Originally published in Paste Magazine.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty
It’s undeniable that the media has a certain power that plays a huge role in a celebrity’s success. After all, that’s their primary method of reaching the masses. They say that all publicity is good publicity, and for a few untouchable celebs that tends to be true. For example, no amount of controversy or bad press will ever knock the Kardashians down. In fact, we could probably argue that one of that family’s greatest talents is their ability to twist and turn all press—good or bad—to their advantage. Some love ‘em, some hate ‘em, but we have to give them credit for staying relevant.
Not all celebrities are so lucky, though. Is it the people or the media, though, who ultimately determines a public entity’s fall from grace? It’s a chicken or the egg situation. Sometimes, the media coverage is what warps the public’s opinion of someone and other times, it seems as if the media’s coverage is tailored to appeal to public opinion. As consumers of what celebrity’s produce and also of the media, we should acknowledge how much pull we have over the entertainment industry as a whole.
Ladies in Showbiz
Take Taylor Swift as an example. We all know the story. Back in July 2016, Kim Kardashian-West took to Snapchat to stand up for husband Kanye West. West’s song, “Famous” from The Life of Pablo featured the line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” Swift quickly tried to set the record straight, claiming that she had never OK’d the lyric, despite claims that West cleared it with her before releasing it. When Kardashian-West released a series of Snapchat videos featuring West on the phone with Swift, the Taylor backlash was swift.
The press began speculating that her relationship with Tom Hiddleston was a ruse for more coverage, and public opinion became ruthless. People started attacking her for being a white feminist and having a victim complex. BuzzFeed published one of the most savage pieces on this topic, referencing her history of cultural appropriation and the infamous beginning of the Kanye/Taylor feud at the 2009 VMAs, stating:
It proved that Swift recognized [sic] the power her white womanhood affords her—presumed innocence and empathy—and used this to her advantage in repeated acts that she surely knew would damage West’s reputation and strengthen her own. Swift propagating this narrative of fragile white womanhood to villainise [sic] a black man is ‘ruthless’ at best, and at worst, dangerous.
By no means has Swift completely disappeared from the public eye. She still has her Swifties rooting for her, but America’s sweetheart certainly isn’t the cover story she’s been for the last almost-decade. Maybe as a whole, we just got burned out on the constant coverage of Swift, and the public grabbed on to the biggest controversy. Or maybe she just wanted to take a much-deserved break from the spotlight—and the narrative that she had never asked to be a part of, since 2009. When she decides to make a comeback though, though, will the press be on her side again?
Pop stars seem particularly vulnerable to this kind of treatment. One of the most notorious cases of the media turning against a star was in 2007 when Britney Spears shaved her head, attacked a paparazzi’s car and checked into rehab twice in one week. For weeks, every news outlet covered these events nonstop. I actually vividly remember seeing this story on multiple TVs in an airport after getting back from a family vacation in high school.
This happened 10 years ago and still follows Spears like a plague. It’s consistently brought up—even by fellow musicians like Katy Perry—as a joke, despite the fact that this very public cry for help has overshadowed the very real career success she’s had. Spears has sold over 100 million albums and won a variety of awards including a Grammy, multiple Video Music Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and has been an active philanthropist throughout her career. But the frequently referenced story of her as the starlet who smashed a paparazzi’s windshield with an umbrella is what we always remember.
While it’s easy to say, “Well, they chose a life in the spotlight,” as an excuse for dragging a celebrity’s career through the dirt, it’s unfair for us to try to act as if a celebrity’s life is up for grabs by the public because they choose to entertain us for a living.
In most cases, there’s a clear pattern of the media taking the side of the public, or the public being swayed by the media, especially when it comes to opinions about a prominent celebrity. One that the media and public seem to disagree on, though, is Girls-creator Lena Dunham.
When Girls premiered in 2012, it was lauded nonstop as modern, raw and feminist while Dunham’s writing was referred to as the voice of the millennial generation. As the series continued, though, glaring issues with these labels were made apparent, whether or not the show was particularly self-aware. People became frustrated with the fact that the show centered on a group of privileged white women and the more Dunham was featured in the public eye, the more people began to take issue with her as a person. This was especially made apparent when she released her memoir Not That Kind of Girl in 2014 and Breitbart published an expose in an attempt to discredit a chapter in which she recounts a sexual assault she experienced while attending Oberlin College.
Dunham is a jack-of-all-trades, with her TV show, books, newsletter, podcast, philanthropic work and even a publishing imprint at Random House. However, we can’t discount the fact that a huge part of her personal brand is the fact that she’s known as a “real woman.” She word vomits like someone without a publicist and has issued more public apologies for insensitive comments than anyone in recent memory. Some find this genuine and even somewhat charming, while others are just tired of hearing about her.
While there are dozens and dozens of thinkpieces swirling around the internet regarding Dunham’s various actions as problematic, the left-leaning mainstream media and critics still cover Dunham’s accomplishments in a positive light. The writers should probably abide by a journalist’s “don’t read the comments” rule though, since these sections will be filled with more hate than praise.
What about Men, Though?
It’s getting easier to realize that the public forgives male celebrities for their indiscretions much easier than it does women. Not to get political in a piece about pop culture, but sound bites of Donald Trump condoning “grabbing women by the pussy,” and mocking a disabled reporter didn’t cost him an election. The mainstream media has certainly not been kind to Trump, despite the fact that he is actually our president now, but a good chunk of the American public have had no issue forgiving or even justifying his laundry list of wrongdoings.
This was also exemplified in the 2016 Academy Awards. It took about a decade for him to get back into Hollywood’s good graces, but much to the dismay of many columnists and people with a long-term memory, Mel Gibson’s film Hacksaw Ridge cleaned up at the Oscars a couple of weeks ago. He’s no longer living in the shadow of his 2006 anti-Semitic remarks, and according to an interview on Variety’s “Playback” podcast, he’s relieved.
“I was loaded and angry and arrested,” he said. “I was recorded illegally by an unscrupulous police officer who was never prosecuted for that crime. And then it was made public by him for profit, and by members of—we’ll call it the press. So, not fair. I guess as who I am, I’m not allowed to have a nervous breakdown, ever.”
People were also upset that Casey Affleck took home the “Best Actor” award for his performance Manchester By the Sea despite allegations of sexual assault while filming his 2010 film I’m Not Here. These allegations weren’t nearly as widely covered as Gibson’s indiscretion, but were brought back to light when he began receiving critical acclaim for his role. Affleck seems to be “over” hearing anything about them as well, telling The Boston Globe that he’s prohibited from commenting on it, but adding:
“There’s really nothing I can do about it, other than live my life the way I know how to live it and to speak to what my own values are and how I try to live by them all the time.”
Of course, there are men who have been banished from the public eye for doing horrendous things, but we can’t forget the fact that it took justifying pedophilia to finally stop giving Milo Yiannopolous a platform.