Celebrity biopics are exploitative

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Celebrity biopics are exploitative


PHOTO: Jeremy Yap / Unsplash

By: Petra Chase, Arts & Culture Editor

Content warning: mentions of death and substance use.

You don’t need to look too far to notice the recent rise in biopics about dead celebrities. A biopic is a film that portrays the life of a real person, usually a famous person. From Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) to Elvis (2022), and Blonde (2022), films that dramatize the tragic lives and deaths of famous icons are appearing at the box office one after another. It makes sense why these films are so popular; there’s a sense of nostalgia and mysticism attached to cultural icons who died young in the public eye. Biopics offer a glimpse into the “darker” parts of their lives, satisfying our curiosity. But is there a way to dramatize someone’s tragedy without turning them into a spectacle? And is it right to tell someone else’s story when they’re not around anymore?

Entertainment media exploits celebrities by scrutinizing them relentlessly and portraying them in a patronizing light to the public. The media especially tends to target women, creating a narrative that blames them for being objectified. Britney Spears, a well-known example, endured constant harassment from paparazzi determined to provoke her mental state. Photos taken of her in private moments were broadcast to the world without her consent. Images of her shaving her head in defiance became a defining viral pop-culture moment in tabloids — one she never consented to share publicly. 

When I heard about the planned Amy Winehouse biopic, Back to Black, I was livid. Similar to Spears, Winehouse was aggressively bullied by the press throughout her career. She struggled with addiction and substance use throughout her life. As writer Bailey Agbai pointed out, the media used this to their advantage by deliberately publicizing “unflattering pictures and sensationalized stories” of Winehouse to tarnish her image through a misogynistic lens. Making a biopic about her life would mean that her tragedies, which were captured without her consent, will be broadcast to a large audience once again.

There’s a fine line between portraying someone’s life on film for educational purposes and the sensationalization of their story for the sole purpose of entertainment. Biopics tend to cross that line. Blonde’s depiction of Marilyn Monroe was criticized for fetishizing her and reducing her experiences to the trauma she endured. Whoopi Goldberg is setting an example by legally preventing a biopic of her life from ever happening. I wonder if Winehouse or Monroe would’ve done the same if they were given the chance. 

No one should tell someone else’s life story when their motive involves box office returns and film awards. Consent is crucial in this process. For example, the 1997 Selena biopic was released two years after the death of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla Pérez, and was produced in “close collaboration” with her family. The film genuinely immortalized her legacy in a way that few biopics have managed to achieve. 

When looking at how celebrities have no control over their own representation in the media while they’re alive, it isn’t a far stretch to say that there’s little difference when they’re no longer here. Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at 27 years old. While we can’t say the media is to blame for her death, the way that she was constantly treated like a public spectacle to gawk at undoubtedly contributed to her difficult life. 

Others might argue that biopics have the potential to re-tell someone’s story in a more positive fashion than was portrayed during that person’s life. This is what Back to Black is claiming to set out to do. But even though the director claims to be determined to portray “what Amy saw,” I think there comes a point when a celebrity’s story should rest in peace with them. Winehouse made it clear she didn’t want to be in the public eye. “If I could give it all back just to walk down the street with no hassle, I would,” she said in one of her final conversations. Her legacy lives in her music; her words and her voice carries her truth. Maybe it’s time to take a step back from biopics. We need to respect the lives and deaths of influential people. 


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