It’s Time to Stop Framing Celebrities’ Most Banal Ideas As Intellect

Too often headlines weight random famous people's thoughts on politics and policy as need-to-know, no matter how mind-numbing the soundbite.

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It’s Time to Stop Framing Celebrities’ Most Banal Ideas As Intellect
Photo:Tim Mosenfelder; Andrew Lipovsky; Rosalind O’Connor; Axelle/Bauer-Griffin; Matt Winkelmeyer (Getty Images)

Something rotten is in the state of celebrity media coverage: Whether or not stars display intellect, they’re often given undue attention for pontificating on matters outside of their lane. I’ve been noticing this for a while, but more than ever now that I sometimes handle Jezebel’s Dirt Bag gossip roundup and have to sift through a lot of headlines at once. And that’s where my eyes roll the hardest: the headlines.

I’ll give you a particularly vexing example from a story in the Hill in 2021: “Matt Damon on red-blue divide: ‘The things that really matter, really matter to all of us.’” This statement (of the obvious) ran as a headline despite Damon’s lack of any remote expertise in politics. No matter what the Hill did or did not do to contextualize the soundbite within the story itself, with its cadence of acquired wisdom that headline thrust Damon into the spotlight. In the same way that celebs took over for supermodels on the covers of fashion magazines, this fellatial treatment has allowed them to infiltrate discourse.

It’s a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing, the banal celebrity observation elevated because of status and not content but nonetheless prioritized as need-to-know:

Justin Bieber: ‘I Really Don’t Believe in Abortion.’” “Jameela Jamil Says ‘Society Is Gonna Collapse’ if Federal Abortion Ban Happens: ‘We Are Already Way Over Our Heads.’” “Teen actor Jaden Smith says we’d be smarter if ‘The World Dropped Out Of School.’” “Viola Davis says critics ‘serve no purpose’ following negative The First Lady reviews.” “Jamie Lee Curtis says the ‘nepo baby’ conversation is ‘designed to try to diminish and denigrate.’” “Lizzo says ‘cancel culture is appropriation’: ‘It’s become trendy, misused and misdirected.’ Kim Kardashian told women to ‘get [your fucking ass] up and work.’ Some people are saying it’s hypocritical.”

At least that last headline about Kim K gestured to a reality that doesn’t accept celebrity utterances as innately perceptive. But more often than not, this very visible tendency—“X Celebrity Said Y Shit About Z”—platforms tweet-worthy material into something that can easily be mistaken as useful information, or even worse, a patently correct decree. Barring rare instances, the celebrities whose ideas are glorified as intellect in headlines like these are not intellectuals in the classic sense. They are not, in The Ideas Industry author Daniel Drezner’s definition of the public intellectual, “experts who are versed and trained enough to be able to comment on a wide range of public policy issues,” who serve “a vital purpose in democratic discourse: exposing shibboleths masquerading as accepted wisdom.” They do not consistently take on the intellectual’s responsibility, in Noam Chomsky’s words, “to speak the truth and to expose lies.” In fact, a particularly cynical reading of their overall job description is that it largely involves telling lies, as ensconced in fantasy-building as it is.

My quibble is not with covering celebrities discussing their work, their lives, and their experiences with other celebrities (gossip is so inevitable, to complain about it is to yell at a cloud). Nor is it with covering celebrities who say particularly dumb things, especially when there’s palpable shade behind reporting on an objectively foolhardy utterance. It’s about how celebrities are now more than ever positioned as intellectuals who deserve to command headlines by a celebrity-hungry media that relies on aggregation.

Though no more useful than those of a plugged-in tweeter, celebrities’ supposedly informed opinions dominate the news about the news.

The examples above, as well as throughout the rest of this piece, are largely derived from the relatively innocent process of asking celebrities to speak. The process goes like this: Celebrities are interviewed, usually about a project that they’re promoting. Maybe the celeb is in a particularly savvy mode and will say something provocative that may, in turn, bring attention to the promoted project. Or, because they are people who are being guided by journalists (also people), they may do what people do and veer off topic. Sometimes this veering off topic contains the most salacious or novel material, precisely because it is outside of a celebrity’s wheelhouse. Alternately, celebrities, like many people, tend to pop off on social media. Aggregation ensues, packaged under the sort of headline that valorizes the celebrity’s statement with credulity.

It is the very process of aggregation, in a Twitter-fixated environment that theoretically rewards novel thinking, that creates the distortion of the celebrity as an intellectual. You may be thinking, “Doesn’t Jezebel do this?” The answer is: Sure, sometimes. In the moment, it seems like no big deal. A celebrity says something, you write it up to help meet your daily quota. But the tone of said distortion is often set not by your write-up itself but by its headline, which Maria Konnikova argued for The New Yorker in 2014 can change the way a reader processes and remembers a story. The headline is often what sticks with a person even if, per studies cited by Konnikova, it conflicts somewhat with the actual content of its story. When the accompanying text does not scrutinize or even contextualize, it is essentially Frankensteining op-eds out of pithy observations. A simple edit test via asking oneself “Does this actually stand up as a mini-essay?” could cut down on these kinds of frivolous posts.

