The paparazzi like to describe their relationship with celebrities as symbiotic, and when you look at the Kardashians, that seems like a reasonable way to frame it. But just because a few socialites have learned to exploit their own exploitation, as doctors have discovered medical uses for the leech, does not make the celebrity-paparazzi relationship mutually beneficial.
Do most celebrities sign up for their entire lives to be fodder for entertainment? Perhaps some do. And yes, famous actors and musicians benefit from being recognizable for their work. But the current media culture isn’t satisfied with covering just the art they make. The paparazzi interfere in their personal lives, humiliate, glamorize, defame and dehumanize them. Why? Because we want them to.
I’m not talking about the First Amendment. The paparazzi have the right to take pictures and report on anyone who happens to be in the public. I’m talking about the media culture we have jointly created as consumers. By desiring to live vicariously through celebrities, we deny them the right to lead normal lives. By paying to read about their intimacies and scandals, we dehumanize public figures.
It’s almost inevitable. At the check-out counter you glimpse the close-up of J-Law’s pores and skim the tantalizing headlines. You’re already reading it, so you might as well toss the rag onto the conveyor belt along with the Organic kale and Greek yogurt. It’s a guilty pleasure—like wasting an hour of the day watching a soap opera. It’s unproductive; it’s probably all made-up anyway. But it’s cheap, it’s entertaining. It feels better to know that even Jennifer Aniston hasn’t escaped wrinkles and cellulite. And the royal baby! How cute! What’s the harm? Plus, the tabloids would exist whether you bought them or not, right?
Except, that’s not how it works. If we didn’t consume it, it wouldn’t exist. But the consequences of our consumption seem so distant, as distant as the caliber of the lives of the celebrities themselves. And yet, we know Princess Di died trying to escape the harassment of the paparazzi pursuing her, and the flashing of their cameras was the last thing she saw in this world.
We tell ourselves that celebrities ultimately benefit from it, or, at worst, that it’s a necessary cost of being famous. Indeed, many people argue this in defense of paparazzi. I disagree, and I think how we zoom our lens says more about us than the celebrities we judge. Whether or not Johnny Depp, by acting in films, signed up to have his divorce scrutinized, is a question worth debating. What seems indefensible to me is that the media culture we have created also preys upon those who never signed up for the spotlight.
Some people have celebrity thrust upon them. They are often ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the pressure and impact on their life. That happened to me. All it takes is for other people to shine the spotlight on you, point the lens at you, speculate about you, and you are public figure. And as a public figure, you have less right to privacy than the average citizen. You have no legal recourse to prevent paparazzi from interrupting your day-to-day life, harassing your loved ones, or defaming you, unless you can prove malicious intent, which is notoriously difficult to prove. There was nothing I could do to stop people from defining me as a man-eater, slut, manipulative witch, and psychopath.
When we buy Star magazine and read TMZ.com, which invade the private lives of actors and musicians, we are preying upon them, and we are supporting a paparazzi culture that at its whim may prey upon any one of us. We have the right to be complicit in this kind of culture, as the paparazzi have the right to take the photos we pay them for, but is this the world that we want to live in?
Published by the West Seattle Herald 07/25/2016.