“ur review was great, maybe if you had \\ gotten ur eyes off my tits you could’ve \\ watched the movie!”
Three lines, 19 words. Poetry, in arguably its finest 21st-century form: Instagram DM. Amandla Stenberg could’ve written Hamlet, but Shakespeare certainly could not have written this. Just a syllable or two short of a haiku, but with clear intention embedded within the distinct stanzas — the innocent opening; the shocking, abrupt twist in line two; the closing sentiment that kills me every time. As a film critic, maybe if she had in fact “watched the movie,” none of this would’ve happened. The real kicker is that she knew exactly how this would play out — she just didn’t know it would backfire quite so gloriously.
Said film critic is Lena Wilson, a writer for the highly esteemed New York Times, maybe you’ve heard of it? Well, prior to a month ago, you definitely had not heard of her. After a scathing review of A24’s comedy-horror flick “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” Wilson took to Twitter in a now deleted post to release this infamous private message from actress Amandla Stenberg, who stars in the film. Shock! Outrage! Inevitable controversy ensued! But let’s get some more context. On its own, Stenberg’s puzzling message doesn’t make much sense, reading like an out-of-the-blue, overly-offended response to a critic just trying to do their job — something that Wilson evidently capitalized on. If you didn’t read her pay-walled review, then you might be unaware of the specific line Stenberg had clearly taken issue with and was directly alluding to: the line in which Wilson called the film “a 95-minute advertisement for cleavage and Charli XCX’s latest single.” Not a good look, to say the least (and to say the most, Charli XCX’s single “Hot Girl” is a bop and she responded to the drama in about the best possible way).
Here’s where things start to get messy. Wilson tweeted that screenshot with the assumption that out of context, the internet would blindly sympathize with her. Wilson, who is gay, framed the DM as a homophobic, petty retaliation from a privileged actress unhappy with a less-than-stellar review. She acted as if the reason she posted a private message to an extremely public forum was that Stenberg had “more social power” than her, and that it was simply not okay for them to do something like this. The fault in Wilson’s strategy here is that, contrary to how the online public may try to appear, no one is an absolute empath, especially not when it comes to petty celebrity disputes and the lives of the elite. They may seem easily manipulated and often blindly misled, but Wilson had no substantial credibility or established camaraderie with the Twitter masses to inspire them to act on her behalf.
And so the internet swiftly condemned Wilson instead. Like any good Twitter drama, the incident led people to dig up a whole slew of unsavory evidence from the dredges of the internet, including this rather incriminating TikTok which pretty much speaks for itself. In it, Wilson offers viewers advice about what makes her a qualified arts writer, and before you ask, no, this is not satire, though I sincerely wish it was. I could rationalize this being made in rash defense of the heat she was getting online, but it’s from seven months ago and has absolutely nothing to do with the “Bodies Bodies Bodies” drama (which somehow makes it even worse). But it is a telling character portrait of who we’re dealing with here. The final nail in the coffin arrived when Wilson accredited her position at The New York Times to “I’m just talented, I guess,” conveniently leaving out the fact that her father is an editor there. Ah, nepotism, the cardinal artistic sin. So now we’ve gone from lesbian film critic receiving unsolicited homophobic DM from actress to nepo-baby draws unwarranted amounts of attention for a celeb interaction she probably should’ve laughed about with her friends instead of posting on Twitter.
It feels like a parable on cyber safety that anyone under the age of 25 should’ve received in elementary school. The stuff you post on the internet stays there forever. Like forever, forever. A fundamental rule of the web here, people. There is no true deletion of anything, and if it has even the slightest sliver of comedic value, people will never let you live it down. The internet simply never forgets. Ask any celebrity that participated in that “Imagine” video — I imagine it still haunts them to this day. I certainly hope it does.
