the popstars vs the papstars
Can we ever justify paparazzi hounding celebrities?
Continuing the trend of celebrity derrieres making headlines, last week saw Taylor Swift's backside doing the rounds on the internet. Yet unlike some of her predecessors, Tay Tay's intentions were not to #breaktheinternet. Quite the opposite. The shot in question shows her avoiding getting papped by traversing backwards down a hiking trail in a fairly remarkable display of coordination. (Your half-hearted ballet 'fails' don't fool us, Taylor).
Her move follows another burgeoning fashion of the famous - celebrities playing the paparazzi, repurposing or reflecting the glare of the long lens flash. From Taylor's back-to-front hike to Kendrick Lamar papping the paps, stars are increasingly adopting avoidance tactics that are more clever and thought provoking than a heated flip of the bird or Liam Gallagher style left hook.
When Taylor Swift turns her back on the paparazzi, she's reasserting control over her image, while also shifting the conversation away from it. The story is no longer about her choice of workout attire or how red and sweaty she may be (because sweating during exercise?! The scandal!!). Instead, she's subtly raising issues of privacy, questioning the extent to which one's life should be intruded upon - even if you are as entrenched in the public domain as Taylor is. When Lenny Kravitz exhibits his own photos of the paparazzi, or Kendrick Lamar's crew brandish their iPhone cameras on them, they similarly highlight the intrusiveness of the paparazzi - and give them a taste of their own medicine. And when Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield covered their faces with signs advertising organisations like Worldwide Orphan's Foundation and Gilda's Club NYC, they directly shift the exposure to those more in need, questioning the whole celebrity news culture itself. What could we achieve, they ask, if we refocused our obsession with stars' coffee orders onto people who really - and desperately - need more attention?
Now, it's easy to demonise the paparazzi when their subjects - and most vehement critics - are some of the most influential people out there. If we buy celebrities' dresses out of stock the day after they're plastered over Instagram, we're sure as hell going to buy their critique of the paparazzi - which is already perceived as a fairly dodgy profession. Even the word is synonymous with annoyance - it originated as the name of the photojournalist 'Paparazzo' in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which is derived the Italian word for mosquito - 'papataceo'. Because though little can rival that high pitched whine in the irritation stakes, one thing that just might would be a barrage of "HEYLOOKOVERHEREWHOAREYOUWEARING/DATING/HATING?!!"
But it can also be argued that the paparazzi play a crucial role in our celebrity-obsessed society - one beyond the itch they're named after. Journalism was born out of a necessity to hold the all powerful to account, checking and balancing their extraordinary influence - be they politicians, religious leaders, royalty, even Kimmy K. In a Time article Andrew Mendelsen writes, "the paparazzi represent a challenge to the control of a celebrity's image, and thus to their wealth, status and power."
In our age of internet obsession, stars aren't born - they're made. They're constructed from the myriad of images used to publicise not just their work, but them. They're made from pin-up smile press junkets, from billboards awash with oversized smizes, from ghost-joked late night TV appearances. And they have a whole team of people working to maintain this image, the brand they want to put forward to the world - publicists, stylists, manicurists, personal chefs who can make even veganism taste good. A celebrity's image, their brand, their gif-ability, all plays a huge part in whether they're going to get that next job, endorsement, or magazine cover. The more your image sells, the more likely you are to get the gig.
The paparazzi however - with their unauthorised, often unflattering, snapshots - pose a significant threat to a celebrity's carefully cultivated image. The paparazzi simply illustrate that celebrities aren't superhuman beings who #wokeuplikethis. They get pimples. Cellulite. Or they don't, but only because they've spent a gold-plated bucket load of cash and even more time honing that perfectly pert tush. So yes, it'd be good if the paps were simply holding these artfully composed celebrity images to account by merely pointing out that no, that magazine cover is unrealistic and unattainable and it's ok that you don't look like that because no one does.
A quick glance at TMZ or the Daily Mail though shows that the pap stories aren't that simple. The flaws and fallibilities aren't just exposed - they're framed as an exposé. A dirty-secret, caught-red-handed public shaming of something that - let's be honest - is fairly commonplace. A fat roll. A drunken stumble. Blown up within an inch of its pixelated life and emblazoned with caps locks and exclamation points, these completely insignificant (non)events or features become "SHOCK!!! HORROR!!! YOUR PERFECT ROLE MODELS ARE REALLY A BUNCH OF FAT DRUNKS!"
It is arguably much more harmful than allowing a celebrity to cultivate his or her own image as a perfect, mythical beauty. It leads to a shaming culture that, like the infamous cerulean sweater from The Devil Wears Prada, trickles down to the rest of society. Chances are, you don't think of your favourite celebrity as a series of press shots and publicity tours anyway. You view them as an idol, a role model, or maybe even - because of the directness of today's social media world - a friend. You see a pap take them down and you don't see a 'brand' being held to account - you see someone you admire being publically shamed for something that you can most likely relate to. Witnessing this constant barrage of negativity can lead to an internalisation of the more popular themes within the pap world. *insert favourite celebrity*'s stretch marks? "GROSS!!" Your stretch marks? GROSSER!!! Which, in an Instagram-obsessed world that places a disproportionate premium on image, is problematic.
Which is why it's refreshing to see celebrities challenge the paparazzi, and by implication, the whole gossip industry - including us, the consumers. Yes, the image that celebrities cultivate should be questioned to an extent, lest their photoshopped abs and artfully contoured cheekbones get the better of us, but watching Kendrick Lamar turn tables on TMZ, Lenny Kravitz' pap-profiling art show, and Andma (Emdrew? Stonefield?) redirect their exposure is good for us. In the same way that the paparazzi has contributed to an image shaming culture that's seeped into society, hopefully celebrities' rebellion against this will similarly encourage consumers to take back ownership of their own bodies and body image. Because though a picture may speak a thousand words, your actions speak louder.