Behind the Mask

Michael Jackson is on trial for child molestation, but as far as public perception goes, he may as well be on trial for much more: body dysmorphia, bizarre wardrobe, narcissism, racial-identity disorder, transgenderism, makeup wearing, and poor parenting. If he is a child molester, he should go to jail. But if it is his long hair, high voice, and clothing choices that lead the jury to convict him, it will be a sad statement on the public perception of sexual difference.

Jackson is a walking set of contradictions between male and female, gay and straight, man and boy, abused and abuser. The battery of jokes he has endured in the fifteen years since he began his visual transformation reflects the public discomfort with someone so palpably confusing. How he fares in this trial will come down to what the jurors make of Jackson the enigma. Ask people their opinion of Jackson, and you get two diametrically opposed views. His sympathizers say he’s an abuse survivor who would never hurt a child, and his detractors say he’s a conniving pedophile who used his childlike demeanor and celebrity to manipulate innocent boys. But those two reductions may be inadequate to describe someone with such a complicated and contradictory sexual image.

When authorities raided Neverland in November 2003, it may not have been surprising that they seized a copy of Bruce Weber’s The Chop Suey Club, a book of art photography of blond, hunky men. But they also found Couples and Club magazines, several Barely Legal DVDs, a documentary called Pimps Up, Ho’s Down, and a book called Poo-Chi, containing highly styled photos of armpits and knees posed to resemble female genitalia. Some wondered whether maybe, underneath the falsetto and arched eyebrows, Jackson was just another porn-perusing straight guy.

In court, his accuser stated that Jackson showed him Internet porn and a copy of Barely Legal. According to Dr. William Granzig, dean of clinical sexology at Maimonides University in Florida, straight porn is a common part of the pedophile arsenal. “If he showed the boys something graphically homosexual, they would be upset,” says Granzig. “If he shows them something straight, it’s a way of bringing up the subject of sex. ‘Looking at (a naked woman) is okay, so looking at my penis is okay.’” As for Jackson’s alleged remark to his sleeping son, “Prince, you’re missing out on pussy,” Granzig argues that it was another way to connect with adolescent boys. “It’s ‘I’m not like your parents. I’m not a stick-in-the-mud.’ There is a grooming process they use to get boys to go along with it.”

But if the allegations—that he molested his accuser and plied him and his brother with alcohol—are not true, then there is another interpretation: When Jackson is around a teenager, it brings out his own immature, but not necessarily illegal, behavior. A man who doesn’t see himself as a man might make jokes other men wouldn’t, all in the name of “kids will be kids.” And the sexual joking could be compensation for his lack of a mature sexual drive, be it straight, gay, or even bisexual.

Though many have commented on Jackson’s personal style as a sign of his seeming homosexuality, or even transgenderism, in Jackson’s case it is unclear whether he is seeking to transform his gender, his race, or both. When he looks in the mirror at his long, straight hair, pale skin, and arched eyebrows, he may perceive himself not as a woman but as an attractive, well-tailored white man. His makeup can be read as an extreme racial-identity crisis, or a statement of performative gothism, more akin to Marilyn Manson than to Joan Crawford.

And while his suits, medallions, and armbands seem eccentric, they read as an almost militaristic gesture, an attempt at butch that’s not too many degrees removed from the epaulets seen on the runways of Jean Paul Gaultier. The King of Pop, who named two of his children Prince and married the other King’s daughter, wants to dress like a commander-in-chief even as he is being dethroned.

But even a seeming freak should understand the way court works, and the most bizarre aspect of the trial has been Jackson’s total inability to tone down his eccentricity for the sake of building his case. There was something perverse about watching him enter court on the arm of his father, Joe Jackson, as though he were a loving son and a family man—when his glaring facial alterations are nothing if not a giant middle finger to the man who produced him.

For the past fifteen years, Jackson has lived as a hermetic iconoclast outside the mores of modern society. By treading the line between overgrown child and manipulative adult, he keeps us wondering who he is and what he did to this teenager, and the now-25-year-old who accused him in 1993. Like no other modern celebrity, Jackson continues to confound. As Dennis Miller put it when he recently delivered Jackson jokes on the Tonight Show, “He gets the kids over, and he gives them vodka and porn. You know, you get rid of the child-molestation thing, and this guy’s the really cool uncle I always wanted.”

Behind the Mask