The actions of fans who disregard the privacy of their favourite celebrities has helped create a culture where performers are treated as tools for our objectification
Content note for discussion of sexual abuse.
I am, without doubt, a fangirl. It’s a title I relish despite the sniggers it endures. My Pop! collection is second only to my poster collection which depict some of my favourite films and TV shows. Becoming obsessed with a show or a bunch of characters has helped manage OCD. Pop culture helps people make connections and it inspires them. There are different degrees to fandom, but there are few who haven’t been fans of something in life.
We’ve all had our favourite stars we utterly swoon for; whether that’s a pop-star, actor, writer, reality star, whoever. There are some characters that seem so incredible to us that we become enraptured. The cult of celebrity though has been used by some fans as an excuse to harass, sexualise and persistently pursue stars who are entitled to space and privacy. Fans can carry out these toxic behaviours while hiding their abusive behind the excuse that they adore the celebrity. With devotion though should always come respect.
The cast of Stranger Things have exposed the downside of the intensity of some fandoms. A 27 year-old model, Ali Michael was accused of sexualising the 14 year-old Finn Wolfhard. This was in a week where Wolfhard was slammed by fans who were waiting outside of a hotel for not taking pictures with them or greeting them. Wolfhard is an actor but that gig runs from when he’s on shift either doing production or scheduled PR events. His personal time is off-limits to fans. That’s not being harsh, that’s respecting someone’s boundaries and need for a life. Wolfhard is 14 years old and no celebrity should exist for the fandom, but certainly no teenager should be subjected to sexualisation and demands on his personal time.
Wolfhard’s fellow cast member, Millie Bobby Brown, too was recently added to a list of “actors who prove television has never been hotter” – Bobby Brown is 13. Bobby Brown isn’t an exception. The most famous example of the sexualisation of young girls in the spotlight was probably the pressure Emma Watson endured throughout most of the Harry Potter films. It happens to almost every actor in some way or another.
Perhaps what makes it worse is if fans are invested in a particular ship. When that ship doesn’t sail though, then the cast members are writers may find themselves dealing with angry fans and abuse. No matter how bad a storyline, that doesn’t justify sending death threats because a particularly fictional relationship didn’t work out.
“No matter how bad a storyline, that doesn’t justify sending death threats because a particularly fictional relationship didn’t work out”
But actors and pop-stars find themselves daily having to deal – not with adoration of fans – but the violation that some fans commit in the name of that idolisation.
If you support someone then you respect them. What harassment, sexualisation and abuse are about is power. They may find the particular celebrity attractive but harassers don’t just give it to themselves or politely admire a person. They seek to violate. They seek to assert themselves. It’s not trivial of somethings any celebrity should have to put up with. Many celebrities are forced to have a social media presence; it can be a huge hindrance to a career to not be on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Once those accounts are open though celebrities may find their notifications inundated every single day with inappropriate messages. Some celebrities have even had to have breaks from social media or have closed their accounts all together. They’re forced off platforms they need for work, and platforms they often want to use to connect with fans who do show respect. A vocal minority though exploit the need from celebrities to have a public presence.
It is not flattering to be harassed. Age also should not matter. If someone is able to send a message then they have the maturity to be able to think about what harm that message might do. We need to demand better from all corners of fandom.
Recently, The Daily Mail ran the story that Harry Styles was allegedly sexually assaulted by an “eager fan” who grabbed his crotch. What a woeful way to describe the actions of abuse. Styles could not in those circumstances offer consent. He was grabbed by a predator, by someone who sought to invade his space and violate his boundaries as he tried to perform for fans who had supported him throughout the years (Styles and all of the members of One Direction were more celebrities who found fame as a teenager and has been bombarded with sexualised messages ever since).
Part of this is also dealing with trolls, who have so much more in common with sexual harassers who claim to be fans than either do with fans who treat celebrities with respect. Trolls disproportionately attack trans women and women of colour who have a media presence. There is greater scrutiny now from the actions of fans and trolls but what about when Leslie Jones was hacked? Her nudes released and she was subject to constant racism (the majority of which was because she dared as a woman of colour to have a role on the cult fave Ghostbusters). Releasing nudes without consent is a form of sexual violence. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of Jones’s work – not that she would ever get fair reviews anyway – nobody has the right to violate someone. Yet it was done because as a celebrity, as well as a woman of colour, Jones was seen as fair game.
Fans aren’t bystanders. We actively uphold the culture of celebrity, and with that comes a responsibility. We must act at all times with respect for celebrities and acknowledge their humanity. They don’t exist to cater to our needs and wants. If a celebrity doesn’t want a selfie with a fan it’s no big deal, it’s their fundamental right to refuse. If there’s harassment or sexualisation going on in a fandom we’re a part of then we have to call it out. We are the ones who dictate with celebrities will feel comfortable and a convention or a gig. We’re the ones who build communities around celebrities. Just as we have a role to play with calling out sexual predators at the top of the industry, we have a duty to try to stamp out harassment from our own fellow fans. If we truly support our favourite stars then this is how we show it.