After spending most of the back end of 2017 talking about sustainable brands and ethical products on this blog (which I enjoy, don’t get me wrong) I knew I wanted to refocus in the new year to write about some more society and justice based topics too. It’s been going well so far for me, and it’s been nice to bring my cultural studies background back out for these discussions.
When I was thinking on all this back in December, I posted on Instagram asking what kind of things people may want me to write about, where someone asked for an article on problematic favourites. This was right in the midst of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, so I wasn’t sure if she meant in the context of abuse, or in general. However her clarification ‘what to do when you find out a fave has done something problematic or continues to be problematic’ basically applies to both, so I’m going to try my best to talk about this today. I don’t plan to find a concrete answer, but simply add some ideas to the conversation. This is definitely a long read, because I’ve just gone right back through my MA dissertation research to add some cultural theory into the mix, and in it I’ll talk about both celebrities and everyday people.
So, let’s start with celebrity culture.
Why do we have celebrities?
I think when we think about celebrities, there’s always an element of performance and curation involved. By all accounts most celebrities are normal people with talents that put them in front of the general public, but I would argue it has never been their job alone that makes them ‘famous’, it is the living out of their life and identity in the public eye. We can see this clearly with many voice and theatre actors, session musicians and people who work in more behind the scenes capacities in Hollywood. All of these individuals have an incredible range of skill and craft, but are able to maintain a less ‘celebrity’ like status due to a level of anonymity their roles afford them. To be a celebrity is more than to create work that is seen by people, it is also for the non-work side of your life to become part of public interest (regardless of what you would prefer). It moves beyond skill, and becomes your identity that people are invested in.
As far back as 1956 a sociologist named Erving Goffman talked about the concept of performing our own identities for audiences, in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life:
‘When an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilise his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey… the individuals initial projection commits him to what he is proposing to be and requires him to drop all pretences of being other things.’
Goffman argues that to be ourselves in front of other people inevitably takes some level of performance. He doesn’t say this is bad, but simply a natural thing that happens when we encounter others. As we attempt to guide the impression that the people we interact with have of us this affects our speech, manner, or appearance, meaning that how we ‘perform’ ourselves changes depending on who we’re with. At the same time the people we interact with are in the process of building a picture of us as they listen, like an audience member. When I read this for the first time I remember being a little taken aback, before ultimately admitting to myself that this was true. Who I am in a business meeting, with friends from my home town or on tour are all me, but a little different. My language changes a little, as do my mannerisms and behaviours. I don’t mean to do it, it just happens as I change to fit the situations around me. This is the idea of performing our identity: the core of who we are doesn’t change, but the external adapts to the settings we’re in, the audiences we have in front of us and impression we want to give off. We all do this, but with celebrities it becomes significantly amplified. Just like returning to Newcastle may allow me to talk with a stronger accent, to dress a little differently, to make different jokes, being ‘in the spotlight’ requires a certain type of performance of one’s self, which is maintained every time that person is in a public situation, but isn’t indicative of who they are as a fully three dimensional human.
Nearly 60 years later, in 2014 Paul John Eakin published a book called Fictions in Autobiography in which he looked at, you guessed it, autobiographies. Whilst his book focused mainly on the written autobiography, when I read it back in 2015 I found a lot of his thoughts could be applied to the idea of telling our stories on a more holistic level. Especially in the age of online news and social media, the performance of ourselves becomes a kind of collaged autobiography, made up not just of in-person interactions but also the social media we produce and (for celebrities) the media coverage and PR that surrounds us. This all works together to create a picture of a person; building an image piece by piece of who they are and what their life looks like. We’re all the main characters of our own stories, and I think both the faster pace of the internet and increased accessibility to people’s private lives through things like insta-stories and snapchat means that, as well as media coverage, celebrities are also constantly writing and performing their own stories for us to see. Eakin described it as ‘a ceaseless process of identity formation’. It doesn’t just tell us about someone’s past in terms of facts, it reveals more about them in the present, as we see what they choose to show and tell us.
‘autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an evolving content in an intricate process of self discovery and self creation.’
As much as celebrities are created by the media they can also create themselves, or at least the selves they want us to see. Just look at Taylor Swift, who worked tirelessly to reinvent herself and reclaim her narrative in 2017, taking back full control of who got to tell the story about who she was.
Essentially, celebrities are a mix of two things. Their talent and work, which puts them in front of the world, and their performed identity which we also see. It’s what makes us like them, watch their interviews, support their projects, and care about their personal life. It’s the stories they (and the media, and their PR people, and everyone else involved in the process) tell us about who they are. But knowing stories is not the same as actually knowing a person.
