TW: Mentions of domestic violence, pedophilia, and anti-Semitic threats of violence.

At university, one of the easiest ways to connect with others is through the media we consume. The realms of our interests, be it music, movies, sports, or reality T.V., are all occupied by celebrities. 

Celebrities are rightfully called influencers because their behaviours and actions will subconsciously embed into our perception of the ‘ideal.’ Their wealth, beauty, and luxurious lifestyles are undoubtedly attractive — after all, wouldn’t it be fun to have a 10, 000 square foot mansion, along with designer bags and cars? 

The more we follow celebrity gossip and news, the more those celebrities often end up as our lifestyle coaches, role models, or even gods. We create a mythos of their dramatic breakups, legendary parties, and untold treasures. Sometimes, we can get obsessed with their personal affairs as their quote-unquote ‘fans.’

To touch upon one of the most controversial media debates of recent time, the public reaction and involvement of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s defamation trial generated some of the ugliest and shocking opinions online. 

If you don’t already know: in 2016, actress Amber Heard filed for a divorce from actor Johnny Depp after one year of marriage, ending their six-year relationship. 

One could say Heard was the first to bring their relationship issues to the media, but when I first read her op-ed featured in the Washington Post, I immediately was surprised that Depp was suing her for defamation. When you read her piece, she does not mention him by name, nor the first allegations of abuse she made towards Depp in 2016.

Two of Heard’s statements in the op-ed that Depp argued cast his name in negative light hold truth considering the events that unfolded during the trial. Heard said:

“I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture's wrath. That has to change.”

“I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

The online harassment, vitriol, and mockery that Heard dealt with was probably a hundred times worse that what Harvey Weinstein faced from social media users, despite the fact that he was legally convicted of sexual assault, harassment, and coercion by over eighty women. Many of the negative remarks directed towards Heard seemed focused on labelling her a ‘gold-digger,’ along with the use of gender-specific obscenities. Frequently, the possibility of her being abusive towards Depp seemed second in importance to the public.

Now, I’m not trying to convince you about who abused who in this case. I won’t deny the concerning statements that both parties have made in recordings, suggesting they were both violent towards each other. 

Though truth exists in the statement that Depp and Heard were probably ‘both bad people,’ the problem here is that lumping a potential victim at fault with their abuser can be extremely damaging to their healing process. There is no such thing as mutual abuse; someone must have abused the other first, and from there on it’s called fighting back. After all, imagine telling someone who experienced domestic violence that defending themselves against their abuser meant they were an equally bad partner!

I watched Pirates of the Caribbean growing up, and as a big DC Comics fan, I enjoyed Aquaman for the most part (arguably, DC films can always be better) — but technically, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are just random people to me.

On paper, all celebrities are just people.

The problem here is that no one should have been that obsessively invested in the business of two celebrities dealing with an issue as serious as domestic abuse. Other instances of fans getting unnecessarily involved in the private lives of celebrities include the star of the Netflix series Heartstopper, Kit Connor.

Connor came to prominence for his role as a sixteen-year-old rugby player coming to terms with his sexuality in Heartstopper. But, after being photographed holding hands with a woman (of all people!), his fans accused him of queerbaiting. Finally, in a tweet now deleted along with his Twitter account, Connor stated he was bisexual and condemned his harassers for “forcing an 18 year old to out himself.” 

Let me just state for the record that real-life people cannot “queerbait.” Queerbaiting is when creators implicitly suggest fictional characters are queer to draw in LGBT+ fans for views or money, only to later reveal the characters as heterosexual or never follow through on confirming their sexuality. 

Celebrities, like all human beings, have the right to maintain private lives and decide who to have relationships with.

You also might have seen jokes online speculating Shawn Mendes’ sexuality, claiming that he’s gay despite his former relationship with Camila Cabello and assertions that he is comfortable in his heterosexuality. Social media users have analyzed his body language to argue that certain slight movements he has made are effeminate. I once even saw a video of Mendes brushing a hand past another man’s arm, with a caption screaming “THIS IS EVIDENCE!”

In a Rolling Stone article, Mendes shared that his panic attacks and anxiety diagnosis were in part due to these overwhelming assumptions about his sexuality. When public attention on his sexuality surpassed the recognition of his music career, Mendes felt his work lost value as most of his fans preferred to scrutinize his personal life.

This is where the line gets blurry in separating celebrities’ personal lives from their work. There are some facts that the public doesn’t need to know about celebrities. But, like everyone else with a career, a large part of celebrities’ lives are dedicated to their work.

As a fiction writer myself, I put so much effort into my work that I don’t want to be separated from it. While I might write about serial killers or fifty-year-old men from time to time, my perceptions and values are still embedded in the messages I present in my stories — whether I intentionally set out to do so or not. Many other students like me who are pursuing their passions at UBCO might relate, whether they’ve been putting all their energy into a research hypothesis or art installation.

It’s the same for popular professionals in the film industry. Think about how acclaimed directors like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are lauded for their films. While I admit, as a film buff, that Léon The Professional and Manhattan are well-crafted stories, the pedophilic implications in the films are outright obvious! Like, why the hell did Polanski write sexual tension between a thirteen-year-old girl and a fifty-year-old hitman? Why would Allen play himself as a forty-two-year-old dating a seventeen-year-old girl?