To round the whole debacle out, let’s hear it from Stenberg’s TikTok account. To clear the air, Stenberg posted a video explaining that her intentions with the DM were primarily humorous (she could barely get through reciting it without laughing) and assumed that as both of them were gay, Wilson would find it funny as well. Misreadings of the cryptic spoken-word message aside, it’s evident that Stenberg was not upset about Wilson’s critique of the film, but that Wilson chose to reduce both the film and her review to a rather shallow objectification of the film’s cast. Whether or not it was a throwaway line, belittling the film as — let’s hear it once again folks — “a 95-minute advertisement for cleavage” says more about Wilson’s superficial analysis than the “A24’s over-sexualization and exploitation of its largely young female cast” angle she seemed to be taking. For reference, these are the outfits the characters wear for the near entirety of the movie. Stenberg, pictured on the left in the green tank top, is the only one wearing anything even mildly revealing, which makes Wilson’s commentary feel all the more targeted and Stenberg’s subsequent reaction all the more justified.
I’m not sure how much more meta this situation could get. Wilson spends much of her review repeatedly admonishing the film for its deeply self-absorbed characters representative of a shallow depiction of leftist internet culture, only to end up engaging within that same internet culture in an inane, self-serving, attention-seeking manner. Regardless of the sides taken, Wilson consciously tried to manipulate a tenuous online system that routinely thrives on conflict and erupts into all-out chaos over the most minor celebrity mishaps. When planting seeds of discord, all it takes is the simplest rumor, the smallest inkling of a doubt to spiral into total destruction, each reply and response acting like a never-ending game of telephone into that digital void of an echo chamber. “Mean Girls” forewarned us about it long before the power of the internet came to its full fruition, as did “Gossip Girl,” the long-reigning champ of ruining lives one gossipy little post at a time.
In all fairness, the audience reaction here was never going to be entirely nuanced, because that requires critical thinking, something that everyone is fairly capable of but that the internet loves to disregard in favor of the next new piece of gossip. Celebrity topics of popular online discourse maintain their relevance not by giving people all the facts and letting them come to their own well-thought-out, rational conclusions, but by feeding them snippets of shocking information that induce and actively encourage gut reactions. These responses are based on nothing but our own biases and the ever-changing tide of digital influence. Who was in the right matters little when the internet as a whole could have very easily sided either way.
What if Wilson’s review was from a less renowned publication or no one screenshotted and spread her tweet? Or if Stenberg was a little lesser-known, or had even the slightest amount of preexisting online stigma against her (think of the visceral reaction you get when hearing the names Jameela Jamil or Camila Cabello)? The details of either party’s criticisms or legitimate concerns become inconsequential as they get muddled by the disproportional scale and impact of otherwise extremely niche internet drama. Maybe people will think twice next time a private message from a celebrity gets leaked, or maybe they’ll just get a laugh out of Wilson’s cringe-worthy incriminating TikTok every once in a while. But when we allow arts criticism to become diluted by the dominant internet orthodoxy of the subject and attempt to employ the easily swayed masses to disregard substance in favor of something that aligns with whatever current relevant stance everyone latches onto, it’s rendered meaningless outside of the online context.
It’s hardly groundbreaking for me to say that we the audience, the users of Twitter and TikTok and the like, are constantly itching for a new celebrity to love or hate. Someone to dethrone on the basis of their most minor misdemeanors, assisted by the parasocial nature of the internet and the highly surveillant, documentative environment that’s become a hallmark of social media as we know it. Maybe it reminds us that celebrities are human, flawed like the rest of us, or it simply satiates a long held desire for there to be some sense of taxation, a price to pay for all that privilege and power. As the tagline of “Bodies Bodies Bodies” so fittingly puts it, “this is not a safe space.” It never has been, and I doubt it ever will be.
Time and time again, regardless of its validity or intention, arts criticism gets lost in a sea of scandals and rumors, manipulated by agendas far less focused on the artistic merit of a work or the talent of the artist than the potential for ruin. In this case, that internet gossip was hidden under the guise of pseudo-intellectual critiques of the film, A24 and even the situation at hand. Maybe this article itself is exemplary of that, but who am I to say? Subconsciously or not, Wilson played into that potential and engaged with an online system that pledges no loyalties and knows no bounds just for the chance to receive attention and brief internet acclaim. She got the notice of the internet all right, just probably not the kind anyone hopes for.
So how did it all turn out?
Wilson deleted all of her socials, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” briefly got a massive amount of attention it probably wouldn’t have otherwise and Charli XCX came out of the bloodbath unscathed and remains an unproblematic queen. Now go stream “Hot Girl,” everyone!
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.