In all of this it’s also interesting to think about what being the audience to all this may mean. In his essay Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner roughly describes a public as a group that organises itself around some sort of common ground. If this commonality is an idea or a concept then that can be a good thing, driving forward conversation, growth and innovation (the ethical and sustainable living community is a prime example of this). If it’s a person however, that’s something completely different. We can stop seeing celebrities as real people altogether; instead they become this common object that we gather around to discuss, just look at the media circus around the Kardashian pregnancies. Celebrities become a refracted image, a body of symbols which brings us together, but often makes us forget they are just people.
‘Mental constructs: they provide people with the means to make meaning… Symbols are effective because they are imprecise. Though obviously not contentless, part of their meaning is subjective. They are, therefore, ideal media through which people can speak a ‘common’ language’
– (The Symbolic Construction of Community, Anthony Warner)
The ‘celebrity’ that is central to any debate, scrutiny or coverage doesn’t really exist as a real person in that space. They are, of course, real people in the real world, but they’re also normal, and we don’t know them. Their public persona can only ever really exist as a symbol, representing differing and subjective ideas for each person. We end up loving some and hating others, and we look up to these individuals because of what they represent to us. Whether that be great art, business savvy or simply the lives we think we would like to have.
‘When the Kardashian-Jenner camp issues life-changing news, it’s big for them obviously, but we thirst over it because it ends up convincing us that our lives have changed too.’ (source)
Why do we care about celebrities?
‘To see the stars—or, more specifically, to believe in them, taxonomically—is to endorse a notion that the people before us on our screens, far from us and yet so close, exist, as the author Jeanine Basinger puts it, “on some plane between ours and that of the gods.” ‘ (source)
We don’t know celebrities personally, and yet we can also feel like we know them intimately. How we relate to them doesn’t work the same way as our normal interpersonal relationships, these performed identities instead become blank canvases for us to project on to. While we may admire things about them it’s ultimately not about their personhood, but what they could mean to us specifically. They remain distant and yet close simultaneously, providing varying options for what they can grow to represent in our lives.
As far back as the 1930s Walter Benjamin talked about ideas of distance in his essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, talking about something he called the ‘aura’ of distance.
‘Namely, the desire of the contemporary masses to bring things closer spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction’
When Benjamin talks about distance he’s not just talking about space, but an innate link to the human experience. Society in the 1930s was only just recovering economically from the largest war it had ever seen, and people were far from recovering emotionally, it’s not surprising that Benjamin paints a portrait of a people scared to lose what they value, instead trying to draw things closer through mass production, so that things can’t be lost. These desires seem to come from the aftermath of trauma and a feeling of fear, as the yearning for authentic connection manifests itself in an attempt to make elusive things tangible and protectable. All these years later modern society is faster, more connected, more full of information and more filled with trauma than it has ever been. We are still looking for connection.
‘When we see a moving image our neanderthal minds are unable to differentiate that the emotional connection we share with that moving image is not reciprocated by that image’ (source)
While Benjamin was interested in how people were connecting to art, here it’s about how we connect to the artists. In an overwhelming deluge of information, it’s not surprising that the authenticity in the art we see would bleed into how we view those who make it, that we would feel a conceptual closeness to people that we would want to bring closer. They become an object of desire, we put them on pedestals because they can represent the authenticity we’re looking for. So we try and draw them closer, making their elusive lives more tangible to us as we feel involved in their lives, we care.
But, it’s still not real. As Benjamin describes
‘If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.’
To experience the aura of something is different to experiencing it from afar. Our experience of one on one interaction is different to our experience with someone’s social media accounts. We can experience, and connect with, a celebrities work, but we can’t experience their aura because we can’t engage with them on an interpersonal level, no matter how close we try to draw to them elsewhere. We care about celebrities because of what they grow to represent to us, but it’s different to knowing them as individuals.
What do we do when they turn out to be problematic?
Celebrities turning out to be problematic can come as a deep shock to us, especially because what they’ve grown to represent to us can feel deeply personal, despite the fact that we are usually incredibly far removed from who they actually are as people.
