear that he characterised the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school. He said I was 20; I definitely wasn’t. I was a teenager. I had just turned 18.”
Ooof. Portman was born in 1981, meaning she was indeed 18 during the period Moby claimed they were dating, in 1999.
Rather than apologising and cowering in shame, as most people would after being called out for creeping on the glamorous activist goddess that is Natalie Portman, Moby stood his ground, posting this uncomfortable photo:
I recently read a gossip piece wherein Natalie Portman said that we’d never dated. This confused me, as we did, in fact, date. And after briefly dating in 1999 we remained friends for years. I like Natalie, and I respect her intelligence and activism. But, to be honest, I can’t figure out why she would actively misrepresent the truth about our (albeit brief) involvement. The story as laid out in my book Then It Fell Apart is accurate, with lots of corroborating photo evidence, etc. – Moby via Instagram
The issue (which Moby seems to be wilfully incapable of comprehending) is not whether or not there was an element of romance in their relationship, but the fact that he was in his mid-thirties and she had only just finished high school. His descriptions of her in his memoir fail to suggest that he conceived of her as anything more than an attractive celebrity:
“After the show Natalie appeared on the balcony where my turntables were set up. She was wearing a perfectly fitted beige dress and looked disconcertingly like Audrey Hepburn.” – Moby in his memoir, Then It Fell Apart
In his conception of her, there is no hint of personality, nor the “intelligence” he mentions in his Instagram post. She is just an attractive, famous young woman who simultaneously boosted and threatened his ego merely by being in his presence. No wonder he didn’t pick up on the fact that he was creeping her out: he didn’t seem to be registering her subjectivity at all.
The internet’s gleeful reaction to Moby’s attempts to claim a relationship with 18 year old Portman points to a broader shift in the way we conceptualise relationships today. In the late nineties and early naughties, many teenage celebrities – including Emma Watson, the Olsen Twins, Lindsay Lohan, and Portman herself – faced public ‘countdowns’ to the day an adult could have sex with them without being charged with statutory rape. The predatory overtones of this trend didn’t seem to be picked up by the media – not even progressive outlets like The Guardian. The attitude of the time seemed to be – once they’re legal, they’re ‘fair game’.
It’s true that if 34 year old Moby did have a romantic relationship with 18 year old Portman, it wouldn’t have been illegal – but there would have undoubtedly been a power imbalance. That imbalance wouldn’t have been offset by Portman’s fame; if anything, it would have made her more vulnerable to objectification.
The Moby vs. Portman saga poses an important question to do with ethics and sex: do we base our morality purely on what is legal, in a black and white sense, or do we hold people accountable for the age discrepancy?
For instance, do we really believe that a teenager is significantly more mature on the day of her eighteenth birthday than she is the day before it? If a sexual encounter is legal, does that always been it is emotionally and morally okay? Is the fact that 44 year old Leonardo DiCaprio is allegedly dating a 21 year old model who he has reportedly known for over half her life creepy AF?
The #MeToo movement has revealed the real damage that can be dealt by imbalances of power in sexual and romantic relationships. Sometimes, the complexity of these issues defies straightforward attempts to categorise them.
If there’s a takeaway from the Moby–Portman saga, it’s that we need to remain vigilant about power dynamics in relationships. In a #MeToo world, it’s more important than ever for us to hold those in power accountable, and this translates into romantic relationships as well. Although we can never really know the dynamic of a relationship we ourselves are not in, it is something that we need to keep at the forefront of our conversations.
Update: Moby has since issued a public apology on Instagram, and cancelled his book tour (although he has not acknowledged his misrepresentation of Portman’s age).