Why Do We Love Celebrities Who Behave Badly?
Most of last year entertainment news was saturated with talk of the ‘Salman Verdict’, Salman Khan’s acquittal by the Bombay High Court for an alleged drunk-driving accident back in 2002 that left one man dead and three others seriously injured. Everyone had an opinion on it, and as a keen observer of pop culture, I’ve been watching the drama unfold in the papers, on blogging sites, and over social media. Most people—namely, his mammoth, overzealous fan base—seem happy about the actor’s acquittal; others say it is a horrible miscarriage of justice, and further proof that the rich and powerful are above the law.
But I haven’t been able to find it in me to say anything.
I woke up to two headlines on December 10th. The first was news of Salman’s acquittal, with most of Bollywood rejoicing despite the fact that 13 years later, there is still no justice for the victims of the accident. The second piece of news was that the CBI had filed a 300-page charge sheet against Salman’s protégé, actor Sooraj Pancholi, under suspicion that he aided and abetted former girlfriend Jiah Khan’s suicide. The charge sheet included gruesome details of an at-home abortion Sooraj allegedly performed on Jiah in an effort to save his fledgling career from scandal; the 25-year-old actress later hanged herself from her ceiling fan.
Upon reading these headlines on the morning of December 10th, I immediately slammed my laptop shut and burst into tears. It was a tad dramatic in hindsight, but at the time, I was filled with disgust…not because I was surprised that celebrities were capable of such atrocities, but because for the rest of the world, it was business as usual. We’ve become so desensitized to the people we idolize behaving badly that hearing our favorite actor has blood on his hands is hardly worth batting an eye at.
This has nothing to do with the legal system, which has never and will never guarantee justice for everyone across the board. The court I’m talking about is the court of public opinion. And it has been proven time and again that if you’re moderately attractive and capable of providing us with entertainment, we the people will literally let you get away with murder to avoid the inconvenience of revoking your Fame Card.
This isn’t just a ‘Bollywood’ problem. There is no entertainment industry in the world where you won’t find killers, rapists, bigots, and abusers. And if you want to make a career out of working in entertainment media like I do, the constant stories of horrors that occur within these industries is overwhelming. The actions of men like Salman and Sooraj have resulted in death and injury, and yet millions of people will trend ‘We Love Salman’ on Twitter to celebrate the fact that he is now able to churn out potboilers minus the constant fear of incarceration hanging over his head. And who is willing to bet that Sooraj will continue to get film roles despite having extracted a fetus from his girlfriend and flushed it down the toilet? In the West, directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are both child rapists, and yet all of Hollywood is not only willing to work with them, but also actively petition for excusal of their crimes in the interest of “art”. Tom Cruise, the biggest movie star in the world, heads a malicious cult—Scientology—that uses religion to hide its crimes. Charlie Sheen has abused several romantic partners, and yet he was one of the highest paid stars on television for years. And Sean Penn tied then-wife Madonna to a chair and beat her with a baseball bat. This is all public knowledge, and yet these men are still famous. They’re still respected. They’re still working.
Their actions are inexcusable, but so is our indifference. By not holding them accountable for the things they’ve done, we bear some of the responsibility for the pain they have inflicted on their victims. After all, it’s not like all celebrities are bulletproof. God forbid a leading man come out as gay, or his career would crash and burn. But find out that he has abused his wife or girlfriend? Eh, that’s forgivable! The truth is that audiences are more bothered by who celebrities are sleeping with or what plastic surgery they’ve had than they are by the physical and emotional harm they’ve caused those around them. The least we could do is be honest about our priorities: in our society, laying hands on another human being is less horrifying than a botched nose job.
Where do we, as both fans and consumers, draw the line? Do we boycott the films of the people who perform these monstrous acts? What about all the other entertainers who openly support them? Surely, people who are too selfish to look beyond the interests of their insulated group do not deserve the love, adoration, and money of millions of strangers who have made them who they are today. But if we cut out every entertainer who displays or supports problematic behavior, there would be very few of them left in the world.
I don’t have the answers. All I know is that I’m saddened that I will probably have to be willing to overlook these things to get anywhere in the entertainment industry. I’m saddened that thousands of young people have a poster on their walls of a man who physically and mentally tortured his girlfriend into committing suicide. But what makes me saddest is the fact that I live in a society where these issues barely merit a discussion, simply because a person’s talents as an artist have endeared them to the public to the extent that we are willing to ignore all the unpleasant bits of their personality.
We don’t have to put up with this; this is something we have chosen. Celebrities are not ordained royals whose thumbs we’re forced to live under. They are just people, and like all people, they are flawed. It is up to us decide how many flaws a person is allowed to have before they have to trade in their popularity and legacy to pay for the things they’ve done.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m choosing to say, No more. No more of my time, energy, words, or money will be spent on celebrities who don’t deserve it. I will save it for their victims…if the mainstream media even remembers to print their names.