The Oscars represent a time for us to celebrate our favorite movies and the people who make movies. But it is also the time when we vilify the same celebrities that we glorify; we highlight every bad movie, every horrible outfit, every awkward, cringe-worthy social interaction. In a digital age where every shameful experience is captured forever and broadcast internationally in seconds, our analysis of the Oscars is just another example of how we seem to abuse celebrities for sport.
Why do we abuse celebrities? The reason is that many of us feel like we are incapable of achieving our goals. This gut fear may help explain our celebrity obsession. Artists, athletes and other celebrities in our society "boldly go where no one has gone before." They achieve great things that we wish we could. If they succeed we use their success to bolster our own self-worth. And when they consequently fail to maintain success or have a misstep we disconnect from them, often through vilification. Thus, our self-concept remains high regardless of its effect on the people involved.
The abuse of celebrities comes in several forms. Sometimes it's denigrating someone's career; the story of Eddie Murphy's recent refusal to perform a skit on Bill Cosby at the "Saturday Night Live" 40th anniversary show has brought about accusations that he's "lost his edge" and that his career is effectively over. Celebrity women are criticized for their weight; Kim Kardashian's body was critiqued even when she was pregnant! We diagnose celebrities with mental illness; evaluations of Justin Bieber's "breakdown" are frequent regardless of whether people have met him personally or have expertise in mental illness. And sometimes this abuse extends to people who didn't necessarily sign on to be celebrities. Janay Rice was vilified by many for her decision to marry Ray Rice after he assaulted her. In the most extreme cases, the paparazzi tracking every movement of our celebrities harass and even cause celebrities to be in danger.
Does abusing celebrities hurt? To the extent that celebrities react as regular people, evidence suggests that the abuse they receive in the media would be very damaging. Bullying, which includes repeated harmful acts such as the name-calling frequently seen in treatment of celebrities, has been labeled by the Centers for Disease Control as a major public health problem because of it's damaging effects on well-being. Further, not only does weight stigma such as seen in media critiques not result in weight loss, but also it promotes poor self-concept and unhealthy eating behavior. We know that stigmatizing mental illness by sensationalizing it in the press is damaging; in 1999 the U.S. Surgeon General labeled stigma of mental illness the biggest impediment to receiving health care.
This behavior also tells the world, particularly young people, that trying to succeed will be met with incessant abuse to the point where it may seem to many that it's not even worth it to try. This would be tragic, as evidence suggests that people finding something that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning predicts improved health. The reality is that success and failure are not mutually exclusive; rather, success is typically built upon what we learn from our failures. If we are not prepared to lose, it will be that much more difficult to take the risks necessary to achieve. And if the price even of winning seems to evoke public shaming, many of us may not even try in the first place.
Finally, children model behavior after adults. Research suggests that teenagers model anti-social behavior such as arguments and conflicts with others from their parents. A study of 329 children ages 6-10 were assessed for exposure to television violence, including verbal aggression and followed into adulthood ages 20-25. Those exposed to increased television violence as kids were more likely to be aggressive as adults.
Criticism in a society is important and necessary in order to help us understand and interpret the world around us. And it could be argued that we particularly need critique of celebrities to counteract their outsized larger-than-life persona. Because of the way information is disseminated and consumed, now everyone has a voice to express his or her opinion. This is a good thing. But it may be time for us to begin a serious discussion on how this type of ongoing media scrutiny of celebrities may do more harm than good.
Because as they say: "With great power comes great responsibility."