I'm really not into the phrase "It Girl." First of all because it sounds like a euphemism for "Sexy Pennywise Halloween Costume," and second of all because it's so...singular. We can only have one girl? And that's "It"? Girls are like the Highlander? What happens to her when she's not "It" anymore? Why don't we have an "It Boy"?* Why do we have to pick teams and then hate everyone who picks the "It" girl that we didn't pick? Why is womanhood always a fucking contest?**
There's something disturbing about the way we throw female celebrities in a jar and make them fight, and it got me thinking: Is there a responsible way to idolize famous women—a way that uplifts us all instead of turning us into weird chattering territorial beasts? I think so. And it's not that hard.
I don't know if the Jennifer Lawrence/Lupita Nyong'o Face/Off*** that's supposedly brewing is a real thing, or if it's just manufactured by blogs that need something to thinkpiece about (ours included, I know, I know), but backlash against popular female celebrities is definitely real. It's definitely gendered. (Nobody's writing thinkpieces forecasting a coming Cumberpocalypse, for instance. Shia LaBeouf had to literally sit in a room for a week with a bag on his head to get himself a backlash.) In the course of writing this piece, I tried to recall the timeline of the anti-Natalie Portman movement. Did it start with Garden State? Was it the time she shaved her head and was still hot? Or was it as late as Black Swan? Did it predate the Anne Hathaway backlash or did they overlap? IT'S SO HARD TO KEEP TRACK OF WHEN PEOPLE HATE WHICH WOMEN.
There's a stanky tinge of commodification and coercion about that process—when someone becomes our favorite, we want her to perform precisely the version of womanhood we've selected for her (take the "right" roles, hold the "right" political views, be the "right" amount of "real"). There's no easier way to get people to hate you than to become beloved. You can't fall if you never make it to the top.
But Jesus Christ, isn't the whole point to make more room at the top for women?
It plays into the tendency we have to declare people "good feminist" or "bad feminist," as though life isn't a long, thorny learning process. As though there's only one way to be a responsible human being. And it really strips female celebrities of their agency—to decide that it's your way or the highway (who ARE you, even!?). Maybe Lupita Nyong'o doesn't want to be the next James Bond, or whatever. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence didn't ask to be your body acceptance icon and that's why she sometimes does it wrong. Maybe people just want to act in the movies they want to act in, and wear pretty dresses because it's fun, and eat a corn dog once in a while, and make money, and make art, and fuck up your assumptions about beauty and "normalcy."
Why does the rise of Lupita have to signal the fall of Jennifer? WHY DO I HAVE TO PICK?
I've always thought it'd be funny, as a satirical art piece, to release a fake, multi-volume issue of Maxim that's as thick as the OED, and call it the Maxim Hot Three Billion. And then just rank ALL THE WOMEN. Because that's the logical extension of this shit we do.
Let's stop doing this shit.
You don't actually know if you like Jennifer Lawrence, because you don't know her. You know the story of her. Remember that.
It's important to recognize that a lot of this "backlash" drama is manufactured directly by those celebrities' PR teams, and participating in that is A-okay. Tabloid narratives are as legit (and profitable) as on-screen narratives for celebrities who take that path, and hating Jennifer Aniston for the character she occupies in the 'bloidz is not the same as hating Jennifer Aniston the human woman. And based on the fact that Jennifer Aniston has done almost nothing since Friends besides professionally-being-gossiped-about, I'm fairly confident that Jennifer Aniston accepts that dichotomy and cannily exploits it. There are plenty of female celebrities whose uterine updates aren't splashed all over the cover of Us every week.
But when celebrities attempt to set boundaries—like when Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard demand that the paparazzi cease thwacking their infant with a camera lens—they're reacting to violations of that consensual tabloid narrative. And, as a feminist, it's my responsibility to respect those boundaries to the best of my ability. Yes, celebrities are compensated handsomely for the inconveniences of fame, and their children will grow up with an almost sinister level of privilege, and yes, people will automatically care more about Ireland Baldwin's opinions than they do yours, and I'm sure you have really good opinions!!! But none of that negates the fact that celebrities are human beings with human lives AND YOU DON'T KNOW THEM.
