Anyone who casually turns on the television or passes by a magazine stand can’t help but notice humanity’s obsession with celebrities. Cover stories like “Kim Kardashian Can’t Understand Why Taylor Swift Talks about Her and Kanye West” and “Brad Pitt and Ellen DeGeneres Dated the Same Woman ” reveal that the public is not nearly as interested in celebrity’s work as they are with the gritty details of their personal lives. But does having a public career mean your life belongs to the public? Here are three arguments for why celebrities deserve privacy, and three reasons why they shouldn’t expect much privacy.
Want fame? Kiss your privacy goodbye.
Revealing personal details is an important part of celebrity branding.
Before making himself odd by jumping on Oprah’s couch, Tom Cruise cultivated a reputation as Hollywood’s quintessential do-gooder, the kind of guy who saved 8-year-old fans from being trampled and pays for the medical care of complete strangers – the ultimate “good guy.” Gwyneth Paltrow combatted a lull in her star power by launching a lifestyle blog, Goop, that revealed (albeit, selectively) her diet, exercise regimen, and parenting techniques. Paltrow capitalized on the public’s curiosity about her life to push her lifestyle brand, and she, like other stars, parlays this curiosity into million-dollar movie contracts and endorsement deals. Let’s’ not forget Taylor Swift, whose celebrity has helped her evolve from wholesome country singer into pop icon into feminist crusader and equal rights activist.
Infatuation with celebrity isn’t about celebrities – it’s about society.
In her explanation of the public’s infatuation with the famed love triangle between Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Debbi Reynolds, gossip scholar (yes, it’s a real thing) Anne Peterson writes that public interest was mainly about society wrestling with its norms and values: “The attraction was not to the actual people involved, but to the conflicts they embodied.” Spectators work through their own challenges and anxieties alongside people they admire. Who can motivate lifestyle changes like Oprah? Or inspire acceptance like Ellen? Society sees itself in its celebrities, and really, it’s not such a bad thing.
Invasions of privacy are not very damaging.
Celebrity sex tapes have been a staple of Hollywood scandal since the personal camcorder became popular in the 1980s. Invariably, most of these intimate videos or private nude pictures were stolen and released without the stars’ consent, and are brazen invasions of privacy. But careers are rarely ruined by sex tapes or other personal or legal scandals. Martha Stewart remained as popular as ever following a 5-month jail sentence for insider trading; Hugh Grant is still king of the romantic comedy even after cheating on Elizabeth Hurley with a prostitute. While the MeToo movement changed the landscape for the likes of Harry Weinstein and other celebrities who got away with systematic sexual harassment and abuse, not everything has changed. Actors accused of domestic violence, like Johnny Depp, or actresses who have broken the law in other ways, like Felicity Huffman, may not retain their titles as Hollywood’s popular leading men and women, but they haven’t disappeared altogether. Indeed, the public airing of dirty laundry seems to endear the public more than it repels them.
Do not disturb.
All people are entitled to privacy.
All humans need privacy. Privacy allows us to mitigate our social environment and our internal world – a person cannot reflect or grow without freedom from the scrutiny of others. This age of social media and cyber surveillance has brought important questions surrounding privacy to the fore. We are asking what kind of information and data government and businesses are entitled to vis-à-vis our online history, but these same considerations are pushed aside in the case of celebrities, whom society rather arbitrarily deems unworthy for privacy at all.
Fame does not necessitate a loss of privacy.
The notion that privacy is the natural price of fame is false – even illogical. There are, in fact, plenty of famous people whose private lives are not routinely invaded by the media. Ever seen an article making fun of the Dalai Lama’s “dad bod”? Why has MTV neglected to add mega-philanthropist and billionaire Melinda Gates to its list of celebrity MILFs? Even Hollywood A-listers like Matt Damon and Julia Roberts have managed to avoid the gossip mill. These cases of famous people whose lives are, for the most part, still private, prove that it’s possible for fame to be based on achievement rather than intrigue – and all celebrities should be treated this way.
Obsessing over celebrities’ personal lives is damaging political awareness.
The personal lives of performers are not a matter of public concern. Donald Trump aside, celebrities are not typically public servants, and few deal with public policy matters like healthcare, infrastructure, and human rights (they can’t all be Angelina Jolie). Nevertheless, we gossip zombies helped the celebrity rumor mill generate $3 billion in 2011, a number that has only risen given the pronounced evolution of celebrity journalism in the age of social media. The more celebrities occupy space in public discussion, the less space there is for other issues to take center-stage. If celebrities have traded privacy for fame, the general public has traded rudimentary political awareness for juicy gossip. This video depicting university students who are unable to answer basic questions about American government— but ace every entertainment question— broadly illustrates the problem.
The Bottom Line: Celebrities need to be aware that the public’s curiosity has no convenient “on/off” button. That said, it might be unfair to expect them to give up their rights to privacy and completely let the public into their private lives. Do celebrities deserve their privacy, or is being in the public eye an inevitable part of the lifestyle they signed up for?