Built on a foundation of feel-good gossip, the entertainment media is not equipped to handle stories at the intersection of celebrity and intimate partner violence, largely because those stories always draw high traffic. Even here at Jezebel, these stories draw readers and are often some of our highest trafficked blogs. Coupled with the often dubious intentions of gossip, breaking news stories concerning celebrities accused of intimate partner violence can feel lopsided, and even opportunistic. That’s been particularly true in the case of Hayden Panettiere who, for the past few years, has been the subject of increasingly sensationalistic coverage regarding her alleged abuse by boyfriend Brian Hickerson.
In February 2018, I reported on tabloid rumors about Panettiere and her daughter, Kaya. Multiple sources alleged that Panettiere hadn’t seen her daughter in months after Kaya moved to Ukraine with her father, Panettiere’s ex-husband Wladimir Klitschko. In the middle of this, a series of incredibly bizarre public appearances with Hickerson, like walking barefoot through the parking lot of Craig’s in West Hollywood, put Panettiere back in the spotlight. Outlets were quick to report on the new relationship, as tabloids like Ok! breathlessly speculated on what they saw as “bruises” on her legs and her seeming intoxication.
In November 2018, a few months after they were first seen together, People reported that Hickerson had been involved in an altercation with his father at which Panettiere was present. Police who responded to the scene said that the couple had been drinking, which may have predicated the fight. The following February, the aforementioned reports claimed that Panettiere hadn’t seen her daughter over the holidays. On May 3, 2019, Hickerson was arrested for felony domestic violence in Los Angeles, after a frantic 911 call in the early morning hours. (It is still unclear who originally called the police.) Reports later surfaced that, two weeks prior, Hickerson and Panettiere had driven their SUV into a neighbor’s car.
Following Hickerson’s arrest, the tabloid interest in the story spun out of control, and sources who claimed to be close to Panettiere rushed to sell her secrets. Some, like her mother Lesley Vogel—who had already spoken extensively with tabloids about the actress—even went on the record with Radar. “Hayden Panettiere’s Boyfriend Viciously Beats Her 3 Times in 2 Days, Officer Claims” read Radar’s sensationalistic headline. Others claiming to know her family remained anonymous, insisting that everyone had “deeply disapproved” of her relationship with Hickerson. From there, American Media tabloids like Star, Us Weekly, and In Touch kept a consistent stream of gossip about Panettiere’s alleged abuse throughout the pages of their weeklies. Below is a story from July 2019, in which In Touch claimed to go deep inside “Hayden’s Abuse Nightmare!”
Besides the various sources claiming to represent Panettiere, In Touch focused in on details about her alleged alcohol consumption and substance usage the night of the May arrest, echoing the sentiment that permeated the 2018 coverage of her relationship. Radar, for example, released what they claimed was a compendium of her reckless partying, especially where it concerned Hickerson. Nobody said it outright, but the tone with which the tabloids approached this story slowly became one that vaguely placed blame on Panettiere for her “lifestyle.” It’s a sentiment that follows victims of abuse frequently, both the legal system and predators frequently using assumptions about women’s choices to redirect blame and absolve men of guilt.
Radar also reported that Hickerson hired Lindsay Lohan’s lawyer, Shawn Holley, to represent him in court. By September 2019, the case was dismissed. Prosecutors cited an inability to procure a material witness for their case. A protective order declaring that Hickerson must stay 100 yards away from Panettiere was also rescinded, as was his $50,000 bail. By November, she was photographed holding his hand in an airport, and tabloids once again published “scoops” featuring worried family members and distressed friends, all supposedly anxious about Panettiere’s inability to extricate herself from the relationship with Hickerson.
Now, both Hickerson and Panettiere are back in the public spotlight. This morning, TMZ reported that Hickerson was arrested for a second time at 2:30 a.m. on Valentine’s Day. Police who responded to the scene claim Hickerson had physically assaulted Panettiere. After his arrest over the weekend, he was charged with interfering with a police officer for “allegedly refusing to identify himself,” according to the outlet. I suspect, that when the tabloids’ print-delay catches up to the current press cycle, there will be more full-page spreads about the assault, with the same sources breathlessly spilling what they claim is Panettiere’s every secret. They can’t seem to help themselves.
When I first began covering sexual assault and intimate partner violence, especially where it concerned celebrities, an editor handed me a note that soon became my guiding principle: Who does it serve to list every detail of an assault? I’m reminded of that, especially as tabloids and gossip outlets race to uncover every police file and every court ruling, chasing the details of what happened to Panettiere on Valentine’s Day. I don’t believe Panettiere is helped by lengthy descriptions of the way Hickerson has allegedly and repeatedly abused her; it turns abuse into gossip, blunting readers to the devastation of intimate partner violence. It’s not that I’m averse to these stories. I believe they should be reported and do so myself, frequently. But these stories should center the victim instead of treating violence as a plot point in a melodrama, indulging in details and sexist stereotypes. To the tabloids, voyeurism is the preferred business model, never mind empathy or integrity. Never mind that Panettiere is a real woman who seems unable to escape an allegedly abusive relationship.