But the headlines so often are doing the majority of the distorting here. Take Lizzo, who recently discussed with EW accusations that her music isn’t Black enough by drawing on the history of segregation in pop music (which, in some cases, is very recent history and in some pockets remains an issue). She argued that genre has been used as a means for racist ends, which she supported with examples, like “race music” in the first half of the 20th century. The problem is that one of the least objectively factual things that she said during this interview showed up again and again in headlines: Billboard (and The Hollywood Reporter): “Lizzo Gets Candid About the Stigma of Pop Music: ‘Genre’s Racist Inherently.’” Buzzfeed: “Lizzo Candidly Called Music Genres Racist In An Interview For Her New Documentary, Love, Lizzo.” MSN: “Lizzo argues contemporary genre segregation is ‘inherently’ racist.” American Songwriter: “Lizzo Opens Up About The Stigma Of Pop Music: ‘Genre’s Racist Inherently.’

Celebrities are capable of sharing insights rooted in and transcending of their work—the bulk of Lizzo’s interview with EW did as much. But from my perspective, genre is style. It’s been used for segregation, but genre itself, which has largely been shaped and formed by Black people in American music, is not inherently racist. This is not an egregious example, but it does get into the fuzziness that makes this phenomenon particularly sneaky. The headlines focused in on the weakest part of Lizzo’s otherwise sound argument so that anyone just scrolling through could have mistaken her as someone who didn’t know what she was talking about, or worse, could now parrot the least-formed part of her argument.

Photo:John Greim/LightRocket (Getty Images)

Celebrities talking about celebrities they’ve crossed personal or professional paths with commands an innate interest that can be revealing or heartwarming or deliciously bitchy. Case in point, after Prince Harry’s book leaked, Page Six’s homepage was wallpapered in headlines derived from quoted excerpts about his royal family, which strikes me as great gossip. But a slippery slope emerges when celebrities comment on other celebrity behavior to which they have no immediate connection. Though no more useful than those of a plugged-in tweeter, their supposedly informed opinions dominate the news about the news. The headlines about Will Smith’s Oscars slap rant the gamut from “Jim Carrey sickened by ‘spineless’ Oscar audience for applauding Will Smith” to “Tiffany Haddish Says Will Smith Stood ‘Up for His Wife’ at Oscars: ‘Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen.’” In addition to all the repeated opinions, not having any was also newsworthy: “Michael Bay: ‘I don’t really care’ about Will Smith Oscars slap”; “Daniel Radcliffe says he’s ‘dramatically bored’ hearing opinions’ about the Will Smith Oscar slap.”

Due to the viral potential of speech via the media’s willingness to broadcast celebrity intellect, Azealia Banks has emerged as a go-to source for cultural commentary, which is potentially troublesome for any number of reasons but none more than her apparent bias against celebrities who are more successful than she is (read: most of them). There is, undoubtedly, a trainwreck aspect to the amount of ink she commands, but surely not entirely. In any event, we’ve had years and years of Azealia Banks saying things: “Azealia Banks Says Beyonce’s Lemonade Is Bad for Feminism, Black Women”; “Azealia Banks Thinks Lizzo Is ‘Making a Fool of Herself for a White American Public’”; “Azealia Banks Says Sarah Palin Should Be Gang-Raped By Black Men, Locked in a Cupboard”; “Azealia Banks Calls Dave Chappelle ‘Highkey Embarrassing’”; “Azealia Banks Says Nicki Minaj Needs ‘Serious Help’ Following Latto Beef”; “Azealia Banks Says Cardi B Is ‘An Industry Plant’ Who Made The Most Of Her Opportunity.” At best, this is some mess for drama connoisseurs. At worst, it emboldens the most attention-seeking stars to just say whatever, guided by an if-I-say-it-they-will-cover-it philosophy. See also: Jameela Jamil: “Jameela Jamil Says Nepo Babies Need To Acknowledge Their ‘Privilege’ & ‘Move On!’”; “Jameela Jamil says ‘fuck off’ to claims that the ‘heroin chic’ body is back in style: ‘It’s all about control’”; “Jameela Jamil says stop ‘meme-ing’ Kanye West over his Kim Kardashian comments”; “Jameela Jamil says celebrity cancel culture is ‘pointless waste of time’ amid JK Rowling criticism.”

This conversation would be incomplete without a mention of Ye, the artist sometimes still known as Kanye West, who for years conducted the media like his own personal orchestra with his remarks, rants, and self-aggrandizing art criticism, not to mention his propensity to just say whatever the fuck. Much of what has been discussed in this piece is mostly just annoying and low-stakes deceptive; Ye is where things get ugly (dare I say “dangerous?”). His mouth may have finally caught up with him via his recent Hitler-praising appearance on Alex Jones’ internet talk show (though don’t be surprised if he finds a way to go lower—he always seems to do so): “Kanye West Tells Alex Jones: ‘I See Good Things About Hitler.’” “Kanye West Calls on Jewish People to ‘Forgive Hitler’ in Interview With Proud Boys Founder.” “YE: BACKLASH AGAINST ME PROVES MY ANTISEMITIC THEORY … Echoes Hitler in Odd News Conference.” “KANYE WEST: I ONLY WISH DEATH ON JEWS WHO DID ME WRONG.

