Food For Thought: Why We Love Falling Stars
Author’s note: As always, this is an opinion piece. I’m not an attorney or doctor, so this is not advice in any shape or form.
Remember how back in 2006-2007 the media could not get enough of Britney Spears? Actually hold on, let me more accurately rephrase that: remember when the media could not get enough of making Britney Spears’ life a living hell? For those of you who didn’t really follow the news or celebrity gossip during that time, you may have no idea what I’m talking about so I’ll give you a refresher. Starting somewhere in 2006, the media started to talk about Britney Spears with frightening frequency, and it seemed like her entire life was up on display. Starting with her marriage to Kevin Federline, it was apparently super important that we knew every detail in Spears’ life. However, after their marriage became rocky Britney started to spiral into a special form of madness that only a select few celebrities suffer from. From that point onwards, the media turned her into the subject of ridicule, pointing out everything from Spears shaving her head to smashing a car with an umbrella. This was not a pretty period in her life, and after hearing the headline “Britney Spears is losing it!!!11!” for the millionth time, I got pretty sick of it. This “cultural martyrdom” got so bad that Trey Parker and Matt Stone dedicated an entire episode of South Park to just parodying how savagely the media acted.
Britney Spears in South Park
Thankfully Britney Spears has come back from this low point in her life, and she has since then made a musical comeback and is now a judge on the X-Factor. Barely anybody talks about that phase in her life anymore. Wait a second, why on earth am I talking about ancient history? I’m mentioning this because now we have a new punchingbag in the news, and that is Miley Cyrus. A month ago (I’m great at timeliness, aren’t I?), the Internet was aflame with outrage after the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards aired. The key reason for this controversy was because Miley Cyrus put on the most bizarre performance imaginable, complete with drugged out teddybears, a nude-colored two-piece, and a father welcoming almost-sexual solicitations from someone half his age. Despite the performance not being anything too out of the ordinary for the VMAs, soon Facebook and other social media sites were alive with the sound of fervent complaints. Numerous parents even sent complaints to the FCC about the performance:
Had I wanted my family to see a hooker perform a live sex show, I would have taken her to Tijuana
How could we also forget the massive amount of memes that were generated?
However, what is probably the most interesting, and at the same time most disturbing, trend in all of this was how people immediately began calling Cyrus the next Lindsay Lohan after the performance was aired. Understandably, the public at large was shocked when Cyrus did a complete 180 and transformed from the face behind Hannah Montana to the hyper-sexualized celebrity we know today. However, does her recent behavior really warrant another period of time where we take pleasure in making a martyr out of yet another ex-child celebrity for the sake of getting our kicks? Why do we even do this? It very well could be due to the human race’s odd tendency to partake in good ol’ fashioned schadenfreude. In clearer english, of course, schadenfreude is a German word that means taking pleasure in the pain of others. Now trust me, I’m no psychologist, but I know that a good majority of us have felt pleasure in seeing other people fail. It’s okay to admit it, it’s part of human nature. Psychologist Richard H. Smith even has a very good explanation for this behavior, and that is because we often gain from other people’s misfortunes:
Any sympathy we might feel is mixed with the pleasing effects of the benefit that may come our way. Self-interest is a powerful motive, and it is only natural to feel good if we are gaining from an event, even if it is from another person’s misfortune.
Richard H. Smith – “Why do we feel schadenfreude?“, CNN.com
Now of course in the context of Mr. Smith’s article, he uses examples from team dynamics to explain why we take pleasure in other people failing at something. For example, he uses research from Indiana University to show that fans of sports teams feel much better about themselves when their favorite team wins a game. What this can be used to explain is that human beings view interpersonal dynamics as being very important in society – we see things as “us” vs. “them,” in a way. So why do we revel in seeing child stars fall, and how does this relate? How can we possibly feel better about ourselves when a celebrity’s life (more specifically, a very young celebrity’s life) falls apart?
Aside from idiots who write this tripe telling us that this behavior is okay, so long as it sells copies.
This is just a theory, but it may have to do with the way our society is set up. To start, there has always been this strange fascination with people in Hollywood. As a nation, we have a tendency to make the most rich or successful people into god-like figures, beings who, despite being completely unrelatable to the average person, are still worshipped as inspirations or idols. We do this all the time via our celebrity gossip television shows, magazines, or websites, and the average person is endlessly fascinated with every action that a celebrity takes. In a way, it could be due to the average American desiring to live vicariously through their favorite actor or actress. We say to ourselves, “They reached the American dream of fame and fortune. I wish I could spend a day in their shoes.” What may also be an explanation for why we scrutinize a celebrity’s every move is that reality television has taught us that this is acceptable social behavior.
