By Julie Abelson
If you open any social media app on your phone, you’ll see celebrity news sources flooding your feed with the latest gossip and people’s opinions. Whether it’s fans “unstanning” their favorite celebrities for doing something they disagree with or people choosing sides in the most recent breakup, it is clear that these figures have a substantial influence on our lives. The celebrity culture we have created has spun out of control. We are past seeing celebrities as people to look up to — we have turned them into commodities. They have gone from being treated as individuals to brands that we feel entitled to endlessly question, criticize and “cancel” the moment we are unsatisfied with them. Unfortunately, we have become what we fear the most: incredibly toxic.
Much like our favorite products, we look to celebrities for our entertainment and comfort, which has become increasingly evident during this past year in quarantine. Looking for an escape from the stress of a pandemic and political unrest, we turned to our favorite celebrities to release new content and increase their social media presence. While it is wonderful to use this content as a destressor, it becomes a problem when the desire for it becomes an expectation. Because celebrities have the privilege that shields them from the economic and many political issues of 2020, it is easy to forget they are also struggling through a pandemic and tense political climate. We expect them to perform their jobs to compensate for our troubles instead of treating them like people who have to make adjustments in their lives while our country crumbles.
A celebrity’s job is to create new content in their respective art forms, not to post on social media for our satisfaction. While it is imperative that these celebrities use their platforms to promote positive societal ideas, we should not rely on their media presence to feel fulfilled. We often applaud our friends when they decide to stay off social media, but then we turn around and expect celebrities to post consistently and retweet or reply to our comments.
This is the very essence of celebrity culture. According to Encyclopedia.com, celebrity culture is “a symbiotic business relationship from which performers obtain wealth, honors, and social power in exchange for selling a sense of intimacy to audiences.” Celebrities transform their fame to become product brands, functioning as a form of entertainment.
Celebrities give us glimpses into their personal lives through posting house tours, telling us who their latest significant other is or revealing other intimate details about themselves through their work (e.g., their music) and social media. They are constantly feeding us information about themselves, which is not inherently harmful — it allows for a personal connection between celebrities and their followers. Yes, it is a little strange that we all know their dating histories and the struggles they have faced as if they were our friends, but if that is what they want to share with the world, then that is their decision. However, it becomes a problem when people are upset that celebrities will not release personal information.
When Ariana Grande announced that she would replace the song “reMeMber” with “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” on her album Thank U, Next because it was too personal, fans were quick to express their discontent. It is one thing to be a little disappointed because they’re curious, but to be genuinely upset that a stranger will not share something personal is odd.
As for other details of celebrities’ personal lives, when we feel that what they do give us is not enough, we pry into their lives, digging up any information we can in order to put the pieces together ourselves. From what we have put together, we make assumptions and draw conclusions. If someone posts on social media asking about details of a celebrity, fans fill the comments with answers, speaking as if they know them.
Much like the products we consume, we do not leave space for celebrities to “malfunction”. When the virtual Jingle-Ball aired, Harry Styles’ fans ran to TikTok to post videos of it and commented that they were concerned because he looked exhausted. They quickly jumped to conclusions, assuming something in his personal life upset him, and created theories by piecing together information to explain his tired presence. While his hours might differ from the typical 9–5 job, his career is demanding, which could explain his fatigue — he is a person, after all. If we judged ourselves and the people in our lives for how we look in school or work at that standard, we would all think something tragic happened to us. If I were a celebrity and looked the way I do for an 8 a.m. class, people would be rushing to the comments, sending me their thoughts and prayers.
We say that we want celebrities to act like normal people, yet we have an unconscious expectation for them to display a happy facade at all times. When a celebrity appears to be anything other than positive, we are quick to worry. While it might seem like a caring gesture towards our celebrity crushes and idols, it actually is quite damaging because we do not give them room to feel other emotions. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect them to serve us as our emotional support without being able to show basic feelings like fatigue.
We might think that we know a lot about our favorite celebrities, especially if they are consistently open with the public. However, we do not know as much as we think we do. We see what they show us, but we often do not get insight into their life behind-the-scenes. Social media platforms allow us to share the best moments of our life while hiding our not-so-great ones, so although you may follow someone online, you only see the tip of the iceberg of their lives. Just like the regular people in our lives, we cannot get to know celebrities by looking at their social media. They use their accounts as a way to brand themselves, and, like any other brand, people are quick to “cancel” them if they are not satisfied with what they do or say.
Cancel culture is a fairly recent, incredibly toxic phenomenon. It is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or political circles — either on social media, in the real world or both. When it comes to celebrities, we have a tendency to boycott them as we do with companies for “messing up”. This is typically not how we treat the people in our lives — if we did, we would all have been canceled at least a dozen times. It is important to avoid idolizing celebrities and excusing their unacceptable behavior. At the same time, however, there is a fine line between holding someone accountable and canceling them.
When Billie Elish posted a pencil drawing of boobs, she quickly lost 100,000 followers. Lizzo received criticism when doing a juice cleanse for her health (Bell covered this, read the article here). Most recently, Joshua Basset faced backlash after his alleged ex-girlfriend and co-star Olivia Rodrigo released a song describing how a man left her for another woman. These are all things regular people do, and celebrities should not be canceled or shamed for them.
Of course, we must hold celebrities accountable to some degree. After Lana Del Rey wore a mesh face mask during a public event in L.A., fans quickly criticized her behavior as the COVID-rate was — and still is — dangerously high, especially in L.A. In this case, it is crucial to call attention to her ignorance of CDC guidelines, especially since she has been adamant about encouraging her following to be smart and stay home.
The harmful effects of cancel culture can have impacts on our lives as well. If we continue punishing celebrities for their mistakes, we will do the same with people in our lives and avoid discussing important issues, which is not a productive solution. It is important to hold people accountable if we want to see change, but we must also have empathy for others to solve issues and allow society to progress.
In the end, the culture and branding of celebrities as if they were a marketable product is extremely damaging to and for our society. Apart from the negative effects that celebrity commodification has on the celebrities themselves, we too are harmed. We are no longer simply interested in their lives — we have become obsessed with them.
As any brand or product, celebrity culture is dependent on supply and demand. One of the reasons it thrives is because we feed into it. Who cares if Harry Styles has a new girlfriend or if Lizzo did a juice cleanse last week? Do we really need to see paparazzi pictures from Timothee Chalemet’s latest beach vacation? We need to re-evaluate how we view celebrities in order to put an end to their commodification and the resulting effects on our lives.
Julie Abelson (she/her) is a Staff Writer for Bell Magazine. She is a freshman at UW–Madison majoring in Psychology and Social Work with certificates in Criminal Justice and Public Policy. In her free time, she loves reading, running and going out with friends.