To be clear, a celebrity aligning himself casually with a man responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews is newsworthy, not just by virtue of the sentiment but the social position of he who expressed it. But since he shot to fame, the status-obsessed Ye has consistently made news with mere declaration and bare assertion, clearing the path for his eventual destination of open antisemitism. The current mess he’s in teases out the media model I’m complaining about in this piece to its absurd lengths. Making a bully like Alex Jones seem reasonable in comparison, Ye, a man who doesn’t read books, sat on Infowars and inaccurately asserted that Hitler invented the highway and the microphone. These were among the “good things” about Hitler that Ye cited and the media then put into headlines too often without proper context.

We only have so much room for retaining the trivial shit we read, so the headlines tend to stick, no matter how mind-numbing the soundbite.

There is an inevitable blurring of fine lines between reporting when someone powerful said something stupid and perpetuating the stupidity of their content—I don’t know if headlines about how the covid vaccine made Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls swell and afflicted him with erectile dysfunction really scared anyone away from getting jabbed, but the rampant coverage of the rapper’s tweet certainly perpetuated the wholly irrational anti-vax sentiment literally plaguing our culture. Minaj was playing left field in Jenny McCarthy’s ballpark. Banks, to use another example, at one point told her audience teeming with gay men on Instagram, “Do not take that PrEP shit.” She called the antiretroviral medication that has an over 99 percent efficacy rate for preventing the transmission of HIV “a death trap” and “evil.” She claimed “the girls are getting renal failure.” She later apologized. She has also repeatedly espoused bigotry, including transphobia and racism. She is the opposite of a reputable thought source—but the context-less headlines quoting her persist. The same goes for Ted “Rosa Parks with a Glock” Nugent and Jon “Must Not Allow Mental Illness to Take Away Our Right to Bear Arms” Voight and any other number of right wing celebrities.

Though I believe that elevating pedestrian celebrity spitballing into big ideas has the potential to make all of us dumber, I have to admit, perhaps the unfettered amplification of celebrity thought doesn’t sully anything that hasn’t already been sullied. For those focused on mass culture, the role of public intellectual has largely been filled by cable news pundits, who also frequently don’t really know what they’re talking about in any great depth, or worse, have an agenda to distort their reporting to ratchet up outrage. There’s perhaps no greater living example of the sad state of commercial intellect than Bill Maher, a comedian/actor-turned pundit whose Real Time declarations routinely make headlines, whether the reporting suggests they’re actually insightful, merely incendiary, or somewhere in the middle. Examples: “Bill Maher Says ‘Woke Baggage’ Is Democrats’ Biggest Problem: ‘Stop Talking About Pregnant Men’”; “Maher says increase in those identifying as LGBT partly attributed to being ‘trendy’”; “Bill Maher Says Domestic Terrorism Can Lead to Civil War Because Some ‘Americans Think Their Shit Don’t Stink’”; “BILL MAHER DEMOCRACY IS LIKE MCRIB SANDWICH … It’s Goin’ Away, So Enjoy While You Can.” Clearly, there is an appetite—Maher regularly trends the Saturday mornings following the Friday night airings of his show. We only have so much room for retaining the trivial shit we read, so the headlines tend to stick, no matter how mind-numbing the soundbite. This is the opposite of constructive.

Celebrities do sometimes have interesting things to say—of course I believe this, as someone who regularly talks to famous people about their art and lives, but tends to avoid calling on them to speak beyond the boundaries set by their own work or life. To much fanfare, Monica Lewinsky wrote eloquently in 2014 of experiencing slut-shaming as a result of her affair with President Bill Clinton, helping to chart the path to MeToo-era discourse. Elsewhere, there’s no shortage of deep thoughts on fame itself from those whom it has graced. From Jennifer Grey’s memoir released last year, Out of the Corner: “Fame is like clouds. From a distance, it looks like something big, white, and billowy, but once you’re up inside it, there’s no there there. It’s like vapor. It doesn’t feel like anything.” That seems like a good way to put it—just another thought to float by like a cloud. Here’s one more: “Jameela Jamil thinks celebrities are ‘useless.’” That’s a Page Six headline from December 2020 , and in the intervening two years, Jamil has done little to mitigate said uselessness. She’s right, in a certain way. The media seems happy to facilitate celebrities when they show themselves as extremely useless when deviating from their actual job requirements. There’s a funny irony in that “useless” headline being completely without context, faux-intellectual, and also damning for Jamil. Too often, talk proves to be just as cheap as it’s said to be, no matter how expensive the person is who’s doing it. It’s the media’s duty to set valueyou’ll know it when you don’t see it.

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