For me, a great example of this would be Kevin Spacey. When I was young I read the K-PAX trilogy, given to me by my dad at around 10 years old. Now I haven’t re-read the books in a long time so my memories are pretty fuzzy, but I remember that they meant a lot to me. They were the first things to get me interested in psychology, and I remember really connecting with the more fantastical elements of the stories. I’m a person that gets very heavily invested in fiction, so it wasn’t surprising that these books were important to me as a kid. I then saw the movie version of the first book, in which Kevin Spacey starred. Despite the mixed reviews, 11 year old me loved that movie, and I decided that Kevin Spacey was my favourite actor. A situation never came up when I thought about a favourite actor again so, with no reason to change my thoughts on this, this thought lay dormant in the back of my mind for over a decade. When the accusations came out against Spacey my knee jerk reaction was deep disappointment because ‘hey, my favourite actor turned out to be a crap person’, but then I had to check myself. Was Spacey actually my favourite actor? How many of his films did I know? Upon reflection the answer was actually no, and no more than any other actor. It’s like things your parents tell you that never surface until you’re an adult and you suddenly realise you’ve been lied to. Spacey being ‘my favourite’ was just a thought that had taken root in the back of my mind. In fact, it wasn’t about him at all, but as a child I had simply used him as a symbol to represent what actually mattered to me. To me he was the face of a story that I connected with, but it was actually the story that meant something to me, not the actor who happened to have the main role. I dug through my memories until I identified what had actually resonated with me, and I set aside the image of a person I had designated as the representative of that meaning for so long. Spacey didn’t matter, it was what the story said to me and why I connected with that.
I think a lot of the time, this is what we should apply to the art vs artist debate. If someone we love turns out to be problematic we have to ask ourselves exactly why we are disappointed. Are we actually invested in that person as an individual, or are we invested in what they represent to us? And can we find that representation elsewhere? If we can dig deep enough into what specific thing is connecting for us, then we can seek out other projects that explore those themes but are spearheaded by others who haven’t abused their power or status, and even people who are perhaps underrepresented right now. We can find alternative creatives that are telling the stories we long to hear, as long as we can understand why certain types of stories touch us.
Whenever I’m on tour, Madi and I tend to open our workshops with an exercise:
- Write down three of your favourite things from different genres. Normally when we’re teaching we say favourite movie, favourite song and favourite book/poem, but change this according to your tastes.
- Now write down three things these things have in common. It can be anything: themes, colour, language, protagonists… anything at all.
It’s an incredibly simple exercise, but people are always surprised by what they uncover. We often think of the things we love in a compartmentalised way, but when we really examine the things we’re drawn to we often find recurring ideas that we come back to again and again in different genres. Our tastes don’t sit in multiple vaccuums, and it’s really freeing to start looking at what we’re drawn to in a more holistic way. If we can identify what it is that really speaks to us, then we can stop blindly placing our trust in celebrities who become symbols of these things, and instead we can think critically to find work that speaks to us and support voices of integrity, inclusivity and intersectionality. It helps us move from our feelings of disappointment and loss, and instead divert our attention to the creatives who really deserve to be elevated, and who aren’t doing sh*tty things.
This then brings us to the question of separating art from the artist. How do we know what we can continue to watch, listen to or enjoy? Where do we draw the line?
I think this is an incredibly subjective area, which Rowan Ellis made a great video about last year:
As a general rule personally, if the individual is still alive today and their actions are particularly troubling, I choose not to engage with their work whenever the choice is presented to me. I’m not saying that people aren’t able to grow and change, every individual case is different. However I do believe their maintaining of a position of power and influence is a privilege, not a right, because of the symbolic nature of being a celebrity. The big example for me here is Chris Brown. Whilst I don’t know him personally I am concerned with the symbol that he becomes on a global level; that he engaged in domestic violence and has still continued on to have a lucrative career suggests that people can engage in these behaviours without consequences. I wouldn’t buy his music anyway, because it’s just not my thing, but I also try and turn it off if it pops up on the radio or a playlist. Especially when I’m in a larger group of people, I don’t know if someone else there has been a victim of domestic violence in the past, where his work may serve as an upsetting reminder of how difficult it is to see justice in those situations. I also don’t watch Woody Allen movies, as he continues to profit from popularity and so Hollywood continues to fund him. At the end of the day, the world isn’t starved of talented people, so I don’t think the quality of someone’s work is necessarily enough to justify them continuing to enjoy a position of influence. There is plenty of unrecognised and underrepresented talent that I could direct my attention toward instead, especially once I’m able to put aside investment in personas and look at what I stories actually care about seeing told.
