From Lizzo to Kangana Ranaut: Celebrities are not infallible — or our friends

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From Lizzo to Kangana Ranaut: Celebrities are not infallible — or our friends

Every once in a while, we find out that a celebrity is a “bad” person. J K Rowling is a “transphobe”. Ellen DeGeneres built her career on celebrating joy while employees working on her show faced harassment. YouTube queen Colleen Ballinger aka Miranda Sings behaved inappropriately with multiple minor fans. “Wife guy” Ned Fulmer cheated on his wife, and football star Neymar cheated on his pregnant partner. Closer home, outspoken feminist and industry underdog Kangana Ranaut turned out to be an extremist right-winger who repeatedly engages in what many see as speech. Sometimes these transgressions are moral flaws, and sometimes they are heinous, criminal actions, but the first wave of response is almost always the same: “I never expected that of THEM!”

The latest in this long list of celebrities who have behaved at odds with their positive public persona is pop star Lizzo. This past week, a lawsuit against Lizzo was filed by three of her former dancers citing a “hostile” workspace where they faced fat shaming and sexual harassment. Lizzo has denied all allegations. I have personally enjoyed Lizzo’s music, and it is radical to see a plus-size Black woman at the top of her industry, speaking out loudly about body positivity, female empowerment, and inclusivity. That is why, of course, these allegations have hit her fan base particularly hard, many of whom are young women who looked up to Lizzo as their idol, almost their friend.

It’s interesting to think about how a celebrity can feel so close to us. The term “parasocial relationship” first emerged in the 1950s as televisions became popular, allowing viewers to imagine bonds between themselves and the actors they watched — in their own homes. Today, parasociality is easier than ever – with social media, celebrities have never been more accessible, and now occupy the same screens that our friends and family do. Celebrities interact with fans and fan club accounts, commenting on posts, doing live sessions, and more. We know their skincare routine, we know what the inside of their house looks like, and in fact, we recently found out that the child of two famous Bollywood actors does not own any designer clothing. It is easy, in this set-up, for us to feel like we “know” celebrities, to almost cultivate a relationship in our mind with them where we think “they’re just like us” and “they’re so cool” and “if we met I’m sure we would be friends!”

But I will be blunt — while parasocial relationships on behalf of audiences can be subconscious, they are incredibly profitable for celebrities who want a fan following that feels close to them, will pay to see them, and buys their merchandise to support them. And so celebrities have PR teams, stylists, managers, lawyers, promoters, and personal branding agencies — dozens of people who are paid to ensure that only the celebrity’s best self is seen by the public. We see their generous side through publicist-planted articles about their charity donations; we see their funny side through sassy tweets written by a social media team; and we see their relatable side through “candid” blurry images that someone is paid to take, edit, filter, and post. All this, while their management quashes leaks at the speed of light and lawyers are paid millions to ensure their name doesn’t crop up in disreputable contexts.

This is why parasocial relationships, by their very nature, inevitably lead to disappointment. They are based on the admiration and sympathy that a celebrity’s personality elicits in us, but we ignore the fact that this “personality” is a calculated business choice and usually an elaborate construction. Somewhere along the way, we allowed celebrities to become as much a part of us as our real-life bonds. In the same way that we say “I am the child of X and Y” and “I am an Indian”, and expect that to convey something about us, we also proclaim “I am a Swiftie” or “I am a Salmaniac”. Fandom culture has shifted from people being fans of works of art to being fans of the artist. Naturally, then, if we find out that the artist is a bad person, there is discomfort in negotiating the impact they had on us with their misdeeds.

But we do injustice to both ourselves and celebrities if we pedestalize them as infallible. They’re just as human as us — and just as capable of hypocrisy, lying, and wrongdoing. That #goals influencer couple can divorce, the footballer I like can commit tax fraud, and my favourite stand-up comedian can be nothing but a pretentious douche. I suggest that it may be time to work on our own critical thinking and look at celebrities as simply people we do not know, who are doing their jobs. Separating our idea of them from who they actually are is complex, but it ultimately frees us from a cycle of mourning every time they are revealed to be a terrible person. It’s okay to be sad when someone you thought was nice does a bad thing — that’s part of the human condition and points to the softer part in all of us that inherently wants people to be decent and honest and truthful. But there are levels to this feeling, and when you start feeling personally let down by a stranger you’ve never met, it may be time to rethink this one-sided relationship you’ve built with them.

Today, could we even attempt to detach ourselves from celebrities? Should we have to? Is it not nice to look at a middle-class outsider achieving something in Bollywood and see hope, inspiration, and maybe a role model in them? I propose a middle ground — because talking in extremes is good for the purpose of theory and Twitter discourse, but is rarely applicable in real life. Reality is a messier patchwork of ideal values and practical compromises.

A mental shift from “Lizzo is empowering” to “Lizzo’s music/journey makes me feel empowered” can help us centre our own experience and feelings, rather than the artist. When I feel empowered, I can do what I want with that, regardless of the medium via which it reaches me. We do not need to lose our idols, but we do need to examine whether we have enough logical ability to see them as human and be inspired by their positives while rejecting their negatives. I also do not suggest that we entirely separate the art from the artist — on principle, I do not pay for art that involves men accused of sexual or physical harassment, and I find myself unable to sit through Kangana Ranaut’s films anymore — but those are values and nuances we have to figure out for ourselves.

When we see parasociality for what it is, it becomes an interesting space for us to explore our own selves. What makes me feel “close” to a celebrity? Do they have values I want to espouse, and if yes, am I working towards them? Am I becoming someone I would look up to, someone I would defend, someone I would hate to see fall? Because really, celebrities owe us nothing. Not details of their personal lives, not good deeds, they don’t even owe us good art. But we owe ourselves introspection, learning, and growth. And if that is through the medium of celebrity, I welcome it.

The writer specialises in pop culture and works at Stumble, the culture vertical of Kommune

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