“When Did Celebrities Get So Bad At Taking Criticism?” a BuzzFeed headline asked in April. It’s a good question. Of course, there’s no scientific way to track the varying thickness of Hollywood’s collective skin. But it sure seems like a sense of entitlement is spring’s hottest accessory.
That’s a bad joke. This a trend that dates back longer than just 2019. It’s actually been growing for years. The BuzzFeed article offers some good proof of what it looks like currently: Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber complaining about mockery of their Coachella performance, Olivia Munn writing an essay in response to her outfit being critiqued on an outfit-critiquing blog, Lizzo’s all-caps complaint about a single bad review. And the list goes on.
Celebrities are vainglorious creatures, often with skin as thin as it is flawless. But I’m not sure they deserve all the blame on this one. To be clear, I think BuzzFeed’s premise is correct, I just think the entertainment news media deserves some credit for unduly boosting these fragile egos too.
This first really struck me when the media seemed to take Jane Fonda’s side in her feud with Megyn Kelly, which was precipitated by a question Kelly asked Fonda about her plastic surgery during a live interview. Despite Fonda’s protests, the inquiry was entirely relevant to the project she was on hand to discuss. That so many in the press sided with a celebrity over a journalist who had the audacity to ask an uncomfortable question of her subject was outright farcical.
Like politicians, celebrities are powerful. They may be less serious, and they may wear tinier sunglasses, but they shape our culture. Kelly wasn’t rescuing “democracy” from the precipice of darkness by asking about Fonda’s plastic surgery, but she was well within the boundaries of entertainment journalism, and Fonda’s complaints were petty. (“I think the issue was somebody who used to work at Fox News was asking it of her that particular day,” Kelly has since speculated.)
And yet? Headlines over the course of their feud included: “Jane Fonda Did Not Come to Play With Megyn Kelly,” “Jane Fonda has zero time for Megyn Kelly’s annoying question about her plastic surgery,” “Jane Fonda Takes the High Road on Megyn Kelly One Last Time,” and “Thanks a lot, Megyn Kelly.”
I think the saga reflected an impulse within entertainment news media to unthinkingly applaud vaguely woke conduct from celebrities. I think that impulse feeds celebrities’ misconceptions about what the media exists to do. I think that misconception is partially at fault for the problem BuzzFeed identified.
There’s a lot going on here. With social media, stars can now register immediate complaints with the click of a few buttons, which likely means we’re seeing more of that. Social media has also enabled celebrities to amass committed fan armies, who attack writers over critical coverage (we should have pretty thick skin too).
Perhaps most importantly, the new media explosion created a blogging ecosphere, which in turn created a new kind of critic: sometimes amateur, sometimes casual, sometimes creative, sometimes uninformed, sometimes traditional, sometimes despicably nasty. Either way, it gave celebs a nifty catchall pejorative for web-based critics—”bloggers.”
This brings us to what might be the most relevant cause of the problem. “A noble shift has happened in online media, perhaps in the last decade, wherein most people who write or edit journalism and criticism for a living have come to agree that being an asshole for no reason is generally a bad move,” the BuzzFeed article noted, later adding, “There’s a reason why the cruelest of the early aughts celebrity gossip blogs don’t really have any cultural cachet anymore, and why marginalized people who were at the heart of high-profile scandals in earlier decades are seeing pop culture begin to reconsider the way they were treated by the press.”
That shift is key. Is the habitually fawning coverage today rooted in an overreaction to those “cruelest of the early aughts celebrity gossip blogs?” Certainly there’s still negative coverage now, and there always will be. But has the pendulum swung too far back?
The overrepresentation of urban lefties who sympathize with celebrities’ politics is certainly behind the churn of you-go-girl coverage, like the cycle from which Fonda benefited. Still, it seems possible that celebrities are lashing out more and more because the culture in entertainment media is less critical than it used to be, conditioning them to expect a lot of positive coverage.
As in politics, journalists and their subjects should not be best friends. (Looking at you, Gayle King.) Artists should expect critics to be critical. Sure, there’s more amateur criticism in the Internet age, and it’s easier than ever for celebrities to take issue with bad coverage. But there’s plenty of room for the entertainment news media to be more critical of their subjects as well. Pausing before assigning rote, back-patting clickbait would be a good place to start.