Talk of the town

What We Talk About When We Talk About Celebrities

Social media and a social reckoning are changing the way celebrity gossip is constructed and consumed.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Celebrities
Britney Spears

What’s been happening with celebrities lately, you might wonder. Why, that’s easy to see. Tap open Instagram and in the past month alone, you’ll find Drew Barrymore in the midst of a kitchen renovation, Ryan Reynolds and Mariah Carey (complete with wind machine) lip-syncing to Fantasy, and Colin Jost announcing the arrival of the baby he made with Scarlett Johansson. 

Here’s Jennifer Lopez snuggling up to her new boyfriend (also her old boyfriend), and Angelina Jolie making her entry on the platform with a post forefronting the plight of displaced Afghans and gaining two million followers in three hours. 

This glut of #relatablecontent comes to us by way of the celebs themselves who, in the past decade, have availed themselves of social-media outlets to highlight their brands, projects and causes, offering us normies intimate and unfettered access to their (virtual) persons. 

Of course, like anything else on Instagram, Twitter or TikTok, their social-media presences have been gingerly composed and choreographed for public consumption — and that’s the whole point. Stars in the digital age get to better craft and own their media narratives, granting them the kind of power and control that would’ve been alien to their forebears.

“The stars haven’t been this powerful, with this much leverage, since the 1950s,” noted Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen in a 2019 article. 

Indeed, in that decade, as Hollywood’s star system — in which major studios groomed and promoted contracted performers for fame, exercising outsized sway over their lives and images — began falling apart, celebrities did gain some manner of control over their careers. 

However, as they broke free from one system, they remained at the mercy of another: the media. 

Engineering Their Public Image

Yes, the tabloids, paparazzi, gossip-mongers and entertainment news outlets are significant cogs in the celebrity ecosystem — those scrappy survivors of yesterday’s star system — and some celebs do know how to use the entertainment press to their advantage (see: Angelina Jolie). But in the cycle we’ve seen play out so often on the regular, whatever the media builds up, it’s also ready to tear down.

Exemplar: Britney Spears. As powerfully recounted in The New York Times’ 2021 documentary, Framing Britney Spears, the pop star has been both loved and reviled, celebrated and mocked in the media environment throughout her career. She’s been subjected to casually sexist and misogynist interviews (ahem, Barbara Walters); and relentlessly hounded by paparazzi eager to exploit the unraveling of her personal life in 2006 and 2007. “Thank you, Britney,” gushed gossip blogger Perez Hilton around that time. “You being bad is good for my business.”

Lost amid the frenzied headlines (“Unfitney!” “Britney’s Meltdown!”) and Hilton’s booming business was the plain fact that an individual was struggling personally and psychologically — and unfortunately, very publicly. As she tearfully put it to Dateline NBC in a 2006 interview, “You have to realise we’re people.” That realisation has only come in the past few months, as Spears’ restrictive 13-year-long conservatorship has come under question and scrutiny.

While stirred up by the documentary, it’s a concern, alongside her mistreatment by the press, that’s all the more resonant in a post-MeToo landscape that’s seen other celebrities, in between sordid revelations from the casting couch, emerge with similar traumas wrought by the media.

There’s Taylor Swift, in the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, revealing how tabloid stories accompanying her image with blaring headlines like “Pregnant at 18?” led to her developing an eating disorder. “It’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day,” she reflected. 

And there’s Mena Suvari, telling about her wish for her recently released memoir: to combat the image of the immaculate celebrity. “I lost myself for so long in comparison and this idea of perfection,” she said. “And we’re not that.”

The Unkind Medium

Show business has much to answer for here, but so do other players that keep the entire ecosystem well-oiled. The entertainment media, while serving celebrities, has also failed them as humans. As Jo Piazza, author of Celebrity Inc, said in the Slate magazine Decoder Ring podcast, concerning her work at weekly tabloid Us Weekly, “You are crafting the narrative to be exactly what you want that narrative to be.” 

And the narrative that any sensible gossip outlet would want is the one that captures the most eyeballs — however outrageous or outlandish the headline. In short, fellow consumers of celebrity news, we’re accountable too.

Lainey Lui has run the Lainey Gossip site and social-media platforms for the past 17 years, and she wrote in February that celebrity gossip is never “just a conversation about the subject of the gossip, but also a lens into who we are, collectively.” What, after all, does it say about an audience that responds to celebrity “trainwrecks” or “meltdowns” not with empathy but with schadenfreude and disregard? 

Lui’s post continues to detail how Framing Britney Spears underscores audiences’ complicity in Spears’ public fall in that “it exposes an entire culture…that not only tolerated the way she was eviscerated but actually normalised it.”

To be clear, Lui herself has not always been kind to Spears — callously calling her “chicken fried stupid” back in the day — but has since apologised and long committed to more sensitive reporting. Such self-reflection, though, remains rare among other gossip outlets. Props to Glamour for stepping up with a direct “We’re sorry, Britney.” Us Weekly did tag a June Instagram post #FreeBritney, too, (never mind its history of dragging Spears through tawdry headlines). Then again, no surprises here for a medium that’s gotten good at rewriting narratives.

But across the broader culture has been an awakening to how past media portrayals have demeaned public figures from Monica Lewinsky to Pamela Anderson — and all for the idle pleasure of a popcorn-gobbling crowd. And let’s not get it wrong: more often than not, such narratives are aimed at female celebrities, bearing as they do the double standards and biases of the society at large. 

Take it from Jennifer Aniston, the evergreen subject of tabloid speculation (Pregnant? Getting back with Brad Pitt? Is it Brad’s?), who called such retrogressive messaging “absurd and disturbing”. And though tabloid practices won’t change, as she recognised in a 2016 For the Record essay for Huffington Post, we as an audience can. 

“We get to decide how much we buy into what’s being served up,” she wrote, “and maybe some day the tabloids will be forced to see the world through a different, more humanised lens because consumers have just stopped buying the bullsh*t.”

In the meantime, there’s social media, which has enabled stars to command their own images and stories, filtered or #nofilter. Britney Spears, who never had such control in the early 2000s, is there too. Her social accounts chronicle her love for dance, her collection of wholesome memes, and ultimately, her personality, complete with effusive, emoji-heavy captions. 

Obviously, it remains a curated feed, but at least it’s Spears who’s doing the curating and who, finally, gets to explode someone else’s narrative. “Each person has their story and their take on other people’s stories!!!!” she tweeted in February.

“Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person’s life, it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens!!!” 

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