A FRIEND OF mine once told me that he’d been a Liverpool fan in his youth, but since becoming a sports journalist he’d developed a neutral outlook on most clubs. I’ve often found myself wishing that this was true of other writers. I write about pop culture – films and music primarily – and over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly struck by the level of hatred hurled at figures in the public eye. People such as 22-year-old Twilight actress Kristen Stewart seem to attract witless jeers from all corners of the media, something which came to a head for me when I read countless tweets viciously rebuking her appearance (on crutches, no less) at the Oscars.
Public scrutiny of celebrities is hardly a new phenomenon, but it seems in recent years to have become much more ingrained and bitter, to the extent that one’s very personality becomes a target. Such pernicious behaviour illustrates, in stark terms, the toxic state of celebrity culture today and the way in which we interact with it.
A culture that polices people’s behaviours mercilessly
The modern-day backlash has its roots in celebrity scandals of yesteryear. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first paparazzi targets in Hollywood, scorned by her peers for her perceived thieving of Eddie Fisher from golden girl Debbie Reynolds. Similarly, Ingrid Bergman was shunned for sullying her purer-than-pure image by having an extra-marital affair and baby with Roberto Rossellini.
It would be easy to think that these controversies are representative of the social mores of the time, but in many ways they linger today. Consider the stigma that’s still attached to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s relationship, or even the suggestions that Beyoncé’s baby bump was artificial and that she’d used a surrogate to have her daughter. It is the highly public nature of this media scrutiny, more so than anything the stars have done, that’s problematic. We’ve developed a culture that polices people’s behaviours mercilessly. We may not be obliged to like or approve of someone’s actions, but we are so swift to condemn that we don’t seem to notice the effects of such negativity. Loud, vocal hatred of something is often more acceptable than liking it. As Fall Out Boy singer Patrick Stump recently put it, “We’re so busy broadcasting our latest cultural disdain that we scantly notice anything we enjoy […] We derive our own identities from the act of hating.”
Setting impossible standards
Much has been made, for instance, of the fact that Stewart “doesn’t smile” and often appears uncomfortable in public. Rooney Mara was also criticised for acting like her press appearances in support of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were “a chore.” It seems fair to expect actors promoting a film to appear courteous and professional, but it is patently unfair to condemn someone for not always being comfortable or confident enough to act perky in front of the assembled media hordes. There’s a drastic difference between shooting a film in a controlled environment and facing a baying mob of photographers at a public event. The latter situation is stressful and could easily knock someone’s composure, yet our reaction is more often than not to mock and deride.
You may be irritated by someone, dislike them as an actor or a singer or disapprove of something they’ve said or done. You’re entitled to feel that way. But are you entitled to viciously belittle someone because they don’t have a megawatt smile plastered to their face all the time, or because they’re nervous? Does this not feed a much more pervasive and perverse form of public scrutiny, one that places an impossible standard on people who are just as human as the rest of us?
It’s easy to overlook, especially due to their success, looks, or wealth, the fact that celebrities are people. We are essentially casting our negative eye upon ourselves. Public figures may have stylists to pick their outfits and publicists to mould their image, but the impossible standards of beauty and perfection to which they aspire stem from the endless harsh scrutiny we place upon them. To slip-up is to become tabloid fodder, something we as consumers contribute to every time we click on a sensationalised headline.
This may seem harmless, but we are feeding a toxic cycle. Every time we send a sneering tweet or comment, we are normalising harsh judgement and extreme reactions. It may not seem it, but there’s not a huge stretch between berating a 22-year-old actress for “not brushing her hair” and targeting someone you know from school on Facebook. To claim it is legitimate because celebrities put themselves in the public eye is an extension of the repugnant victim-blaming culture rampant in our society. Besides, I don’t think anyone asked to have a photographer hanging in a tree outside their house just because they appeared in a successful motion picture.
Criticism can be reasoned, informed, and constructive
For me, personally, I find this disillusioning. There’s nothing I love more than conversation, but it is increasingly difficult to have meaningful discourse in a culture where people are all but pre-disposed to hatred. Criticism is a necessary part of discussion, but only where it is reasoned, informed, and constructive. Idealistic as it sounds, I would rather focus on people’s artistry than their appearance, and not have to grimace at the thought of the comment section (“boiling seas of acid,” as Stephen Fry put it) before I’ve even finished reading the article. Mob mentality in public opinion may not be anything new, but it often feels as though we build people up just so we can tear them down.