I Hope 2020 Is The Year That Kills Celebrity Culture

My school has really been trying to connect with us during remote learning; one way they’ve been doing it is by asking more and more elaborate questions to register us every morning and over Google Meets three mornings a week to “catch up” (which is doing absolute wonders for my Zoom fatigue, considering we also have to go to Meets in lesson time). Two particular examples of questions asked are: “If you had to be stranded on a desert island, which two celebrities would you want to be stranded with?” and “Which famous person would you want to come to your house for dinner?”

It took me a good while to think of an answer for these questions, and I would have dodged them if they weren’t mandatory. This hardship wasn’t simply due to my anxiety around inadvertently coming out or sharing my taste in music with my peers who I’m not comfortable around, as you may have thought — it was also because I physically do not have an answer. Being stranded on a desert island with a celebrity is contingent on being a fan of one, and this is something that isn’t really applicable to me, at least not any more.

Now, I’m not trying to seem high and mighty or morally superior for not subscribing to the capitalist institution of celebrity, I’m just stating a fact. I no longer have the desire to engage with celebrities on social media, and the events of 2020 — the pandemic and the discussions of police brutality and protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in particular — have simply exacerbated the waning of this desire, which had existed prior to this year.

I’m also not talking about simply liking celebrities, since I do and/or did like certain famous people — although my respect for most of them has reduced due to their lacklustre monetary support and use of their platforms recently. I also am more inclined to like just celebrities’ work, like their music or art, rather than them as people, but separating art from the artist is a thorny debate I’m not getting into here because it’s not related to the topic. In this piece I will mostly be referring to aspects of stan culture like unhealthy devotion to celebrities, parasocial relationships with celebrities who don’t give a shit about you personally, and placing so-called “unproblematic” celebrities onto pedestals when everyone fucks up and makes mistakes but these people just haven’t done so publicly yet, rather than simply liking someone’s work. The end of celebrity culture wouldn’t mean the end of this art, either; people can still make art, but without being elevated so highly above others like you and me who aren’t “celebrities”.

Even though this goal seems lofty, I still have hope: hope that eventually enough people will, due to many celebrities’ misuse of their wealth and platforms surrounding the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, become disillusioned with the concept of celebrity; hope that we’ll stop putting celebrities onto pedestals to claim that they’re “unproblematic” and start treating them like the normal, ordinary people that they are; hope that people will let the concept fade into obscurity and stop dying on hills on Twitter for other people who don’t know they exist. And this year, for all its many, many faults, has at least renewed that hope for me.

“Open your purse!”

On December 28th, 2019, @adamrayokay on TikTok posted a video that would soon go viral of his character Rosa asking if you had a dollar so she could get a slushie. The line “open your purse” was a particular standout, and the video was posted at just the right time for that phrase to become a widely-used rebuttal to the useless platitudes celebrities would soon start to share on social media in lieu of any actual help.

This was first seen in many famous people’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic, which ranged from mildly annoying to incredibly tone deaf and harmful. Some examples of this include Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” cover, which was promptly derided by everyone on Twitter in the most united the site has been since its launch; Priyanka Chopra’s video of her clap for key workers, as if they can live off applause; Vanessa Hudgens’s words about “respecting” the virus and how many people’s deaths are “terrible, but like… inevitable?”; Evangeline Lilly’s dismissing of social distancing because she wants to retain her “freedom”; Pharrell Williams posting a GoFundMe link and asking his followers to donate when his net worth is $200 million; Arielle Charnas showing off her pandemic privilege without any thought of the consequences — and these are just the ones that I could remember off the top of my head.

Other than some overtly harmful messages posted by celebrities, you could argue that most of the celebrity content posted during the the beginning of the lockdown was annoying but harmless. I would disagree, though, as this content exemplifies how out of touch many celebrities have become with normal people because of their privilege and wealth, as well as how useless performative activism really is.

Key workers cannot live off applause. Clapping will not pay for their rent or groceries, it isn’t an adequate substitute for PPE and it will not provide the mental health support many doctors and nurses will need when this is all over. Yes, it is a lovely gesture, I won’t deny that, and if you feel like there’s nothing you can do it can be a way to feel for yourself that you’re appreciating the contributions of key workers to fighting the pandemic. However, if you are a celebrity with a net worth of multiple millions of dollars, you have more than enough means to redistribute some of your often obscenely high (in the case of billionaires like Jeff Bezos) amounts of wealth to help people who need it far more than you do.

