Opinion | Fandom Is Out of Control


At times, the moral expectations of fans have the feeling of political activism, or of a constituent’s demands of a politician: The power of the celebrity’s influence is granted by an audience, after all, and can be revoked. As Jenny Odell wrote in her book “How to Do Nothing,” “attention may be the last resource we have left to withdraw.”

Protesting in a policymaker’s personal space is one thing, when that person’s decisions have direct impact on citizens’ daily lives. (That has certainly been happening frequently lately — protests at Supreme Court justices’ homes, for example, or Senator Ted Cruz being confronted over gun control while dining on sushi with his family.) But the events described in excruciating detail at the Heard-Depp trial involved a domestic dispute. What accountability do these figures owe the public?

All this lecturing, heckling and name-calling can also be seen as a way that the moral policing we see on social media is performed on the sidewalk. As that “gold digger” moment illustrates, in-person denunciations of celebrity behavior can have all the vitriol of a Twitter flame war. The normalizing of these fan reactions reveals the increasingly fraught intersection between the online and the real, where the actions of prominent people become parables for tenuous moral codes.

It’s also worth noting that we’re in an era in which fans exert unprecedented influence over our popular cultural narratives — bringing back canceled TV shows and even shifting plotlines based on fan theories. Just this year, the Academy Awards created a new award for a fan favorite film, infuriating some traditionalists. One can see how an audience that’s used to being able to resurrect a beloved character or inspire a spinoff show for a minor superhero might also expect to be able to criticize celebrities for what to do in their personal lives.

“People don’t simply want to gaze anymore,” Dr. Turkle said. “They want to act.”

What’s the effect of all this on the celebrities themselves? While it may be hard to muster sympathy for those who have plenty of money and power, the stakes are real, and the injury can be too. Ms. Heard spoke on the stand in court about the trauma of the harsh public attention she has received: “I am harassed, humiliated, threatened every single day,” Ms. Heard told the court during the trial. “People want to kill me, and they tell me so every day. People want to put my baby in the microwave, and they tell me that.”

Just as the celebrity benefits from her audience’s attention, she is also made captive by it. In her memoir “My Body,” the model and actor Emily Ratajkowski observed that complicated power dynamic. “In my early twenties, it had never occurred to me that the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place,” she wrote. “Those men were the ones in control, not the women the world fawned over.”

Being the object of intense fan fascination can be hard for male as well as female celebrities, to be sure, but the dynamics on display at the Heard-Depp trial seemed to mirror societal gender dynamics. Mr. Depp was able to mobilize his fans and so-called “stans” to his benefit, and many seemed to revel in Ms. Heard’s humiliation.



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