Because of this I also take my responsibility seriously to show up for the art that’s created by minority voices. I buy tickets to movies like Lady Bird and Black Panther, and you bet I’ll be going to see A Wrinkle in Time this weekend. I watch Jane the Virgin, Brooklyn 99 and The Good Place enthusiastically. When the powers that be look at the ratings, I want to show up and show them that diverse stories do perform better across the board, that this is what people want. I think about the problematic artist and what they’ve made, I distill it down to what really speaks to me in their work, and then I make an effort to support other artists that are talking about the same themes, especially if they’re underrepresented. It’s not a full solution, because we also need to be addressing the things in society that enable people to feel like they can behave in these ways in the first place, but it’s definitely a start.
How do we relate this to everyday people being problematic?
This can again be deeply shocking. Sometimes we can have a great in person interaction with someone and then end up shocked by seeing something they do online (I remember a friend of a friend who I’d always thought seemed nice, then I found out he was a big old Trump fan), sometimes someone we love might say or do something that’s really problematic without realising why. It’s not a nice situation to be in, but the good thing is we can do something about it.
When it comes to problematic celebrities and art, the main ways we can make change is in what we choose to give our money to and the art we choose to support. With everyday people the big difference is that we can actually have in-person interactions with them, and we can use this as a way to try and create change.
Calling in vs calling out
Calling out is sometimes a good and useful reaction when someone does something particularly problematic. It can be especially useful in a public setting (when it is safe and appropriate to do so) if it will keep others safe and show that these behaviours won’t be tolerated, enable other onlookers to step in to de-escalate a situation, or you are sure there is no threat of violence. However this doesn’t have to be our only response when someone behaves in these ways, although it can be tempting if we feel particularly frustrated with their actions. Sometimes, this more direct approach can be misunderstood as aggression, which often leads people to double down on their original stance, or can lead to a violent response. Artist Maeril made a brilliant online comic about how to deal with public situations to shut down problematic behaviour without encouraging violence, it was made in regards to Islamaphobia but the techniques can be applied to a variety of situations. If we are dealing with someone we know, however, we can also practice something known as calling in.
Calling in is essentially described as a softer approach, such as reaching out, trying to educate and working to help people understand your point of view. This can work especially when people don’t realise they’re being problematic, which is very different to deliberately and repeatedly acting in hurtful ways and not apologising, or when trying to be a helpful ally.
‘A huge part of allyship is talking to other privileged people and getting them to be supportive of marginalised groups. It is exhausting for marginalised people to constantly call in people who have privilege over them, so our supporters should be doing that for us whenever they can. Marginalised people should not have to educate their oppressors… As a white person, I could do more to engage with other white people when their behaviour or attitude perpetuates racism. Of course, I can’t go around compassionately educating every willfully ignorant racist. But I can attempt to compassionately engage with those who, like me, are willing to learn more about oppression in order to better support people of colour.‘ (source)
If you’re not sure which response might be appropriate in a given situation, Everyday Feminism has a great guide on calling out vs in here.
Beyond that, the last thing I’ll say if you’re struggling with someone in your life behaving in a problematic way, is that it’s ok to remove yourself from situations that cause harm to you. I absolutely love what this blog post had to say on proper self care:
‘Self-care is also: addressing your own problematic behaviours and striving to be/do better; removing toxic (not just challenging) people/situations from your life; holding yourself accountable for what you do & what you say (apologising authentically when you cause harm, hurt others/yourself); doing your own self-work (not always expecting others to sort you out) so that you can be emotionally literate and able to understand yourself.’
You can try your best to call out, educate, and foster discussion with the people around you, but you are also allowed to remove people from your life who engage in toxic behaviour, cause harm, or hurt your emotional wellbeing. It’s ok to understand that you can’t change everyone, but you’ve done what you can and that’s amazing! Perhaps the small seed you’ve planted will grow some day, it doesn’t always mean you have to stick around to see it.
TLDR (a brief summary):
- Being a celebrity isn’t just about the work, but about being someone whose personal life is also cared about by the public. It’s about the stories that are told to us by social media, PR and general media.
- We care about celebrities because of what they can end up representing in our own lives, we don’t actually know them.
- But this is good! Once we realise what it is a certain celebrity represents to us, we can look for those ideas and themes in other projects that aren’t made by problematic people.
- We can vote with our dollar by showing up and funding art made my underrepresented minority voices, which shows Hollywood/the powers that be that we want to support diversity and inclusion.
- When it comes to real life people, we can choose to call them out or in, but it’s also ok to remove that person from your life if this is too much for you to take on.
I hope you found this interesting, well done for making it to the end, and thanks to Emily for requesting this topic!