It's also crucial to note that the internet has blurred those boundaries significantly. Suddenly we're not just watching celebrity life unfold through the carefully orchestrated whispers of "a source close to the family," filtered through multiple editors and lawyers—we're reading a Twitter feed direct from a celebrity's brain. Which means that sometimes we think we're laughing at the celebrity's wacky persona, when really we're laughing at a person's actual mental illness. It's important to be cognizant of the difference and accountable when we cross the line.
Example: I am so sorry I made linemouths at Amanda Bynes for so long. It was callous of me. I should have understood. I hereby linemouth at myself.
3. Remember that If Someone Doesn't Like Your Favorite Celebrity, It Doesn't Mean They Don't Like You
One of the reasons I think we're especially drawn to supposedly "real" celebrities like J-Law (reminder: LITERALLY ALL WOMEN ARE REAL), or celebrities from oppressively, achingly underrepresented groups like Lupita and Gabourey Sidibe, is that we just want to identify with something. We want to root for ourselves. And that isn't a negative impulse at all. But it means that when someone doesn't like our favorite celebrity—the woman whose famous body finally resembles ours, or the pop star whose song nursed us through our breakup—it can feel like a personal attack.
Yo! It's not!
We can disagree, you guys! It's okay! As long as the disagreement is about the quality of said celebrity's work or the place they occupy in their tabloid narrative (see above), and not about their skin color or their BMI or their performance of womanhood or their number of sexual partners, WE ARE COOL.
But that's not really how it plays out online.
I normally hate hand-wringing about the terrible dissociative powers of the internet—because I think it's a fucking incredible tool that's made power accessible and democratized discourse in an undeniably positive way—but I think in certain ways disagreement has become more difficult.
One of the strengths of Twitter is that you don't have to deal with bullshit. If someone's spouting some stupid regressive garbage you've heard a million times, you can just block and dismiss. Block and dismiss. But when it comes to more nuanced conversations—that massive, subjective gray area between the axes of carelessness and ignorance—the power of block-and-dismiss can become incredibly polarizing. When you have a disagreement with someone you know in real life, the two of you have a billion subtle connections and physical cues that carry you through to Smoothed-Over-Town. On Twitter, you're just done. Team X. Team Y. Team Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. The internet's good opinion once lost is lost forever. I think that's a reductive and counterproductive system.
That's not to say that you shouldn't criticize celebrities or call out bullshit media narratives about celebrities or rip and shred garbage criticisms of celebrities. You MUST do that. I wish Jennifer Lawrence hadn't dressed up like a fat person for Halloween. I think W. Kamau Bell said some important things about the white worship of Lupita Nyong'o. I want to read everything Danielle Henderson has to say ever. It's imperative to discuss why we like what we like, why some of our faves are problematic, and when it's time to abandon our heroes because they made one too many shitty jokes. Everyone gets to set those boundaries for themselves, and no one's "wrong" for bailing at exactly the moment that's right for them.
But, broadly speaking, a lot of those conversations are nuanced as fuck—they're not a zero-sum game. And treating them like one just perpetuates that same old "good" woman/"bad" woman contest. We can do better. We can talk and listen better.
Self-explanatory. Would you be ashamed to tell Oprah that you called a 14-year-old girl "Cunty the Whale" on Twitter because she said she thought the 10th Doctor was better than the 9th? Yes? If Oprah let you borrow her laptop, would you use it to download a bunch of paparazzi photos taken through Oprah's hedge and into Oprah's bathroom window of Oprah taking a poop? No? Then MAYBE DON'T DO IT. The Oprah Test™. Write it on a card and laminate it. You're welcome.
* Wait, I know this is Feminism 101, but have you ever thought about how messed up it is that we refer to women as "girls" at all ever? Here's a fun exercise if you can't figure out why this is creepy: Think of a male person you want to have sex with—like, say, Bobby Cannavale or John Goodman—and then say to yourself, "Oh, man, I really want to fuck that BOY." GROSS, RIGHT? THE ONLY PERSON ALLOWED TO FUCK A BOY IS ELIZABETH PERKINS IN BIG AND THAT LOOPHOLE WAS GRANDFATHERED IN BECAUSE OF THE '80S.
** Not a fucking contest—a fucking contest. Although it does kind of feel like both sometimes.
***Idea: They should face off, and also they should LITERALLY TAKE THEIR FACES OFF.
Images via Getty.