When Did Celebrities Get So Bad At Taking Criticism?

Reviewers and artists work in a complicated, symbiotic relationship. But it’s not a critic’s job to fluff a celebrity’s ego.

I don’t know what’s in the flower-infused water all the famous people are drinking these days, but they’re all seemingly having the same meltdown at the same time about media criticism of them and their work (or of their friends). At the end of last week, Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che went on an Instagram tear about an Uproxx writer who wrote a piece about Che’s colleague Colin Jost, suggesting that the critic, Steve Hyden, was giving out blow jobs to dogs. (Che, surprising no one, has already begun lashing out at critics writing about his response to that criticism.) On Monday the musician Lizzo, whose new album is by any measure getting rave reviews, got bent out of shape about one Pitchfork review by Rawiya Kameir that perhaps wasn’t as glowing as the artist had hoped. Lizzo complained on Twitter, saying “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” (She later walked back the comment.)

On Wednesday, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber got mad that Morgan Stewart — an E! host best known for her starring role on Rich Kids of Beverly Hills and absolutely nothing else — made fun of their Coachella performance. “One day everybody that works at all them blogs will realize how unfulfilled they are and purposeless what they’re doing is,” Grande wrote in a tweet that she later deleted. And the latest float in the outrage parade (no one wants a good seat to watch it, but here you are anyway) is steered by Olivia Munn, who posted a mini essay on Twitter Wednesday night comparing blog posts about her fashion choices written by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan — the writers who run a celebrity fashion criticism blog called Go Fug Yourself — with the abuses of #MeToo.

“If there’s anything we’ve been able to glean from the past two years, it’s that girls and women have been emotionally and physically targeted and abused for years yet have remained silent because collectively we all believe that our voices, our pain, our existence only mattered with conditions attached,” Munn wrote. For anyone who actually reads GFY, making this connection is bonkers — Cocks and Morgan have made a concerted effort to not engage in body shaming, or in racist and sexist praxis around fashion, while also being mindful of the context of the clothes being worn and the people wearing them. Sometimes, they just don’t like your suit.

To act as if there’s some global conspiracy among us underground-tunnel-dwelling bloggers to keep the rich and famous down, or to hurt their feelings, is paranoid at best. 

The core issue for these celebrities seems to be the idea that the media has a disproportionate amount of power over public narratives about artists and how their work is received. On some level, they’re right; a bad review can keep people from seeing your movie or buying your album. But to act as if there’s some global conspiracy among us underground-tunnel-dwelling bloggers to keep the rich and famous down, or to hurt their feelings, is paranoid at best. Many celebrities seem to imagine us as one amorphous blob of “everybody that works at all them blogs,” all texting each other about cool new ways to make Justin Bieber feel sad, as if we’re not busy trying to not get laid off during the next round of budget cuts. Haven’t you heard that media is dying? Who has the time??

“Lol ill never understand why when they shit on people its criticism. but when i shit on them its harassment..?” Che wrote in an Instagram story — and many of his peers seem to share the same confusion. But most of the celebrities in question have platforms and social media followings that are orders of magnitude larger than those of the people who write about them. You’re far more likely to know Michael Che’s name and work than the critic who wrote something about his friend that he didn’t like — sorry, Steve. And most critics I know have had firsthand experience with the real-life ramifications of a famous artist taking their work personally. My own colleagues have faced levels of vitriol when writing about and analyzing celebrity that I’m sure were much more unsettling than any commentary Olivia Munn has received from bloggers who thought her suit looked like it was from the American Hustle wardrobe.

Anne Helen Petersen wrote about Armie Hammer's career last year, and he replied to her on Twitter, saying her perspective was “bitter AF.” He deactivated his Twitter account shortly after, which caused a deluge of Call Me by Your Name stans to go after Petersen online, with one person going so far as to threaten to kill her dog. Months later, Hammer tweeted at Petersen again about her opinion of a Jennifer Lawrence Vanity Fair profile, suggesting that she should be medicated. Armie Hammer is 32 years old. Another colleague, Shannon Keating, wrote an essay in 2016 about the societal pressure on LGBT pop stars like Halsey to downplay their queerness, which Halsey seemed to interpret as a suggestion that she was “not gay enough,” resulting in a predictable Twitter hell as the star’s fans piled on.