A celebrity posting a video of themselves clapping, or a video of themselves singing, or a statement talking about the power of the human spirit and how we’ll get through these difficult times together or whatever other bullshit they can think of is just performative and isn’t actually helpful. When these people have the means to donate it is their moral obligation to do so. Monetary funds are in most cases going to be the most useful contributions you can make, and celebrities have plenty to spare.

These sentiments — that famous people on social media need to just shut up and, as Rosa put it so well, open their purses — have been echoed by others all over social media during the pandemic response. Previously such sentiments were shared in the global responses to the Australian wildfires, another event that took place in 2020 even though it feels like years ago, but the pandemic was when bored, self-isolated celebrities started taking to social media more and more. Go into the retweets with comments of any celebrity’s performative tweets and you’ll see many people telling them to open their purses and help people in a meaningful way (you could also argue that many of these celebrities would have donated privately, but in most of these cases the celebrities in question post most of their lives on their social media accounts so I doubt this would be any different; furthermore, the act of publicly donating a large sum would give them good press, so I’m sure their publicists would encourage it).

Another recent example is many famous people’s lack of mobilisation of their large platforms and swathes of followers to draw attention to issues surrounding the murder of George Floyd and of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although my peers on Twitter and Instagram have been vocal about what you can do to help, especially constructive things like signing petitions, donating and going to protests, many celebrities with far more influence than us have been silent. Not to overly single out Priyanka Chopra but on May 30th, in the middle of the protests, she posted a selfie to her Twitter account where she has 26 million followers, and has otherwise been silent about Black Lives Matter, the protests, or anything to do with this issue even though she is a UN Ambassador.

As well as radio silence, many celebrities’ responses have been lacklustre — like Chris Evans changing his profile picture to hide the fact that he’s supported the police in the past, or the sheer numbers of celebrities with multi-million dollar net worths matching donations of 50 dollars, or the uselessness of posting a black square in the Black Lives Matter hashtag as it obscures the actually important information in the tag (something which hordes of celebrities participated in yesterday instead of doing something useful that isn’t solely performative, including some who’s work I enjoy) — or downright harmful, like Marina Diamandis tweeting “You have to be mentally ill to be a cop” despite this comparing being mentally ill to being a bad person which isn’t inherently true, and the fact that mentally ill people, especially Black mentally ill people, are commonly victims of police brutality themselves, as well as Ellen’s latest fuck up which she later deleted. Some celebrities such as John Boyega, Lil Nas X, Kehlani and Halsey have used their platforms better than the examples I’ve mentioned but the overwhelming majority have not done enough.

Celebrities’ responses to the pandemic have also shown tone deafness and how out of touch many of them have become. Their posts about being bored while self-isolating in their million dollar mansions while US unemployment rate is at its highest since the Great Depression makes their inability to read the room painfully obvious and puts their obliviousness on full display; their rhetoric about how we’re “all in the same boat” and “this pandemic is the great equaliser” are fundamentally wrong because their wealth will make weathering this pandemic far easier for them than for key workers and unemployed and working class people. This has, in fact, already been shown by how many celebrities were able to get tested for coronavirus, some of whom were asymptomatic when they were tested, while many ordinary citizens weren’t able to do the same.

Once, these types of posts may have been seen as funny, maybe even endearing, and ultimately wholly harmless. Now, though, people aren’t just taking this shit. Despite the vast army of bootlickers on Twitter who seem desperate to defend rich people despite most of them being closer to being homeless after one bad month than a millionaire after one good one, enough people are realising the uselessness of most celebrity responses when push comes to shove and won’t put up with them any longer. And I think that realisation is going to stay with people, including myself, even after the pandemic ends. People will remember the ways celebrities acted, whether it was harmful or tone deaf or both, and will think twice about supporting the perpetrators.

Speaking of discontinuing support for a celebrity, that brings me nicely onto my next topic, a phrase you’re probably sick of hearing; I apologise from bringing it up here, but just hear me out. It’s time to discuss cancel culture.

“Cancel culture is toxic!”

