So, if you haven’t heard (though that would strike me as incredibly unlikely), Chris Brown took another recent opportunity to show the world how much of a human anal polyp he is and get into a fight with Frank Ocean. It became another chance to talk about Chris Brown, which is always another chance to talk about Rihanna — what she is doing, how we have to respect her decisions, how bad of an influence she is, what opinion about her is the correct one to have if you’re going to be a feminist, and so on and so forth. There are always articles to be written, conversations to be had, endless ways to speculate about the life of a grown woman and her various decisions. I suppose we could all be living in the vain hope that she’ll one day open up a particularly zesty Huffington Post article and decide, “Oh, wait! Getting back with the guy who beat me is a bad image to send to all the seven-year-olds who love grinding to ‘Birthday Cake’ after gymnastics practice. I should break up with him tout de suite!” But I think we’re all aware that this scenario is unlikely at best.
The truth is simply that talking about these things, and giving blowhard opinions over what they should and should not be doing with their lives is lucrative. It gets page views, it gets people talking, it gets you looking like some kind of armchair psychiatrist who is rising above all of the TMZ-induced melee and showing some real sympathy for these human beings. Of course, we all know that out of every hundred bloggers who write some tortured screed about how concerned they are for Rihanna and the message she’s sending to her leagues of fans, there are probably two people who actually care about her. Most are either just upset that she’s not playing the victim to their particular liking, or they are looking to jump on a hot topic and masquerade as a good person with a moral high ground for a few minutes. Do you really think they’re losing sleep at night over what’s going on in the carousel of weed and incoherent Twitter vitriol that is that woman’s life? No. She is a grown ass adult woman, and she can make her own decisions.
And for those on the other side, telling people that feeling one way or another about the situation is — wait for it — un-feminist, it’s just a convenient way to spin the story so that they can dogmatically force people to approve of this woman’s idiotic life choices because she has a vagina. Of course you can think this woman is stupid, and a bad influence, and that her antics on social media are laughable. Of course you can say, “I would never do this myself, and I would be embarrassed if I were her.” She is a human being like anyone else, and you can think whatever you want about it. If my little sister were idolizing her and not whatever J Pop she’s listening to these days? I would probably sit her down and be like, “Let’s talk about why you should pick a better hero.” But she’s not, so whatever. Making these kind of grandiose proclamations though — telling people that we have to “respect” this woman’s asinine decisions — is popular. It gets people riled up. It gets attention.
Just look at the recent New York Times piece about Lindsay Lohan that’s been making the rounds in just about every internet circle the past week or so. It’s a long essay that follows her around on set, confirms a lot of our suspicions about what a drug-addled ball of wasted potential surrounded by yes men she is in real life, and generally makes for an entertaining read. It’s good writing, and a compelling story. And if we’re being honest about why it’s popular, and why people enjoy reading this or any other story about a startlet-in-distress who can’t seem to put down the pipe long enough to check in for a cursory season on Dr. Drew’s Exploitation Rehab Circus, it’s because it’s fucking entertaining. It’s engaging, and stimulates our more foul pleasure centers in the way a greasy bag of McDonald’s might. We enjoy it in the way Romans watched two gladiators tear each other to pieces, it’s compelling to watch a bright star fall. And in seeing it, we feel better about our own lives.
To justify it, though, we must lace all of our ugly encouraging of these celebrities’ self-destructive behaviors with a thin layer of concern varnish, this idea that somehow we are praying for them to make a last minute pull out of the nosedive and become the success story that Robert Downey Jr shockingly managed to become. We have to pretend as though we are holding out hope for a good end, or that we genuinely care about these people’s lives. We have to work up fake tears for overgrown children who are paid the GDP of several European micronations to act as overblown court jesters for the public amusement. Every time we write some exposé about the new lows to which LiLo is sinking — or make her out to be some tortured artist character — we are only giving her further reason to keep hurting herself. We are rewarding this behavior in the most Pavlovian way, saying with our longform posts as well as our tabloid dollars that we want to see more of the tailspin.
If Lindsay Lohan dies of an overdose in the near future, and there’s a good chance she will, our only collective response should generally be “Welp, maybe this wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t start every day with an 8 ball of blow and a Gatorade cooler of grain alcohol.” She is a person, amongst millions of people, who makes terrible decisions every day. We don’t care for her any more than we care for the countless tragic stories we encounter every day which barely register on our radar because the front page of every magazine is too busy talking about Rihanna’s reprehensible-yet-totally-respectable choices. It’s silly to pretend that we have any investment in these people, as our attention only serves to push them further into whatever hole they are currently incapable of climbing out of. Sure, we can say that they are being negative influences on the impressionable minds who look up to them — and that’s a fair thing to say — but ultimately there are a thousand influences acting upon children every day to whom the first and best line of defense is being raised in an intelligent, capable, open household who talks frankly about the dangers of life and makes a commitment as a family to be smart about them together. It is not Britney Spears circa 2007’s job to raise anyone’s children.
I had a friend die of a heroin overdose a few years back. It was an incredibly sad thing, but it was not surprising. Despite his parents’ numerous attempts to help him through rehab, he was unable to kick his habit and eventually found himself ceasing all activity outside of shooting up. In the months leading up to his death, we were all fairly sure it would happen. We hoped for him to get better, to decide to kick the habit, to take the help — but that was ultimately his choice to make as an adult. And he made it. And people every day make these choices, celebrity or not. And one of the things we had to do when it was clear that his decision had been made was to stop enabling him in all of the various ways we had been doing so, because it was only making his downward trajectory even more sharply curved. It’s a tough cycle to break, but you break it because you have to. And if anyone wants to pretend that talking endlessly about the decisions of these adult strangers and giving them the press they so crave is anything but enabling, perhaps their next topic should be the hypocrite in the mirror.