Hasn’t stan culture taught us that no one has more power than a murder of fans on the internet, waiting to attack? It was bad enough that Nicki Minaj DM’d Toronto writer Wanna Thompson on Twitter because she didn’t like her criticism of her music, calling her ugly and jealous, much like what you’d typically tell someone in the seventh grade if you wanted to make them cry in the middle of the cafeteria. But then Minaj’s fandom descended on Thompson too, calling her an “unemployed dark skin black guttersnipe bitch.” Thompson is an independent blogger, far from a famous writer and not affiliated with a major media brand. What power did she have that Minaj felt like she needed to rebalance in the world? Why is it her job to say nothing if she can’t say something nice?

Celebrities voicing their displeasure with journalists’ work can also set off chain reactions of behind-the-scenes consequences, especially where large and sensitive corporations eager to preserve their access to artists are involved. In 2017, for example, Spin reported that MTV management removed a negative review of a Chance the Rapper concert, at his team’s request. And as the New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich wrote at the time, the idea that “any media organization could be effectively bullied into shifting its mission from journalistic to promotional, is unnerving.”

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. Punching down is a waste of time, and while many people — namely writers — go through an exhilarating period of exercising the power of their words in wasteful directions, most of us eventually settle down. You learn that making fun of someone’s appearance, their weight, their failures, or other things outside their control might get you attention in the short term, but leaves you obsolete (and emotionally empty) in the end. 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.

But that doesn’t mean that journalists or writers or reviews are always going to be a positive part of your publicity cycle. A review or profile isn’t necessarily for the artist in question — it’s for readers of a website, or a paper, or a blog; for fans or potential fans or merely interested parties. That, again, doesn’t mean journalists or critics should get away with criticism rooted in sexism or racism or an otherwise blinkered point of view, but I wish more artists could accept that even though they may be the subject of a given piece, they aren’t necessarily its intended audience.

Reviewers and artists work in a complicated, symbiotic relationship where both need the other. And new digital platforms have made that relationship even more fraught; as Alison Herman writes at the Ringer, “Thanks to social media, it’s both harder than ever for stars to shield themselves from the noise and easier than ever for them to respond directly to what surely feels like an all-out assault on their character.” But it’s not a journalist’s or critic’s job to fluff a celebrity’s ego.

As a famous person, you have agents, managers, makeup artists, hairstylists, friends, family, internet fans, IRL fans, strangers on the street, Twitter, Instagram, stan culture at large, and the people buying tickets to see you live, who are all more than happy to let you know that you’re the greatest person in the world. To expect the same from writers doing their best to honestly and insightfully assess your work or your public image is a misunderstanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. Some, it seems, have a better understanding of this relationship than others.

Writers know — probably better than anyone — what it feels like to have their life’s creative work torn to shreds by strangers on the internet.

One of the great ironies of all of this is that writers know — probably better than anyone — what it feels like to have their life’s creative work torn to shreds by strangers on the internet. I have been angry every day of my life, but nothing made me angrier than when Goodreads reviews of my first book started coming in. My book was otherwise successful both in sales and general critical acclaim (ha ha, I tricked you into reading about how great I am!!!), but one day I stayed up until 3 in the morning and read a one-star review of my book that said the reader didn’t like it because it didn’t have enough page breaks.

Now, I could’ve gone on Twitter and complained about how no one is allowed to review my book unless they’ve written one themselves, or said that reviewers like that are akin to bullies who drive other kids to suicide, or suggested that those people are wasting their lives unless they’re giving me constant, unfiltered praise. Instead, I simply mentioned the bad review 30 or 40 times in passing to everyone I have ever met, and moved on — sort of.

The truth is that I think about that Goodreads review all the time, along with every other bad review or mean tweet I’ve ever read about any of my writing, and if you’d like to sit down with me for a brief 13-hour lunch, I’d be happy to recount them all to you in livid, wholly unnecessary detail. Art is personal. Comedy, music, movies, television, fashion — it’s all personal, even when it’s supposed to be fiction. All creative work requires you to pull little pieces of yourself off, sell them to strangers, and hope that they treat it with care. It’s hard to blame anyone for feeling bruised if someone else is harsh about something as intimate as their soul-bearing record or an outfit that they felt good in.

But what lashing out at your critics (or at least the ones with valid, good-faith arguments) says is that you’ve given them power over you to determine how you feel about your own work — a power that the critic didn’t ask for. There’s a difference between being hurt, or disappointed (perfectly normal!), and attacking someone for breaking a promise they never made.

It is, I think, less of a conversation about the power dynamics between a writer and a celebrity, and more about every artist stopping to consider which hill you want to die on and who you think is responsible for dictating your work’s value. That, frankly, seems like the real power you wouldn’t want to give up. ●

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