Cancel culture is a term that is used frequently on Twitter and other social media sites, as well as finding its way into mainstream news; a Google search of “cancel culture” brings up articles from Vox, Time and the New York Times on the first page, and “online shaming” even has its own Wikipedia page. It’s become a ubiquitous element of online discourse, with an “*Insert celebrity* is over party” hashtag trending every other week (Doja Cat and Lana Del Rey being recent examples) and tweeting something like “Cancel culture is so toxic!” being a quick way to get a tweet to go viral.

What actually is cancel culture, though? According to Merriam-Webster:

“To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste.”

But what does that have to do with the demise of celebrity? Are we going to ‘cancel’ everyone until there are no celebrities left? Well, that’s one way to go about it, but this has more relevance to the topic of this piece than you might think. I’d argue instead that the recent prevalence of cancel culture online is a manifestation of people’s disillusionment with celebrity culture.

I’m going to start this piece by saying that I don’t believe cancel culture really exists. That Time article I linked above goes into more detail on this, as does this excellent piece by Haaniyah Angus, but my reasoning is that no celebrity has ever completely lost their career due to being “cancelled” by Twitter and the rest of the Internet. For example, people will still be streaming Doja and Lana’s music in six months, as although they may have lost some major public support, they will still have fans who continue to support their work — in fact, in Doja’s case, she had already been “cancelled” in 2018 when old tweets where she used the F slur resurfaced, but she continued to gain fans even after this.

If Doja had truly been “cancelled”, she would have lost all her relevancy, but this didn’t happen. Celebrities will always have die-hard fans who will support them even after they are “cancelled” by continuing to stream their music and watch their movies. This isn’t necessarily wrong, depending on the severity of what the person you like has done and whether or not they have apologised (and how good said apology actually was), as it’s healthy and constructive to be able to criticise the celebrities you are a fan of and not condone everything they do, but I digress (I’ll expand on this more later). The bottom line is that cancel culture doesn’t end careers like everyone hand-wrings about, but is something celebrities can weather and come out on the other side of just fine.

Where am I going with this? As I mentioned, cancel culture is, I believe, a manifestation of people’s disillusionment with celebrity culture, specifically one facet of it: the fact that celebrity worship relies on putting people onto pedestals above other average human beings and holding them up as people who can do no wrong.

This is shown by the emphasis on labelling certain celebrities as “unproblematic” to assure others that you don’t support someone who’s fucked up publicly enough to be “cancelled” in the eyes of other hyper-aware, terminally online types (again, this includes myself). The terms “problematic”, used to describe a celebrity who has either been “cancelled” or has been exposed for some grievance or another like having off-colour tweets from 2012 exposed, and “unproblematic”, used to describe someone who hasn’t been “cancelled” or publicly called out yet, have become commonplace in the Internet’s lexicon, along with “cancel culture”, without people realising how harmful this black and white thinking is.

A key word here is “publicly”. So called “unproblematic” people only stay that way because they have yet to be publicly called out for their misdeeds, but it is incredibly naive and unsustainable to assume that they’ve never done any wrong in their lives. By priding yourself on only being a fan of “unproblematic” celebrities you’re setting yourself up for eventual failure when these celebrities are either exposed for past wrongdoing or do something wrong publicly in the future.

Sometimes we forget, but celebrities are ultimately just people, like you or me, and people fuck up. People make mistakes, people make off-colour remarks and don’t apologise properly for them. I’m sure we’ve all done things we aren’t proud of; I’ll be the first to admit that, but I’ve done what I can to make amends and unlearn my previous toxic behaviours and opinions. No one’s perfect, that’s just a fact of life, and your favourite celebrity definitely isn’t.

By holding these celebrities to such high standards and putting them onto pedestals, the people online in fan communities who spend so much time bemoaning the toxicity of “cancel culture” are effectively creating it themselves. If people were normal about celebrities and didn’t make them out to be perfect angels just because they haven’t been exposed yet, when that exposure, those fuck ups, eventually come to light we could have much more constructive discussions about them. And yet we’re still here, stuck in this endless feedback loop, because people don’t ever learn from all these cancellations (you’d think we were discussing a shitty Tube line and not a cultural phenomenon, but here we are).

