The celebutante at the center of Elizabeth Little’s debut novel Dear Daughterclaims she’d been framed for the murder of her mother. But the blood-thirsty media can’t help but track her every move once she’s released from prison, happy to make her into the villain she claims she isn’t. But who doesn’t indulge in a little celeb-bashing behavior? Whether it is choices in romantic partners, film roles, or clothing (or lack thereof), most pop-culture lovers find themselves passing judgment on celebrities. Here, Little dives a little deeper by turning the spotlight on herself as she explores the realreason we love to hate celebrities.
You know how it goes: A long day at work. An exhausting evening at home. Dinner. Dishes. Getting a kid or two to go to bed. Finally, at long last, you drag your weary body over to the couch. Maybe you cuddle up with your partner, or maybe you’ve been together for more than five years. Either way, you settle in and click over to Netflix to pick out a movie.
And with the irrational optimism of bone-deep exhaustion, you think: This time we’re really going to do it. This time we’re actually going to agree on a movie.
But it never works out that way—for me, anyway. Even though I usually don’t have it in me at that point to pour the wine into a glass before drinking it, I am able nevertheless to energetically and vociferously hate-veto each and every one of my husband’s suggestions based on a multitude of one-sided celebrity grievances.
She’s a phony. He looks like a creep. She tries too hard. I’m sick of her hippie bullshit. His facelift. She said something stupid in public. That time he broke up with that actress I liked. Her teeth are too big. His mouth looks like something other than a mouth. That chin.
These are all things I myself have said. In the past week.
I like to think of myself as a feminist, a humanist, and an all-round not-terrible person. Granted, I don’t always manage these things particularly well—in fact Ioften don’t manage them particularly well—but I like to think that if I’m going to say or think something nasty about a fellow human, I will, at the very least, hesitate before doing so. When it comes to celebrities, though, my opinions know neither bounds nor reason nor compassion nor grounds. I am a straight-up noxious jerk about people who have never, ever done a single thing to me. And, worse, this intense antipathy that goes against all my theoretical personal convictions so often has the flimsiest of pretexts. A rumor on the Internet, questionable gossip whispered along by a friend of a makeup artist I met that one time at that party,the set of someone’s chin.
So what, exactly, is my problem? What is it about celebrities that compels me—us, even—to hate so unabashedly and for such stupid reasons? And should I be feeling guilty about it?
Let me make clear that I’m not talking here about celebrities I want nothing to do with based on criminal or should-be-criminal behavior—I’ll argue that it’s my totally justified prerogative to not watch movies made by or starring rapists until the sun goes down. Rather, I’m referring to those celebrities I dismiss for offenses any of us would otherwise forgive (being young and stupid), sympathize with (having questionable taste in romantic partners), or, honestly, never even notice to begin with (again: that chin!).
I can’t speak for anyone else’s reasons why (although I could certainly speculate, but there are writers far better equipped to do so— Anne Helen Petersen, whose book Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema will be published later this month, leaps immediately to mind), but I can certainly tell you what fuels the fires of my own celebrity loathing: my projected self-loathing. Really I worry that I’m the phony who’s trying too hard, that I always say stupid things and have a god-awful chin. But by passing the hot potato on to someone else—it’s not me, it’s you—I’m able to unleash the full force of my contempt. I’m able to manufacture something resembling relief.
I can’t possibly be alone in this. Celebrities are obvious places to dump our psychological garbage. They loom large, literal giants rendered 50 feet high on our movie screens and billboards. They are near: We invite them into our homes, spend our evenings with them. Some nights their faces might even be the last things we see before we fall asleep. And they are familiar, their intimate details fed into our collective unconscious by a celebrity industrial complex organized around the goal of making the famous feel like friends. I mean, I don’t remember a single thing from freshman calculus, and yet somehow I know whether at least eight actresses had vaginal births or C-sections.
But while they may feel like friends, they’re actually not even acquaintances, and this is what makes them such perfect objects of our projection—after all, they can’t pass that hot potato back. With the possible (and mild) exception of Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets segments, we never even catch a glimpse of how celebrities respond to our insults. For instance, the Internet has surely, on at least one occasion, made Anne Hathaway cry. How could it not have? But we’ve never actually seen her face fall in response to a poisoned arrow loosed by a Hathahater, so there’s nothing to make us feel bad about this not very nice thing we do to make ourselves feel better.
Plus, they’re rich and beautiful and have great clothes, so they can take it, right?
Lest you think I’m about to make some kind of moralistic proposal for the foundation of, say, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Celebrities, though, let me assure you: I’m not. Until I come to terms with the worst parts of myself—and that’s going to take much more therapy than I’ve managed so far, frankly—I know realistically that the psychological cost/benefit analysis will continue to favor my being an asshole. I figure all I can really do is try to keep it to myself. And so tonight, when I once again stumble from my son’s room to my couch and am confronted with the Netflix suggestion of a movie starring someone I can’t stand, maybe I’ll just say, “I don’t feel like watching that.” But deep inside, in my hypocritical heart, I’m know I’m still going to let myself hate that phony, that creep, that facelift, that chin. Because it’s infinitely better than looking in a mirror.
Elizabeth Little was born and raised in St. Louis and graduated from Harvard University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and she has appeared on All Things Considered, The World, and Here and Now. She has written two works of nonfiction: Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, published by Melville House in 2007; and Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, published by Bloomsbury in 2012. Dear Daughter, her debut novel, was published August 2014 by Viking (US) and Harvill Secker (UK). Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles with her family.