Is Jacko Our Wilde Man?

Elaine Showalter is a cultural critic, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University and R. Stanton Avery research fellow at the Huntington Library. She is the author of "Sexual Anarchy" and, most recently, "Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and at Its Discontents."

Although Michael Jackson’s molestation trial is a form of mass entertainment, it is also a social drama. Lurid in the extreme, the trial is not, however, about a violent crime, and it lacks the emotional polarization of other recent sensational trials. There is little hatred for the alleged villain and scant pity for the alleged victim. Few commentators are eager to see Jackson severely punished or his accuser richly rewarded. General interest in the verdict is keen, but most Americans seem ambivalent about Jackson’s guilt or innocence.

But accusations of homosexual pedophilia have struck a deep chord of moral outrage. In this and other respects, Jackson’s trial has some significant parallels with that of Oscar Wilde in April and May 1895. Wilde too was a celebrity, as a writer and as a performer. His play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” had opened in the West End to rave reviews, and he had made a much-publicized lecture tour in the United States as an effeminate aesthete and an attention-seeking dandy. Like Jackson, Wilde was seemingly brought down by self-destructive acts. When the eccentric Marquis of Queensbury (known as the “mad Marquis”), outraged by Wilde’s romantic attentions and lavish gifts to his son, Bosie, accused Wilde of homosexual behavior, Wilde recklessly sued him for libel, swearing to his attorney that the accusations were “absolutely false and groundless.” Queensbury’s lawyers brought forth as witnesses young working-class men with whom Wilde had had sexual relations, and Wilde’s attorney persuaded him to drop the libel charge. Wilde immediately became subject to arrest and was charged with violating a British law criminalizing male homosexuality.

Instead of fleeing to Paris, as friends advised, Wilde took the stand and defended his relationship with Bosie as pure and innocent. The “love that dare not speak its name,” he declared, was sexless, “that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.... It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”

Some spectators in the Old Bailey courtroom applauded Wilde’s eloquence. But the sordid testimony of boy prostitutes who had blackmailed him, and of housekeepers who had changed the sheets in the hotels where they stayed, undermined his high platonic stance. Simply the fact that he had befriended street youths was considered evidence against him. As the prosecutor said in his summation, “He is a man of culture and literary taste, and his associates ought to have been his equals, not the illiterate boys whom you have heard in the witness box.”


Similarly, Jackson attracted the attention of the law when he told a British interviewer in a 2003 TV documentary that he had “slept with many children” in a bed and believed that “the most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone.” He too became caught up with an eccentric parent charging that her son had been molested. In the courtroom, the mother’s bizarre testimony, and her children’s often self-contradictory testimony, created doubt about the truth of molestation charges. But the fact that Jackson had a relationship with this family at all was grounds for suspicion in some circles. As journalist Maureen Orth speculated in Vanity Fair, Jackson “would probably never have spent more than a moment’s time with this poor, dysfunctional family if he hadn’t had an ulterior motive.”

There are profound differences between Wilde and Jackson as well. Wilde deliberately shocked, inverted and challenged popular morality. Jackson aims for a bland Disney-ish middle ground. In court, Jackson is always extravagantly costumed and androgynously made up, but, unlike Wilde, not a deliberate transgressor of gender roles. He doesn’t wear a dress like Kurt Cobain, or a sarong like David Bowie. Rather, his specially tailored three-piece suits, with their cravats and vaguely military armbands and medals, parody masculinity.

Whereas Wilde chose to speak out, however imprudently, in defense of homosexual love, and was harshly punished for it, Jackson has denied he is gay and overtly supports values of childhood, family, religion and fatherhood. Although he has tried to present himself as a target of racist envy and malice, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela (the ace of race cards) in an interview with that swiftest of spiritual ambulance-chasers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jackson’s race is as indeterminate and ambiguous as his sexuality. No Jacko Agonistes, no martyred spokesman for a minority, he has little grounds for moral support outside his personality.

Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years’ hard labor in Reading Gaol. His life was utterly destroyed. His wife divorced him, his sons took another name, he lost all his property, his plays were closed down. Upon release, he became a pariah and exile, and died penniless in a few years. As he wrote a friend, “All trials are trials for one’s life.”


Wilde was convicted of what the Victorians, with their gifts for euphemism, called “gross indecency.” Despite the specific charges against him, gross indecency also seems to be the underlying accusation in the Jackson trial.

Corcoran State Prison is no Reading Gaol. If convicted, Jackson could even wear makeup and watch TV. If acquitted, he could even exhibit himself to the curious and maintain his career. But whatever the verdict, this trial is a judgment of the decency -- or gross indecency -- of Michael Jackson’s life.