As a society, we also have a tendency to love when our gods fall from grace, and do so in the most gloriously devastating way possible. We feel better about ourselves when we see that someone else is having setback after setback, especially someone who is rich, powerful, and influential. Back in 2006, Britney Spears may have suddenly seen so much ire from the media because she was seen as an obnoxious teeny-bopper, so why not knock her down a peg? When it comes to seeing famous people suffer, the concept of schadenfreude remains the same; what results from the social martyrdom of a celebrity is that we find this suffering gratifying. We might try to justify this lust as a socially-acceptable form of entertainment that everybody loves, but some theories suggest that we might have differing motives for this behavior, such as using it as a way to make up for our own inadequacies:
If somebody enjoys the misfortune of others, then there’s something in that misfortune that is good for the person . . . I think when you have low self-esteem, you will do almost anything to feel better, and when you’re confronted with the misfortune of others [sic] you’ll feel schadenfreude,[“] van Dijk told LiveScience.
Jeanna Bryner – “Schadenfreude Explained: Why We Secretly Smile When Others Fail“, Livescience
However, as many of you are no doubt aware, there are moments when people’s hatred for a celebrity goes way beyond just passively desiring to see them fail, but actually goes into the realm of actively waiting for the next piece of news to come out that chronicles their continuous downward spiral. Remember Amanda Bynes? Of course you do, everybody remembers her at this point. While she has recently escaped public scrutiny after being committed to a mental health facility, she was one of the latest examples of what happens when the public schadenfreude causes a childstar to almost lose everything. See, what the general public doesn’t realize is that while celebrities are held up to be god-like figures in our society, the reality is that they are human beings just like you and me (despite what People Magazine tells you). Understandably, while we may have our reasons to hate Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, or Justin Bieber, does that really justify an entire society turning against them and wishing for their downfall for the sake of entertainment?
Now don’t get me wrong, I dislike celebrities as much as the next person. I wanted to punch Bieber in the face after hearing about how he pissed in someone’s mop bucket. However, we also need to understand that if we lose control of schadenfreude, some pretty terrible things can happen. Examples of this can be seen from a study conducted where fans of one sports team, in a frenzy, lose control and actively want to see the fans of the other team in pain. The whole “us vs. them” mentality comes into play where, as an extreme of wanting to feel good at the expense of others, people are willing to harm each other in order to achieve a result they see as the most desirable. How could this be applicable to childstars? Unlike most adult celebrities, who have had the advantage of having a real childhood, most child celebrities have had to take on adult responsibilities before their bodies and brains have fully developed. Childstars usually never have a real chance to grow up like the rest of us, so the most crucial part of their lives never really happen. With that in mind, what do you think happens when they suddenly have people taking shots at them from all directions? It may make their unstable conditions even worse.
As this Cracked article by Mara Wilson, a former child celebrity herself, points out, the life of a childstar is never simple, and rarely ever happy. There could be numerous reasons for this: their parents won’t (or can’t) help point them in the right direction, they want to rebel but can’t (instead being forced to be squeaky clean like Cyrus or Bynes), or they have even been sexually exploited. Childstars could also have other problems that the article doesn’t mention, like legitimate mental issues. Britney Spears, due to an undisclosed mental illness that many believe to be bipolar disorder, was placed under conservatorship for an indefinite amount of time due to her mental state. When the public schadenfreude came into play, many of these child celebrities acted out far more frequently due to their negative press, and their inability to escape it. This is why Amanda Bynes, during her breakdown, vehemently responded to every person who showed concern for the actress by calling them ugly or fat.
So to bring things back full-circle to Miley Cyrus, a child celebrity who might or might not be heading down the dangerous path as the next potential victim of public schadenfreude, is there any good reason to be freaking out over her VMA performance? Not really, and I think that the public disconnect from these ‘gods’ is a really dangerous thing if we don’t realize that Cyrus is just another victim of the really bizarre Hollywood system. This article wasn’t really meant to be a “Shame on you for doing this!” article so much as an exploration on why we behave the way we do when child stars start to show signs of going in a downward spiral, but we have to ask ourselves why we let our schadenfruedes escape us like this. After all, it may not be a child star’s fault, but it may be the very wrong, very sick system that Hollywood has trapped them in. Let’s have a final thought with Dave Chappelle: