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What Depp v Heard Tells Us About Toxic Fandom

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/06/2022 - 7:18pm in

Networked harassment, parasocial relationships and good old fashioned misogyny have all turned a domestic abuse into a spectator sport as part of the #MeToo backlash, says Sian Norris

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It was the TV event of the Christmas season. Stuffed with chocolates and leftover turkey, the nation sat down to enjoy A Very British Scandal, a miniseries packed with period detail and perfectly-applied red lipstick, detailing the scandalous mid-century divorce of the Argylls.

In between envying silk shirts and high-waisted slacks, I sent out a tweet referring to the male lead Paul Bettany’s friendship with actor Johnny Depp – a friendship that involved swapping text messages where they 'joked' about drowning and burning Depp’s ex-wife Amber Heard.

The pair had only been married for 15 months when Heard left Depp and accused him of domestic abuse. The story was picked up by The Sun, where Dan Wootton called Depp a "wife beater". He sued for libel, but in October 2020 Judge Mr Justice Nicol said the newspaper proved its claims against Depp to be "substantially true" and found 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic abuse had occurred.

In the text exchange, Bettany had suggested subjecting Heard to a drowning test – the mediaeval method of determining if a woman was a witch. “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!” Depp responded. “I will f**k her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.” 

“My thoughts entirely,” replied Bettany. 

An average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the US. The vast majority are women.

What happened next surprised even me, a veteran of Twitter pile-ons. For at least three days, I received tweet after tweet, extolling the virtues of Depp and condemning Heard in the vilest, misogynistic language. My block button went into overdrive as I heard from Depp fans convinced of his innocence and victimisation, of my misandrist ignorance, and of Heard’s evil.

Numerous people informed me rather loftily that the exchange referenced a Monty Python joke. I can’t say I’m an aficionado of Python history, but I don’t think Cleese and Palin ever discussed raping a corpse. 

My experience of the Depp “stans” (a term derived from the Eminem song ‘Stan’ to denote extreme fandom) meant I had tried not to engage with the return of Depp and Heard to the courtroom – this time in the US with a jury and in front of an army of TV cameras. Depp had sued Heard for $50 million for defamation, regarding an op-ed she wrote about being a victim of domestic abuse. Heard countersued for $100 million.

But it didn’t really matter that I had decided not to engage. I couldn’t escape the courtroom that had turned allegations of domestic abuse into a form of grotesque entertainment for the masses. Whenever I checked my Instagram or Facebook feeds, I was met with pro-Depp content… despite my private Instagram account being mostly friends, books and classic movie clips. I wasn’t following the case, but social media made damn sure the case followed me. 

We now know that The Daily Wire, a conservative outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, spent thousands of dollars promoting anti-Heard and pro-Depp messaging on social media. Heard also claims Depp orchestrated a “trolling campaign” against her, with his promises that he would humiliate her leading to some experts suggesting the two court cases are a form of continued abuse.

Bettany’s and Depp’s text messages were beginning to feel accurate – with the peanut munching crowd turning the scene into less of a defamation case and more of a witch trial. 

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Toxic Fandom

The behaviour of Depp fans during the court case demonstrates an intense and often toxic bond between the star and the people who have chosen to make him their cause. 

“In the 1950s, a theory developed called ‘parasocial relationships’”, Dr Kirsty Sedgman of the University of Bristol told Byline Times. Sedgman researches audiences and fan culture. “The theory arose with the advent of TVs in the home, and parasocial interactions describe the intense, personal sense of connections that viewers can have with celebrities”.

Such interactions help to explain the identification of his fans with Depp – a man beamed into their living rooms and fantasies for more than three decades. It's the belief that he is someone they know and who would be their friend or even lover if they met. Women in particular seem to have a vested interest in defending and supporting him in a way that we would normally only expect of people we know ‘in real life’. 

While fandom can be a positive force  – creating communities and enriching culture – there is such a thing as toxic fandom. That toxicity has been on full display as Depp enthusiasts use misogynistic language and threats against Heard in the name of defending their fan object. 

“Toxic fandom used to be confined to the margins,” Sedgman explained. “Sub-cultural bickering between niche, highly-invested communities. Now it’s right at the centre of mainstream culture, with fandom being the battleground for playing out broader political conflicts”.

That political conflict is, in this case, domestic abuse and the backlash against the #MeToo movement. It’s a conflict of who gets to be believed, who gets to be a victim, and who has power. And that’s a problem. 

“It’s become a watercooler moment, the reality show we are all talking about,” explained Dr Phoenix Andrews, who is writing a book about political fandom. “People with no interest in celebrity culture previously, they now have an opinion on this case. But this isn’t a reality show, it’s real people in a courtroom, with people out to destroy Amber Heard as a human”. 

Networked Harassment

Many of the Depp fans are legacy fans – people who enjoyed him in his major film roles throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But Andrews has found that the “watercooler moment” effect means people who have never really taken an interest in Depp before have become heavily invested in the case, become entrenched in their positions, and become part of networks and communities that share the same viewpoint on Heard’s status as a victim or villain. 

“Because of the way the case is being shared on mainstream and local media, people make snap judgments and once they have an opinion on Depp or Heard, it’s hard to climb down from it,” Andrews explained. “Then, if they post their view on social media, they will get lovebombed by people who share that position – and likely receive hate from people who think the opposite. They find a community and can easily go down a radicalisation spiral, which is how you end up with someone who was pro-MeToo becoming really misogynistic”. 

When Depp is under attack, the community that identifies with him and is invested in defending him against Heard feels under attack too – and its members believe they have a moral duty to defend one another and, ultimately, their fan object. 

This turns the community aspect of fandom which can be so enriching into something toxic and leads to what academic Dr Alice E Marwick calls “networked harassment”. Rather than the harassment being one-on-one, it becomes a swarm of people who are defending their cause – in this case Depp – with a missionary zeal. 

We now know that The Daily Wire, a conservative outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, spent thousands of dollars promoting anti-Heard and pro-Depp messaging on social media.

“When you become part of a community, if anyone criticises your position it is like they are criticising your country, your family, your first born child,” said Andrews. “It suddenly becomes very important to defend your position, especially in front of your new social network. And if someone spots a person who has transgressed the norms of your community and is disagreeing with a member of your community, it becomes a moral duty to pile in and give back up. People feel they have to defend the honour and legitimacy of their group – where an attack on one member is an attack on all”. 

Harassment then, according to Marwick, becomes a “mechanism to enforce social order” with a networked group escalating the harassment while being fuelled by a moral outrage that their social norms have been violated. 

This is not solely an issue for the Depp versus Heard case. It’s something we have seen with sports teams, sci-fi fandoms, political parties and even Brexit v Remain. 

But this is not a hypothetical debate. It cannot be forgotten, as people declare themselves TeamHeard or TeamDepp and use vile hashtags to proudly display their misogyny, that at the heart of this case is domestic abuse. 

“The scary thing is we are reframing domestic abuse as entertainment,” said Sedgman. “It’s something we are being encouraged to actively invest in, like a sporting match between two equally powerful opponents. But people who have studied the case would agree that the idea the two participants have equal power is nonsensical. As a society, we are very bad about thinking through unequal operations of power”. 

Domestic abuse isn’t a spectacle or a battle of the memes. It’s a crime that impacts 1.2 million people in England and Wales every year, that disproportionately impacts women (83% of victims who experience more than 10 incidents of abuse are women) and where male abusers kill at least 100 women every year.

An average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the US. The vast majority are women.

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Celebrities Are Such Scumbags Because They’re Invested In The Status Quo

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/05/2022 - 11:38am in

Listen to a reading of this article:

https://medium.com/media/36088fd78a0e8c89b8f0de4e83342509/href

Have you ever wondered why a famous person whose work you’ve enjoyed has such a myopic perspective on world events? How someone can stir you at your most intimate depths with their words or their music and yet have a blinkered mainstream political worldview that is manufactured by think tanks and spinmeisters?

Celebrities have been particularly odious empire sycophants these last few days, and it’s probably worth taking a moment to reflect on what’s going on when that happens.

Bette Midler has been drawing headlines for her recent let-them-eat-cake remark about baby formula shortages, taking to Twitter to tell Americans, “TRY BREASTFEEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.”

There are of course many reasons why parents might be unable to consistently provide breast milk to their baby, including but not limited to the very health problems and long working hours that the US status quo often creates. More than this, telling individuals what to do in response to a systemic problem created by the wealthy and the powerful serves to divert attention away from criticisms of those people and those systems.

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Midler often uses her Twitter account to broadcast her indifference to the struggles of the less fortunate, like in March when she tweeted “I’d happily pay more for gas for her” with a picture of a child holding a Ukrainian flag. Midler has an estimated net worth of a quarter billion dollars.

While we’re on the subject of Ukraine, U2’s Bono and the Edge recently played a concert in Kyiv in support of the world-threatening US proxy war against Russia, because of course they fucking did. Bono, who says he has “grown very fond” of war criminal George W Bush and praised capitalism at the World Economic Forum and teamed up with warmonger Lindsey Graham to promote US empire narratives about Syria in 2016, would of course be seen singing “Stand by Ukraine” in support of US empire narratives in a Kyiv subway in 2022.

The immensely popular Indian spiritual leader known as Sadhguru Jagadish Vasudev recently tweeted “May Israel inspire the world” in praise of the apartheid ethnostate’s farming practices even as its tyranny and bloodshed draws international headlines. Few of the enlightenment merchants on the spiritual marketplace have anything worthwhile to say about individual awakening, and virtually all of them are fast asleep when it comes to consciousness about the external world.

