Sam Rosenberg: Flubs & Fury: The online crucifixion of famous people

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 5:48pm

Let’s say a famous person — be it Beyoncé, Chrissy Teigen, Zach Galifianakis or Jason Derulo — made an ignorant comment on social media or in an interview that went viral. How would you react? Would you recognize that that person made a mistake? Or would you criticize and attack the person online, disregarding any possibility of giving the person a chance to apologize or clarify first?   

For most people, the latter seems like the more common response.

Because social media exists in a vacuum, there is no middle ground or room for when a person, particularly a celebrity or notable personality, receives vehement outrage for doing or saying something wrong. Online users have built idealistic expectations for how famous people and activists should present themselves without taking into consideration that famous people sometimes make mistakes and not everything they say should be taken at face value.

Even when celebrities make a statement or do something that isn’t inherently wrong or malicious, people will still react negatively if it’s even remotely problematic.

Take Emma Watson, for example. This past week, the “Beauty and the Beast” actress stirred some online controversy after posing semi-nude for a Vanity Fair photoshoot. Folks on Twitter, such as talkRADIO host Julia Hartley-Brewer, saw this as hypocritical to Watson’s proactive stance on feminism. In response, Watson defended herself in a press tour interview, remarking that she was stunned by misconceptions on her photoshoot and reiterating how feminism is “about freedom. It's about liberation. It's about equality. It's not — I really don't know what my tits have to do with it."

Apparently, that wasn’t enough for some people. Several Twitter users dug up a 2014 interview with Watson that revealed her own discomfort with Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” video as a positive expression of feminism, as well as her own distaste for posing nude. Again, Watson defended herself, tweeting a screenshot of that interview, expanding on the context of her words that had become diluted by devout Beyoncé fans.  

What’s incredible about this kind of attack against Watson is not just that she had to defend herself twice for expressing herself, but that people took her words from an article from three years ago to justify Watson’s so-called “white feminism.” It’s almost as if people online can’t give famous people like Watson a break and recognize that their views and beliefs can change over time.

In addition to Watson, “Americanah” author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie caught some flak on social media recently for comments she made in an interview with Channel 4 News. When asked about whether or not transgender women should be considered “women,” Adichie responded by saying that “trans women are trans women,” a statement that many, specifically the trans community on Twitter, deemed transphobic. “It’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman,” Adichie said further, “who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

After her comments went viral on Twitter, Adichie clarified her position in a lengthy Facebook post, reinforcing her support for the rights of trans people and explaining the societal privileges and differences between cis and trans women. Some trans women, including Marit Stafstrom, embraced Adichie’s clarification, but others nevertheless remained bitter.

In one particular criticism, trans activist Raquel Willis tweeted in response to the interview, stating: “Chimamanda being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn't work. We can speak for ourselves.” Granted, in this case, it’s important to call out Adichie for saying something that may not have intended to be harsh but nevertheless was. In fact, Willis’s thread, which explained at length about the significance of trans representation in mainstream society, was a great, nuanced teaching moment for Achidie.

But what is also important for online users is to recognize that we should be open-minded to the idea that someone, celebrity or not, can take responsibility for their actions and realize their mistakes. There are plenty of celebrities, such as Alec Baldwin, Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake, who have been guilty of saying something stupid and getting brutally ridiculed online before they could even apologize. Impact is always more important than intent, but we can’t expect everyone to know that. Social media has condensed information so immensely through sound-bite headlines that we’ve become so accustomed to accepting whatever is thrown at us, especially when it’s taken out of context.

There’s this presumption that famous artists and activists should conform to our own system of beliefs and values online. As a matter of fact, it is dangerous to presume that a famous person should simply be morally conscious 24/7; it suggests that we possess moral entitlement and authority over other people. If we don't take a grain to salt every time someone famous did or said something egregious, then there may be no celebrities left to trust.