Why Do We Expect Famous People To Be Nice?

Hello, everyone! There’s been a fair amount of famous people drama in the news lately, from the revelation that Twitter darling Chrissy Teigen had bullied teenage Courtney Stodden to the point of considering suicide, to the news that billionaire power couple Bill and Melinda Gates were divorcing, and Bill Gates was something of a serial cheater. Every day there is new drama about celebrities in the news and on Twitter where the general public discovers the shocking fact that famous rich people are just as mean, petty, and messy as the average human. For some reason, however, these “revelations” become national news, inspiring hate campaigns, cancellations, and the inevitable end of whatever lucrative brand deal the celebrity was in the midst of inking. While I love celebrity gossip as much as the next person, I find it difficult to continue to be “shocked” by the idea that famous people can be mean. Everyone is mean, and just having 20 million dollars doesn’t immediately transform celebrities from petty humans into perfect angels. So why do we expect them to be nice?

Kermit Mean GIF

Hollywood has always been a ruthless place. Since the beginning of movie-making, studios have controlled the public image of stars through ironclad contracts and morality clauses that would threaten stars with blacklisting if they didn’t embody the image that the studios wanted. Studios used the “star system” to create bankable movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Rock Hudson, and sold their images to the public through planted stories in fan magazines. Even though these images rarely matched the stars’ true personalities (heartthrob Rock Hudson was gay, Marilyn Monroe was no dumb blonde), these images were what sold to the public, and soon these images eclipsed the stars themselves.

The problem, of course, was that the “star system” had to kill the person to create the celebrity. Rock Hudson had to hide his sexuality to gain fame, Marilyn Monroe’s identity was subsumed by her bombshell appearance, and other female stars like Olivia de Havilland and Elizabeth Taylor were typecast into roles they hated because of their star system image. These fabricated personalities were so convincing that when the real lives of these celebrities peeked through the curtain, the public was shocked. How could the bubbly blonde Marilyn Monroe have overdosed on barbiturates? How could Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson have AIDS?

While the star system eventually faded away, and actors gained enough autonomy to choose their own roles and create their own public images, the separation between public star and private person has continued into the present, with the general public buying a curated version of a celebrity that is often different from who they are in real life.

Hollywood does an excellent job of “selling” stars to the public. We grow attached to the characters they play in movies, or fall in love with the songs on their album, or take a shine to their antics on reality TV shows, and then we read flattering puff pieces about them in gossip magazines with such titles as “Orlando Bloom Enjoys a Stroll With Katy Perry” and “John Mulaney and Olivia Munn Step Out For Sweet Lunch Date In L.A.” An article on Slate explains how the type of celebrity gossip we get today stems from the fan magazines of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when they sold us ” on our early notions of what a celebrity should look like—just like us but better, glamorous yet surprisingly humble, coy on her love life but eager to share tips for weight loss and smooth skin.” The same notions hold true today. While magazines like People will be the first to feature some salacious gossip about a star in disgrace, the majority of the magazine is made up of puff pieces that lionize celebrities, celebrating them for their beauty, style, and wealth, all while sprinkling in humanizing tidbits to make them seem “relatable.” It’s a machine to sell magazines, but it’s also an amazingly successful way to convince the general public that celebrities are better-than-average people who deserve to be idolized. In reality, movie stars are just beautiful people with a knack for pretense, but the star system, combined with deferential gossip magazines, have created a culture that teaches us to see celebrities as close to godlike.

Twitter and Instagram have made it even easier for the public to gain access to stars’ so-called “authentic” selves. With a reply from a star now just a DM away, fans have become obsessive, believing that the daily glimpses that celebrities share on social media are real-life representations of that person’s life. While there have always been crazy fans (John Hinckley Jr. comes to mind), it’s now become socially accessible to obsess over a celebrity in the form of “stanning,” where fans compulsively track their favorite celebrity’s social media, fight with people who don’t share the same obsessive appreciation for that celebrity, and take every mistake the celebrity makes as a catastrophic personal slight. Stanning has given celebrities unprecedented power, but it has also made them a slave to the whims of their fans. Like a modern twist on the “star system,” celebrities with large enough fandoms have become imprisoned by the moral ideals of their fans, often being routinely “cancelled” because they voice opinions that their fans don’t approve of.

A certain amount of scrutiny comes with the territory of being a celebrity, but obsessive stanning, combined with the glorification of celebrities in tabloids, has made it impossible for famous people to be seen as human. Their mistakes are magnified into catastrophes, and their petty cruelties, off-hand insults, and brain farts become fodder for instant cancellation. The average human being has plenty of bad moments, but celebrities are held to such high standards that they aren’t allowed to indulge in the same baseness that non-famous people take for granted.

This isn’t a post meant to excuse celebrity cruelty, but it is a post trying to draw some awareness to the crazy double-standard we place on celebrity behavior. Take the Chrissy Teigen/Courtney Stodden bullying incident. At the time that Courtney Stodden was in the tabloids for marrying a man 30 years their senior, every tabloid and news source was lambasting them. They were a universal laughingstock, and while reflection, and an evolution of social mores, has shown that such criticisms of Stodden were unwarranted, misogynistic, and just plain cruel, it would have been considered stranger to support Stodden than to join in on the mockery. While Chrissy Teigen’s tweets and DMs to Stodden were petty and mean, they are pretty standard examples of what we consider to be acceptable discourse on Twitter. There are millions of tweets that are just as mean or meaner than Teigen’s, and no one is cancelling Joe Schmo because he said that Chloe Moretz looks like a bleached anus. In fact, as evident in Jimmy Kimmel’s once beloved segment “Mean Tweets,” our culture glorifies cyber-bullying, but only if it’s a non-celebrity who’s doing the bullying. We will laugh at celebrity cyber-bullying and considering it acceptable humor because it’s “punching up,” but castigate any celebrity who does the same back.

There’s also a strange expectation for celebrities to be polite and accommodating of fans in public. Entire Reddit threads are devoted to questions like “Who is the rudest celebrity you’ve ever met?” and “What celebrities are complete assholes in public?” As someone who has worked in food service, I can say that when talking to strangers, most people are unfriendly, if not downright rude, and no one has a problem with it. But when a celebrity doesn’t treat a random fan like their best friend, it’s considered the height of rudeness. While there are some celebrities who are infamous for being unreasonably mean or engaging in diva-like behavior, I find it strange that we expect celebrities to be constantly friendly. Celebrities lose a lot of their privacy when they become famous, but they’re still entitled to the same private space as everyone else. It would be considered rude to accost a non-famous person in the street and harass them for attention, but when random people do the same to the celebrity, the celebrity is considered rude for not accommodating that harassment.

The point is that celebrities are humans. They’re richer and prettier than the average human, but they’re humans nonetheless, and it doesn’t make sense to expect them to exhibit Jesus-like graciousness, tact, and emotional intelligence at all times. Celebrities and fans alike are trapped in this vicious cycle where we glorify celebrities like gods, then tear them down when they make even the smallest mistakes. As a society, we should definitely be trying to encourage kindness and empathy for all, but how can we cancel celebrities for being “mean” when our constant scrutinization of their actions is just as cruel? As the Bible says, let the rabid Twitter stan who is without sin throw the first stone.

Mean Schitts Creek GIF by CBC

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