Horror author Stephen King made the bizarre decision to tweet “I stand with Nina Jankowicz” the other day in support of the freaky shitlib who will be leading the Department of Homeland Security’s Ministry of Truth. Nothing really to say about that beyond what it is.

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This kind of thing happens so often because within an empire that is held together by propaganda, capitalism and mass military violence, those who are elevated to prominence within that empire have a symbiotic relationship with those things.

Someone who is worth a quarter billion dollars is unlikely to support the end of capitalism and the elimination of vast wealth inequality. Someone whose wealth and status come from Hollywood is unlikely to oppose the imperial propaganda machine of which Hollywood is a crucial part. Someone who benefits from status quo politics is unlikely to promote meaningful opposition to them.

And it goes both ways. The imperial machine is not going to elevate people who seek its death. Anti-imperialist journalist Aaron Maté will never win a Pulitzer. Antiwar comic Dave Smith will never star in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Chart-topping songs will tend to glorify money and affluence and will never amplify any opposition to the mechanisms which make them possible.

You don’t generally become rich and famous without the cooperation of people who have the power to facilitate your doing so. Those people will always be invested in the continuation of status quo systems, because they are intimately intertwined with those systems. If you seek the end of capitalism or empire or Israeli apartheid or US sanctions or cold war brinkmanship, you are unlikely to be helped toward the top by any of those people.

And then once you are granted your golden ticket to fame and fortune, you immediately find yourself surrounded by people who are deeply invested in the status quo systems which just elevated you. You go to their parties. You make friends with them because it’s difficult to form normal friendships with ordinary people when you’re very famous. Before you know it you’re in a tighty cloistered echo chamber of the status quo worldview.

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So fame is a self-reinforcing feedback loop of support for establishment power in numerous ways, and it’s a major problem. It’s a major problem because it means that the people with the most influential voices in our society will always necessarily be people who have benefited tremendously from status quo systems. Their voices eclipse those countless millions who are suffering under those same systems, not because they are more valid or more truthful but solely because they are more amplified.

When you’ve got all the loudest voices talking about the world and their nation in a way that suggests that the system is working fine while all the far more numerous voices saying the opposite are going virtually unheard, what happens? It creates the illusion that the system is working fine. That status quo politics is getting the job done, and no massive, sweeping changes are needed.

In this way the contentment of celebrities with the current establishment order becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, because it keeps enough of the population thinking that the status quo must be working. That any difficulties they are having making ends meet and keeping their head above water is a failure not of the system, but of themselves. That the answer is not revolution and change but self-defeating self-blame and learned helplessness.

To be a celebrity within the oligarchic empire is, with very few notable exceptions, to be an agent of that empire. The weird plastic-faced freaks who fill our screens and shape our worldviews are as much a part of the oppression machine as the Pentagon and the police force.

Just a useful thing to be aware of while navigating this mess.

____________________

My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following me on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud or YouTube, or throwing some money into my tip jar on Ko-fi, Patreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy my books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for at my website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish, use or translate any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here. All works co-authored with my American husband Tim Foley.

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Book at Lunchtime: Celebrity Culture and the Myth of Oceania

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/12/2019 - 12:56am in

An intriguing case study on how popular images of Oceania, mediated through a developing culture of celebrity, contributed to the formation of British identity both domestically and as a nascent imperial power in the eighteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century metropolitan Britain was entranced by stories emanating from the furthest edge of its nascent empire. In the experience of eighteenth-century Britain, Oceania was both a real place, evidenced by the journals of adventurers like Joseph Banks, the voyage books of Captain James Cook and the growing collection of artefacts and curiosities in the British Museum, and a realm of fantasy reflected in theatre, fashion and the new phenomenon of mass print.
In this innovative study Ruth Scobie shows how these multiple images of Oceania were filtered to a wider British public through the gradual emergence of a new idea of fame - commodified, commercial, scandalous - which bore in some respects a striking resemblance to modern celebrity culture and which made figures such as Banks and Cook, Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers on Pitcairn Island into public icons. Bringing together literary texts, works of popular culture, visual art and theatrical performance, Scobie argues that the idea of Oceania functioned variously as reflection, ideal and parody both in very local debates over the problems of contemporary fame and in wider considerations of national identity, race and empire.

David Garrick's Wigless Celebrity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/06/2016 - 12:07am in

Tags 

Theatre, celebrity

Ruth Scobie's bite-sized talk on a portrait of David Garrick by Johan Zoffany Dr Ruth Scobie looks at a portrait by Johan Zoffany of the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick, and asks what the picture's notorious wiglessness has to do with the actor's control of his extraordinary contemporary celebrity, in a TORCH Bite-Sized Talk at the Ashmolean Museum's Live Friday: Framed! event.