Excusing Celebrity

I often find myself intrigued, yet deeply puzzled, by our collective cultural obsession with celebrity. We are constantly making new celebrities out of some news item of the week, and, of course, we avidly follow film stars, musicians, television actors, and so forth. We trace every moment and intimate detail of their lives, we force them to be under constant inspection and exposure.

I use “we” in the royal sense here, discussing our culture as a whole. I don’t actually follow celebrities that closely, but I am steeped in the culture and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. I may be a passive consumer, but I am still a consumer; I get pop culture references just like people who follow the gossip mags do.

We devour celebrities, really, in a way that I don’t think that previous societies did. We eat them up and use them up and then discard them when they no longer interest us because we have drained them. The road to fame is littered with the discarded bodies of people who have used up their 15 minutes, and people seem to be more or less ok with this. This, then, is the cost of celebrity.

We are, of course, especially fascinated by scandals, especially scandals which involve sexuality. The Roman Polanski case is perhaps the most recent high profile example; we want to know every lurid detail of celebrity rape accusations, philanderings, elopements, relationships, domestic violence. We, the public, in fact demand to know, driving tabloid journalists to great lengths to pick up the next big scoop, forcing people who should have an expectation to privacy out into the open.

Indeed, sometimes they come forward before being pressured because they know that they have no choice. If they do not step forward now and get “their side of the story” out, they will be hounded and persecuted and pilloried in the media. It’s a false choice; we act as though these people are fame-seeking attention-hounds, when really they are just trying to protect themselves with the only method they have left, which is getting in ahead of the pack of jackals who would like to destroy them.

Celebrity also, oddly, seems to give people a pass on heinous behaviour. We seem to expect and demand such behaviour of our celebrities, assuming that anyone who appears more moderately behaved is hiding big secrets, and leaping upon any lapse in perfection (like Michael Phelps and his bong). Celebrities behaving badly is the stock in trade.

But they can’t behave too badly. And this seems to come up especially frequently in the context of celebrity sex scandals. We like reading about affairs and mistresses and multiple wives, but we are uncomfortable when these scandals cross a line into rape and sexual abuse. Then it’s not fun to consume anymore. It crosses the line from behaving badly and being a topic of avid interest to being some ugly and unpleasant which we do not want to look at, and do not want to be reminded.

It’s all fun and games until someone does something truly bad, and then it’s not, anymore.

So, how does society respond to this? Perhaps by shunning celebrities who commit acts like rape? By making it clear that we will draw a line, and that we will not tolerate abuses, even though we find hijinks and minor naughty behaviour acceptable, interesting, and possibly even mandatory?

No, of course not. Because, even when they are bad, they are our celebrities. We feel invested in them. We have committed so much time to them. Indeed, we even own them, speaking and thinking about them in proprietary ways. We cannot have them biting the hand that feeds them, the adoring public which has sustained their fame, and this leaves only one option: Acting like it didn’t happen.

This, of course, requires us to shame and humiliate the victim. It’s not rape if the victim was drunk. It couldn’t possibly have been sexual assault, that woman is just playing this up for money and fame. She’s lying. There’s no way the accusations will hold up in court. The Public Court has judged, and it has found the victim wanting, and always will.

No matter how much evidence there is to back up the truth. No matter how obvious the reality is. To admit that a celebrity has done something truly terrible is to destroy the myth by which we live, that celebrities really are above us and they really are better and greater and more beautiful and more perfect than we. So much so that they do not need to abide by social rules; so much that we consume every aspect of their private lives without a thought as to how it feels to know that your mental illness, your addiction, every aspect of your existence is on display.

When it comes to things like rape accusations, celebrities are not just innocent until proven guilty, they are always innocent and always will be. To suggest that there is a reasonable basis for the accusation, to point to the results of criminal trials, is to destroy the myth. We cannot expose the ugly reality, so we must instead destroy it. By discrediting the accuser and shifting blame away from the accused (and the convicted), we can remain comfortable idolizing and closely following celebrities.

After all, who wants to admit that they will continue to consume art produced by a rapist? That they will buy records featuring a pedophile as the lead artist? That they will follow movie stars who beat their partners? To do these things suggests complacency and even complicity, and people are not comfortable with this, so they erase them to feel better about their own actions. To feel better, possibly, about the world.