The continuous perpetuation of cancel culture, despite the thousands of thinkpieces decrying it as “gone too far” and “the Internet mob out of control”, is also a response to idolising celebrities and holding them up as paragons of humanity, something which people are getting sick of. Celebrity worship as a concept relies on this idolising, and since tearing down this whole concept seems daunting and almost impossible (especially with the attention economy favoured by celebrities’ intrinsic links with the ever-present system of capitalism), attempting to scale it back from within can seem preferable and an easier option. Trying to take down and deplatform celebrities because of their wrongdoing in an attempt to reduce the scale of the entire concept seems somewhat similar to the kind of fix-the-system-from-within ideas liberals have about voting, and although they can both remedy certain problems in the short term, fundamentally they are the equivalent of sticking a plaster on a bullet wound.

This unhealthy practise of putting celebrities on pedestals and starting wars on the Internet in defence of them is primarily carried out by people on stan Twitter, which is a not-so-sneaky segue into my next point.

“I’m new to stan Twitter…”

Any Gen Xs or Boomers who have somehow found their way here (hi, Dad) will probably have no idea what I’m talking about here, but I’m sure my fellow Gen Zers and younger Millennials will understand this concept. If you don’t, here’s a quick primer — the term “stan” denotes an obsessive fan, usually of a celebrity, a term which derived from Eminem’s music video for his song Stan. These fans often congregate on Twitter in a virtual space called stan Twitter, surprise surprise.

The problem with this sort of overzealous behaviour, explained very well in this piece, is that it prevents us from having mature discussions about celebrities; the stan Twitter culture of treating any vague criticism of your favourite celebrity and the object of your affection, even if the critic is a fan themself, as a personal attack reinforces and exacerbates this idolisation of celebrities that I’ve already mentioned is unhealthy. It’s important to pay attention to mistakes made by the people you stan rather than sweeping them under the rug just as much as it is to recognise flaws in the media you consume and to consume media critically. A quote from Haaniyah’s piece I linked earlier in the paragraph sums this up well:

“Though stan Twitter might have you thinking otherwise, critical consumption doesn’t negate enjoyment. I and many others are perfectly able to spot the problematic aspects of music, writing and film whilst still having fun with it. Critical thinking only makes our experience richer, and definitely doesn’t mean that we hate an artist for making mistakes.

This links back to what I mentioned previously regarding putting celebrities onto pedestals and regarding them as people who are somehow above us, which simply isn’t true: if you strip away the money and the fame, they’d just be an average person like you or me, because they all were once. Stan Twitter’s common behaviour of refusing to engage with critical conversation about celebrities they stan contributes to all the unhealthy aspects of celebrity culture and helps to normalise these aspects and keep them in the mainstream.

This may sound hypocritical given my history with fandom, but I’m not advocating all of stan Twitter to delete their accounts and stop posting. If a parasocial relationship with a celebrity you’ve never met is your way of coping with the soul-crushing reality of global capitalism then so be it, but what I am asking stans to do is just to think a little more critically. The fact that you can like a celebrity and/or piece of media and not condone every aspect of the media or the celebrity’s behaviour, especially the harmful, wrong or offensive aspects, is new knowledge to a lot of you, but taking it to heart can do you a world of good.

I’m also asking celebrity stan accounts to at least consider this fact: your fave doesn’t care about you — in all likelihood, they don’t even know you exist. Despite posts they might make about loving their fans, in real life they wouldn’t give you a second glance. This isn’t a criticism of you, it’s more just a statement of fact; another fact is that you deserve more than giving your labour away for free and fighting battles on behalf of these people who will never be as devoted to you as you are to them.

To conclude, although celebrity culture seems to be at a peak with the rise of stan Twitter, I still have hope that one beneficial outcome of all the chaos of 2020 is more and more celebrities, and eventually the concept in general, fade into irrelevancy. Many famous people have proven that they cannot respond to events like the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd as effectively as ordinary people on social media (my peers, many of whom are teenagers, on Twitter and Instagram have made far better use of their platforms, even when they don’t have as large a following as celebrities do), and their lukewarm responses have been characterised by a lack of monetary support, which celebrities are in the some of the best positions to provide, and performative gestures in lieu of real help.

The very core of celebrity culture revolves around idolisation of certain people over others, of raising people onto pedestals and proclaiming that they are without flaws despite the unhealthiness of this behaviour. However, I can feel more and more people feeling the need to cease the normalisation of this due to the criteria above, their realisation that these famous people don’t really care about us, and many people’s growing rejection of capitalism, which the concept of celebrity is inseparably entwined with. Many are growing dissatisfied with celebrity, and I have a good feeling that 2020 will finally be the year that the concept starts to go out of style for good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s