In reality, Allen groomed and married his adoptive daughter in 1997, whom he had known since she was 7 years old. And, Polanski wasn’t present to receive his Oscar for The Pianist during the 75th annual Academy Awards after fleeing the United States for drugging and sexually assaulting a thirteen-year-old. To this day, Allen remains married to Soon-Yi Previn, and Polanski remains free in Europe.

It wasn’t a struggle for me to stop watching Allen and Polanski’s filmography once I learned of their criminal and moral misconduct. As world-renowned filmmakers, they found the power to insert their pedophilic habits into their work and watch their ultimate fantasies play out on screen. And, as a person who knows there still is good media made by people who aren’t pedophiles out there, it was easy for me to not support filmmakers that have a taste for minors. All because it makes me extremely uncomfortable sitting through a movie knowing its creator did some messed up shit.

Despite popular opinion, I don’t see how art can be separated from its artist. While some works may be less explicit in sharing their creator’s perspectives, it is a disservice to artists to separate them from their art. 

What we create is an extension of what we value and find important enough to discuss. In cases where artists are terrible human beings, publicly and actively supporting their work – even in the subtlest ways – is excusing their actions.

Consider this: if you were to tell a Jewish friend that you’re a big fan of Kanye West — who undoubtedly is a musical genius — they may be concerned that you don’t acknowledge West’s anti-Semitic [discriminatory against Jewish people or Judaism] statements as offensive and dangerous.

One of his infamously anti-Semitic tweets, “I'm a bit sleep tonight but when I wake up I'm going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE”, references the military term ‘DEFCON’, which means ‘defense readiness condition.’ On a scale from one to five – one being the highest and five being the lowest – DEFCON indicates an alertness that the military must maintain in the face of threatening entities. 9/11 was a DEFCON three situation.

The idea of wanting the military to prepare a ‘defense’ against Jewish people doesn’t leave a good taste in my mouth on account of World War II.

Even though Kanye West genuinely needs professional care for bipolar disorder (and his publicity team to get off their asses), I know so many people dealing with mental health issues who are simply not making discriminatory comments left and right. His mental health is not an excuse for broadcasting a violent threat to his 32 million Twitter followers, a percentage that could potentially take his message to heart and act upon their discriminatory beliefs — because yeah, some people are stupid like that. 

Unfortunately, it’s apparent that West’s pattern of anti-Semitism isn’t stopping, which is obvious after his interview with Alex Jones, in which he praised Hitler. He later tweeted an image of a swastiska inside the Star of David, which finally led to his Twitter ban.

If you were to laugh off West’s statements in front of this hypothetical Jewish friend of yours, wouldn’t they question whether you’d defend them against anti-Semitism targeted directly at them? Why would you excuse one hateful opinion compared to another with the same harmful intentions just because one of these opinions came from a celebrity?

Since we live in a world where a lot of us are privileged enough to get what we want, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of consuming things that make us feel good, without a thought to its consequences.

I’m not telling you to stop listening to your favourite artists or watching certain movies. Neither am I asking you to stop liking celebrities! Everyone has the right to enjoy things that make them happy; if putting up a poster of Harry Styles in your bedroom gives you joy, have fun with that.

I’m just asking you to consider how actively ‘endorsing’ problematic celebrities might affect your relationships and yourself. You are not obligated to be loyal to a celebrity you’ve admired for a long time once they do something wrong. It’s often impossible to know the context and facts behind controversies, because celebrities are not characters who you can make up facts and assumptions about.

Now, I’m not trying to be dramatic here. I believe cancel culture is over-saturated with merciless policing on jokes or statements that public figures might’ve made without genuinely knowing they were saying something offensive. Even grown adults don’t always have the exposure, opportunities, or influences in their life to know that certain ideas they’ve grown up with are hurtful.

Everyone should have the chance to change and do better. It’s easy to tell whether or not someone is genuinely seeking to learn based on their apology and response to being called out.

In cases where celebrities commit actions that deserve jail time or intensive counselling — like abuse, pedophilia, or consistently racist remarks — they aren’t worth our time. Even though the other traits they have, like hard work or charitable generosity, might be praiseworthy, you can embody those on your own accord; the celebrities you learned those values from don’t own those ethics.

So, when you follow up on celebrity news, think about whether you are idolizing and glorifying celebrities, or if you’re dehumanizing them and treating them like court jesters that exist for our entertainment. Though it’s all fun and games to get invested in the lives of hot and talented people on our screens, it’s important to create healthy boundaries between ourselves and the celebrities we ‘know’ but don’t truly know.

Most of the celebrity lifestyles shown on social media and gossip blogs are just stealthy reality shows; their photos are edited to market an ‘ideal’ body with abs or skinny waists, while magazine headlines use exaggerated language to change ‘grabbing dinner with a coworker’ into ‘a torrid love affair on set’.

Celebrities and their publicity coordinators intentionally curate their image so they appear glamorous, perfect, and interesting to their fans — so they can profit off selling themselves. Perhaps that says something about the ethics of the profession they’ve been born into or adapted to in order to be successful in their art and business. But mostly, it just tells us that emotionally investing into the illusion of celebrities can be damaging to our relationship with others and our own morality.

So take a moment to step back, relax, and get connected with the people around you and yourself. Next time you’re befriending a new classmate or bumping into a stranger on campus in the Tim Horton’s line, when you strike up a conversation about the latest celebrity controversy — be aware of how your opinions might affect others, and how they might affect the kind of person you want to be.